I am in NYC this weekend to rehearse the entertainment for our upcoming Winter Benefit (January 15 at the Wood Theater). With the snow falling outside this morning, it is appropriate for me to be headed to a rehearsal where they’ll be singing Marshmallow World (made famous by the Rat Pack). The theme of the show – and the whole benefit for that matter – is “sweet.” This comes from the fact this will be or 16th season, but rather than go with a sweet 16 birthday theme, the benefit committee ran with a sugar theme. Candy and cupcakes will be in abundance. On stage, the cast will be singing confectionery inspired songs such as “Sugar, Sugar” and “A Spoonful of Sugar Helps the Medicine Go Down”.
Picking the theme, choosing the entertainment, and even the food are creative things the benefit committee enjoys doing, but they underlie one of the main things that make ATF’s benefit successful: fun.
This was a hard lesson for me when I was a younger arts leader. I was so myopically passionate about the work I was doing on stage I just felt people should give money no matter if there were decorations or fancy food. It’s not that my fundraisers looked like a prison dining halls, but I am sure my pleas for donations sounded a lot like manifestos.
With a little age I have both mellowed and gotten wiser. Yes, it’s a fundraiser, and as the head of the theatre I am definitely looking to increase the bottom line success of the event (this event must raise 15% of our annual budget). Nevertheless, by holding an event people truly enjoy attending the rewards are well beyond financial. They build a sense of community among our core supporters that serves ATF beyond simply cash donations.
Great food from local restaurants and casual cabaret entertainment by ATF alumni performers create a very social environment that highlights one of my deeply held philosophies of breaking down the barriers between performers and audience. The nature of the entertainment and the fact the performers are in the crowd before and after the show allows our supporters to get to know the actors as people rather than just the role they played on stage the previous summer. For example, last year I have a distinct memory of watching Gary Adler (music director for Ave Q and composer/lyricist of Altar Boyz), talking with a father and daughter about pursuing a career in the theatre (not sure if that calmed the father’s concerns, but the daughter’s face lit up with excitement).
I enjoy the chance to laugh and joke with the audience as I announce the season and work with Martin Seelye during the live auction.
Throughout the evening there is a very social feeling to the event and by the end the crowd feels palpably charged and engaged in ATF’s success.
Without harping on the need for cash, but having a great time with the crowd, money was raised. An audience member created their own fund-raising moment in the evening last year, unplanned, when they asked how much it would cost to get me to sing. Soon the crowd was pulling out money, and next thing I know I am singing Rainbow Connection in the voice of Kermit the Frog – now that’s about as far from a manifesto as you can get.
If you go to fundraisers what are your favorite memories and what were some of the turnoffs (either at an ATF event or another charitable event)?
And if you are involved in throwing fundraisers, I’d love to hear how you attempt to balance the need to raise funds with the desire to have a fun night for your supporters.