Was 2021 a challenging year for your choral finances? Did your end-of-year fundraising not go as well as you had hoped? You're not alone! 2020 brought with it a host of challenges for our choral communities, but new sources of funding in the form of forgivable PPE loans, tax breaks, and incentives for individuals to donate to nonprofits meant that fewer of those challenges were financial. Moreover, with lower expenses due to fewer concerts and more virtual audiences, you may have even found that your choir financially prospered during the extended lockdowns of 2020.
But when 2021 rolled around and we collectively realized that the pandemic would be a longer haul than we expected, many of these helpful financial programs dried up while many pandemic-driven challenges remained unresolved. Compounded with an economy struggling to remain stable through waves of labor and goods shortages and the highest inflation rate in most of our lifetimes, you may have found the outlook for choral finances in 2021 much bleaker than in 2020.
But never fear! Choruses are resilient groups because the value they provide goes much deeper than a number on a line in a spreadsheet. Your choir was founded to provide something more important than making the finances look good, so let's make sure it isn't broken by finances now. Here are some tips for jumpstarting your 2022 fundraising to greater success.
1. Dream Big
Set a fundraising goal that makes your organization comfortable, not just barely scraping by. Unanticipated costs come up throughout the year and shouldn't become make-or-break for your choir. Also, once you have your big goal, share that goal with your potential donors. When the end goal is known, donors are more likely to contextualize their own donation and contribute more than they would have otherwise. Also, make sure you have a way of giving regular updates to your donor base during your fundraising campaign. The good ol' fundraising thermometer is an effective option, or weekly e-blasts, or a regular social media post - something that both helps your donors track their collective progress and reminds everyone of the overarching goal.
2. Be Specific
How much money do you need to meet your 2022 fundraising goal? Take that amount and divide it by the size of your donor base, then ask each donor for that amount. There's a reason that Wikipedia asks for $3 from each person every so often - a specific ask is statistically more likely to result in donations that meet or exceed the per-person fundraising goal. Instead of a generalized plea like "Anything you can give helps," try something like "If everyone at this concert donated $20 each, we would reach our fundraising goal of $5,000 to fund the exciting programming of our 2022 season." This specificity encourages your donors to see the projected impact their donation will have, making them more likely to invest.
This strategy can also be helpful when approaching new donors. It's much easier to get a new donor or grantor onboard if you have a very specific ask with very specific reasoning. For example, if you need $150 for posters and programs, approaching a donor with that number and a clear ask will be more effective than the "anything helps" approach. Better still, you might even consider approaching the local print shop and asking if they would be willing to donate $150 in printing costs in exchange for advertising in your program and two free tickets to the concert!
3. Show Results
It's well-known that donors are always more comfortable donating when they can directly see their impact on your organization. The problem with this for administrators is that you have to carefully track which person's money is going into which expense item all year long, which adds up to a massive accounting bill. More often, funds get dumped into a general operating fund, and the donors don't know exactly where their money ended up. To offset this, parse out the expense items in your budget, give them an arbitrary order, then track the chronological order in which general donations were made. For example:
- Rehearsal space rental - $500
- Music - $500
- Director Pay - $3000
If your first donor donated $350 and the second donated $850, and the third donated $45, you can send specific thank-yous to your first donor for helping to cover your rental space, to your second donor for covering sheet music and rehearsal space, and to your third donor for employing the choral director. Even though these donors didn't specifically donate towards anything, when they look at your final performance, they can see exactly where their contribution fits into the success of the whole, which will make them more likely to donate with confidence in the future.
4. Offer Value
Although donations are often conceptualized as people giving away money, donations still represent a value exchange. Donors always have a reason for parting with their money, whether that is investing in the services you provide to your community, buying exclusive access to your organization or events, gaining publicity and association with your organization, supporting a friend, etc. The clearer you can make this value exchange for them, the more likely they will donate. This is also a great way to encourage donors to contribute a little more than they would have otherwise by increasing their value in return. Consider providing a donation system with various packages including different benefits to cater to donors with different motivations, i.e., free tickets, program advertising, poster advertising, VIP seating, pre- or post-concert reception admission, a thank-you card signed by the choir, etc. These packages may be particular to each donor; what do they value most? Are they a business interested in advertising to your audience demographic or a friend of a choir member who wants to support their friend? The first will be more interested in program advertising, while the second would probably rather have free tickets to see their friend perform. It's important to remember that all donations are value exchanges made by people with different needs, interests, and motivations.
5. Build Relationships
Everyone is aching for meaningful relationships following a long few years of constrainedly limited contact, and your donors are no different. Think about the new ways you've found to connect with your own friends and family. Zoom has become a household name in the past two years. At-home cooking and takeout have rapidly gained popularity, shared movie nights from streaming services have skyrocketed, and tabletop game simulators have replaced dinner parties in many homes. How could you use these new, inventive means of connection to build better relationships with your donors? You might try a Zoom happy hour before a live stream, or delivery of a family meal from a partnered restaurant as part of a virtual concert ticket, or an online cast party with the choir following the show. Get creative! With new technologies and social norms come new opportunities to build relationships with your donor base. How can you make them feel like family?
6. Track Non-Monetary Donations
I have an additional document for my choir that I always attach to my budget that I call my Value Tracking Sheet. In the first column of my Value Tracking Sheet, I list all of the costs the choir WOULD incur if we had to pay for everything we needed. This includes everything from rehearsal space rental at local rental rates and director pay at $35/hr for all of the time they actually spent working, to the time it takes to fold programs or the snacks choristers bring to share during rehearsals. Next, I list how much these things actually cost the choir in the second column, lifted directly from the actual bank account amounts. The third column then lists the difference between the first and second columns and the fourth column lists who donated that amount to the choir in a non-monetary donation. So, for example, if the accompanist actually spent 50 hours on a concert and should be paid at $30/hour according to local rates but was only actually paid $1000, the accompanist donated $500 of time to the choir.
This non-monetary donation tracking serves two functions. The first is that it gives you a concise list of non-monetary donors who need to be thanked as much as your monetary donors and easily presents their donations to directly compare and equate with your monetary donations. For example, if your accompanist is donating $500 in time and your $500 tier of monetary donations receives two free tickets to the final performance, give your accompanist two free tickets to the final performance.
The second is that it reframes your fundraising in terms of value. A choir doesn't need money sitting in a bank somewhere to function; it needs music, risers, programs, a director, etc. Money can buy those things, but there are other ways to obtain them as well, ways that need to be included in your overall fundraising plans.
7. Stay on Brand
When faced with financial shortages, it's tempting to immediately seek out any and all ways to bring in money, even if they have nothing to do with choral music. Some examples I've seen include partnering with a random chain restaurant for a portion of their proceeds from a particular day to go to the choir, selling frozen cookie dough from a catalog, or having a choir bake sale at the local motorcycle rally. While there's nothing inherently wrong with these techniques, they can weaken the brand image of the choir in ways that affect your fundraising elsewhere. If the choir is always seen asking for money, your donors will associate the choir with needing money rather than singing great music or providing community.
There are some easy ways to tweak fundraisers so that they always capitalize on the choir's deeper value to your community, and they all boil down to the simple idea of being thoughtful partnerships with equal value exchange. For example, instead of partnering with a fast-casual chain restaurant for a portion of profits on a particular day, partner with the restaurant near your performance space on the day of the concert, then bring the whole choir there to socialize after the concert and advertise in the program for audience members to join you. Likewise, at the motorcycle rally, arrange for the chorus (or a subset) to sing the national anthem at the beginning of their ceremony or perform as their afternoon entertainment on one of the days so that when the bikers buy from the choir bake sale, they're supporting a group that has already helped them. Minor, thoughtful tweaks to your partnerships will ensure that your donors and the community at large see the value your choir provides to the community, rather than just another organization looking for a handout.
8. Exercise Gratitude
The fastest way to lose donors is to make them feel like their donation wasn't noticed or was lumped in with everyone else's. Donors are individuals with personal reasons for donating, and therefore also need to be thanked individually. You would never thank all of your business sponsors by thanking "local businesses for their support," so don't do it for your individual donors either. Even if they donated $5 or put up half a dozen posters, they had a reason for doing so and need to be thanked. That thank you can come in many different forms, from a simple handshake and verbal "thank you" from a board member or director to a card signed by the entire choir. The exact form your gratitude takes is up to you, but thank each person early and often for their contributions to your overall success.
What tips and tricks have you learned through your own fundraising experiences? Let us know in the comments!
Stephanie Helleckson's parents met in a choir, and her entire family has been choir nerds ever since. Having sung under nearly 50 different conductors while living in Alaska, Hawaii, Florida, and Colorado and having conducted several choirs herself, she is a strong advocate for using choral music as a tool to bridge gaps between people, social groups, and cultures. She currently lives in Paonia, Colorado, where she directs the North Fork Community Chorus, teaches voice and violin, and manages her own writing and editing business. When not singing or writing, she can usually be found hiking in a National Park, kayaking down a new river, or experimenting with new flavors in the kitchen.