Funding stories: How a theatre company used their supporters to overcome financial crisis

Laura Smith coordinated the core work of the Sustainable Funding Project (enabling voluntary organisations to implement a sustainable income strategy). Laura no longer works for NCVO but her posts have been archived on this site for reference.

As many organisations look at new ways of raising income in the face of cuts, one of the most common questions we’re asked is, ‘How can we ask people for money when our services have always been free?’

This is often raised in the context of charging members or users to be part of an organisation or to receive a service that they’ve traditionally received for free.

What is membership?

The first thing to note is that membership can mean many different things. Sometimes, a person is a ‘member’ in order to receive a product or service in return for a fee or subscription. Other times, membership gives you rights that non-members don’t have, for example, the right to use a tennis court at peak hours. Sometimes, it’s about being able to state that you are part of an organisation – for example, when you are a member of a professional organisation. Often, it’s about feeling as if you’re part of something. Understanding what membership means for your organisation is the first step to understanding how people value membership, and, therefore, whether/what you can charge for it.

Motivations for membership

The next thing to think about is why people become members. The Future of Membership project investigated trends affecting membership. One of the key trends they found was that expectations of membership are changing – people want to move away from complex and formal governance structures, and get involved in different ways. This desire is compounded by technological changes and the rise and rise of social media, allowing members (formal or informal) of a group to interact, make plans, campaign, create – all without ever actually meeting each other (though people still value real, human interaction). These wider social changes mean people see involvement differently, and can connect quickly and easily with like-minded communities, without the need for a formal membership structure.

So why is this important in a financial crisis?

London Bubble Theatre, an arts organisation based in South East London, discovered that their community – not necessarily members – was key to overcoming a disastrous financial situation. Like many arts organisations, they were ‘defunded’ by the Arts Council while other public funders also reduce support. This put the organisation in crisis mode. Jonathan Petherbridge, Creative Director, said, “We lost almost 70% of our revenue funding, and had to make 7 out of 10 staff redundant…the journey of managing change has been our relationship to our audience.”

London Bubble turned to their community for help. “We were fortunate in having 30 years of public investment which allowed us to put down deep roots and build relationships we didn’t know we had. People stepped forward.” The theatre found that people wanted to be more involved, to keep the theatre going. London Bubble set up a two-tiered membership scheme (MOB – Members of Bubble), where they actively asked for more money from people who want that ‘added warm feeling of providing even more support to Bubble’ (the Flash MOB). They also created Fanmade Theatre, a scheme were people who are not necessarily members could buy a stake in a production and suggest what the show would be. 250 people participated, creating a successful touring production and allowing them to reconnect with new and existing audiences.

Watch Jonathan talk about this experience in our short video


Reaping the rewards of community participation

This innovative, community-led approach helped London Bubble to attract a major donor. “Because we were more explicit about the economy of the theatre, a donor stepped forward and offered match funding,” said Jonathan, adding that building a relationship with your community should be ‘more deliberate’ to harness this strength before the bad times.

London Bubble’s experience reflect the findings of the Pathways to Participation project , which is exploring how and why individuals get involved and stay involved in different forms of participation, including giving time and money. The project has found that people participate for many and complex reasons. Often it is a desire to address a lack of something they want. In this case, the community didn’t want to lose the service that London Bubble had provided for over 30 years.

Triggering participation

Another finding of the Pathways project is that, while people may have similar motivations or desire to participate, some act on them and others don’t. Why? One of the main triggers for involvement is ‘being asked.’ Jonathan says that, when London Bubble asked its users for help, they responded with ‘expressions and energy of interest that surprised us.’ They had never been asked before, and this simple action had been a catalyst not only for action, but for London Bubble to renew the way their audience, users or members participate in their service.

Reaping the rewards

Their audience helped them campaign, but also invested money in membership fees, or in projects like Fanmade theatre, or simply by attending shows. London Bubble also reviewed their assets, and started to hire out space and equipment to their local market – “we started being more commercial in our approach to service delivery”. But Jonathan says that income was only one aspect of how the community helped them through the crisis. The overwhelmingly response inspired and motivated London Bubble, and allowed them to tap into a huge resource of ideas and enthusiasm. “Look to your audience and your users,” says Jonathan, “you’ll have skills and you’ll have wisdom within those ranks.”

The Future of Membership project reported that ‘organisations are also realising that expertise may lie with their stakeholders as much as, or more than, in their own administration… Instead of passively consuming benefits and services, members may want to shape activities themselves’ (Future Focus 8, 2010). London Bubble found this out almost by accident, but it has helped to not only overcome a crisis, but to look forward to the future with excitement.

So what have we learnt?

It is a certainty of the current environment that many voluntary organisations will have to start looking to their members, users or community to generate income. However, London Bubble’s experience shows that money is not necessarily the most valuable input that a community, whether formal (such as registered members) or informal (a wider audience or user group), can have. They want to participate and be given opportunities for involvement in various ways, and they may think of payment as just another way of participating.

Ask your community to participate – this might be through membership, or it might be through other forms of involvement – and you might be surprised at what they’re prepared to give.
Laura Smith,
Sustainable Funding Manager

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