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The many-legged stool: building a philanthropy portfolio for The Roses Theatre

  • Date: 31 October 2013
  • Artform: Theatre
  • Area: South West
Customers at the opening of The Roses Charity Shop Customers at the opening of The Roses Charity Shop

We all know the theory - a successful fundraising strategy should have multiple strong strands so if any one initiative fails to deliver, it only affects a small(ish) percentage of the projected income.

Arts Council England National portfolio organisation The Roses Theatre in Tewkesbury, Gloucestershire, has turned theory into practice in a holistic and imaginative way that has seen philanthropic donations rise by 6.6% and the theatre become ever more firmly embedded in its local community.

Beckie Smith, Marketing and Press Manager, said: 'We wanted to find a way of reaching out to our community, to make people more aware of the range of things we do and build on the strong support we have here.  To achieve all of these things meant thinking in different ways.'

Thinking differently led to the opening of The Roses' Charity Shop on Tewkesbury High Street in June 2012.  In a town where charity shops abound - and even attract busloads of visitors dedicated to searching out bargains - this was an opportunity both to raise money and to have a presence on the high street that has raised the theatre's profile significantly.  Yet, the theatre had to ensure that the 'offer' was different from the competition, so decided to specialise in select items of furniture rather than masses of small items.

The shop is run by a team of devoted volunteers, who support the full-time manager Kay Oris. The theatre discovered early in the process that the demands of opening a full-time retail outlet required a dedicated paid staff member, an investment that has paid dividends as the shop is currently contributing £20,000 profit per annum to boost The Roses' finances. 

Arts organisations considering following this example do need to be aware of other issues as Beckie Smith warned: 'There was a very steep learning curve for everybody as there were no previous models for us to follow.  We could see the potential benefits and could anticipate what the set-up costs might be but nobody expected the reaction when we appealed for stock - we were inundated!  This meant we had to appeal for places to store our donations and luckily we were offered some empty garages because all the team's homes got very full very quickly!

'We are now looking for a bigger shop because we've found that furniture is in demand and obviously you get a higher price per unit, as well as making the shop look more attractive.  We're looking to set-up a retail sub-brand on our website for larger items as well, although this is a development for the future.  We've also found our film posters are really popular - they go for £5 each and we only used to throw them away!'

There are other issues that have come up in the past year.

'In an ideal world the volunteers would sell tickets at the shop; this is technically easy as our ticketing system Patron Base is cloud-based but there are obviously training issues.

'There is also a branding issue, which can be difficult to reconcile.  The Roses' brand is vibrant, eclectic, fresh and clean: charity shops don't always reflect these values and you have to be relaxed about that.  There's a tension in who gets to decide the window display as well, as we need to sell the goods in the charity shop and promote the shows on at The Roses; finding that happy balance can be difficult at times.'

But undoubtedly The Roses Theatre has found the benefits from opening the shop to outweigh the day-to-day problems and the whole community has responded to the sense of supporting a truly local initiative, where they can see the results of their donations taking place in their theatre and community just down the road.

The very personal nature of The Roses' approach to philanthropy has been underlined by another new initiative, funded through a Catalyst award, our £100 million culture sector-wide private giving investment scheme aimed at helping cultural organisations diversify their income streams and access more funding from private sources. The scheme is made up of investment from Arts Council England, Heritage Lottery Fund and the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS).

The Roses has commissioned three short films showcasing the variety of their programme, and how it impacts and benefits members of the community.  Each film is shown on the big screen before each film screening as well as featuring on the website.  Each film takes a different approach to seeking donations but also reinforces that The Roses is a charity, needing support to continue developing the programme and running the outreach and education programme.  The film that has been most successful in promoting individual giving has been Cyril's Story, a very personal view of how the Arts In Mental Health therapy course has made a real difference to the lives of a man suffering from depression and his family.

The learning outcomes for Beckie Smith, Marketing and Press Manager for The Roses have been equally beneficial: 'We have found that the text/donate messages have not resulted in the immediate response we were hoping for and the maintenance costs for this facility can seriously eat into any income raised.  It may only be a small percentage of the whole if you raise significant amounts this way but if the return is small, then the percentage outlay obviously rises.

Where the films have been effective have been in triggering cash donations in the boxes and particularly in helping our audiences understand why we are asking for money in other ways.  We follow up with emails to audiences two days after their visit and embed the video in the email and make the ask again.'

These new initiatives are just part of the overall development strategy that includes individual giving at the box office, applications to trusts, planned telephone campaigns, business sponsorship, a planned 40th Birthday campaign in 2014, a newly-formed Development Group to support a capital campaign, volunteer community fundraisers, dedicate-a-seat opportunities and business memberships.

Some of these approaches obviously raise more income than others but the cumulative effect has been incalculable in terms of changing the audience's expectations so that they expect to be asked for donations, rather than taking the theatre's existence for granted.

As Beckie said; 'We are a registered charity and we need our audiences to know that.  Asking for donations made some of our staff feel uncomfortable at first but the reaction has been great and because we're passionate about everything we do, our audiences can see that and share local pride in what we achieve.  Point of sale donations have increased five or six-fold since we started this approach.

'And the real booster has been telling people that their donation will be matched by Catalyst funding, doubling the local benefit for every pound received.  Our audiences really like the fact that they feel responsible for giving double when they are really donating half.'

If you want to know more about The Roses' Charity Shop, go to http://www.rosestheatre.org/events/page/the-roses-charity-shop or contact Beckie Smith on Beckie.smith@rosestheatre.org or 01684 853070