The "challenge grant" poses the classic good news/bad news scenario. The good news: An arts organization can receive some much-needed funding. The bad news: If they don't raise a portion themselves, they'll get nothing. Such is the situation facing the Finger Lakes Musical Theatre. If they raise $150,000 by the first of June, they'll receive a critical $450,000 grant from the Emerson Foundation.
To say the grant is critical would be an understatement. The theater, situated in Auburn, NY, has seen their cash flow dry up thanks to a three-year delay in the construction of a new arts center. Operating expenses have accumulated and their summer season is just around the corner. Long-time supporter the Emerson Foundation is offering close to a half a million dollars with caveat that the theatre must raise $150,000 by June 1st.
So how will the theatre reach its goal in less than three months? Here's the plan:
- Fundraise, fundraise, fundraise. An obvious first step. The theatre plans to hit up existing donors with a plea to give a little more than normal as well as those who have yet to donate. Producing Director Ed Sayles thinks this latter group could be particularly important and suggests a subtle guilt trip could be in play when he said, "We will eventually reach out...to people who are not currently perhaps donating to the theater, and we will be asking them to give back a little bit."
- Frame the effort as economic revitalization. Upstate New York's economic woes are well documented, and the theatre aims to position itself as a critical player in the area's revitalization. On the theatre's site, Sayles notes the grant's effects "will underpin Auburn's economic revival." It's the kind of marketing pitch that should have a powerful impact on individuals and businesses in the region.
- Rely on the kindness of partners. The theatre hopes to reduce operational expenses and is counting on the empathy of partners to make that happen. For example, Sayles sent a letter to Auburn Public Theater requesting a $500 reduction in the weekly rental fees of $4,000 during the festival's 10-week lease of the theater.
- Increase cash flow. The theatre is offering "Spotlight Sponsorships," whereby individuals or business names will be featured during the festival for $250.
As a bonus, the foundation is placing no restrictions on how the money will be spent. That said, Sayles foresees the funds will be used for this year's operating expenses and to expand this year's musical theatre festival, which currently costs $5 million to operate.
And with that, the theatre is off and running, frantically raising money to keep its doors open. Stay tuned, and in the meanwhile, check out IP's ongoing analysis on trends in the nonprofit theatre space here.