By Howard Pousner
When the e-mail arrived from Horizon Theatre Company in early May seeking donations for a “I Heart Horizon” fund-raising campaign to “close its budget gap,” you could almost feel hearts sinking across the city.
In its 26th year, Horizon is one of Atlanta’s oldest troupes and among its best regarded. Woe upon our burg and its suffering arts scene if Horizon’s future, like so many less-established groups, has been imperiled by an unforgiving economy.
But those reading a little deeper quickly got set straight: The e-mail wasn’t an SOS. There was no threat that the Little 5 Points theater, which has only finished one of 25 years in the red, would close its doors. Horizon was simply being transparent in seeking to raise $100,000 to finish fiscal year 26 in the black.
It’s part of the new math of arts survival, in which groups — while reeling from cuts by corporations, foundations and governmental entities — are trying to reel in more individual donors.
Kennedy Center president Michael Kaiser, on a national “Arts in Crisis” tour that stopped in Atlanta early this year to provide fund-raising therapy to stressed cultural leaders, counseled that individuals now contribute a majority share of arts giving and that there’s room for growth.
“I believe there’s no end of money out there available,” Kaiser said. “But we have to learn to make it attractive for people to give.”
Count leaders of the Horizon, where Shay Youngblood’s “Shakin’ the Mess Outta Misery” is being revived starting July 2, among the true believers. For its 25th anniversary last year, it launched its first viral campaign aimed at individuals (called “The 25 Campaign”).
The intent was not only to balance its budget but “to get people invested in Horizon Theatre over the long-term,” said development manager Jamina Cole.
Folks stepped up. Horizon went from less than 400 individual donors the previous year to more than 800. Emboldened by the response, the company asked for help again this year via the “I Heart Horizon” campaign. One thousand individuals have contributed $160,000, and counting, toward the troupe’s $1 million annual operating budget.
“That’s definitely moving in the right direction,” managing producer Jennifer Bauer-Lyons said. “We needed to re-educate our audience that, yes, while we’re operating in a fiscally responsible manner, we do need help to do that.If everyone gives a little bit, it’s going to go a long way.”
Horizon is hardly alone in trying to tap individual givers.
Stone Mountain’s ART Station sent out a more straightforward “plea for assistance” in 14,000 letters and 3,000 e-mails in February. The overextended DeKalb County performing and visual arts center needed to raise $150,000 or it would be “forced into a temporary shutdown of operations.”
But such a dire scenario was averted when some 450 individuals contributed $56,282, a tidy figure especially in concert with businesses, civic groups, foundation and governmental entities that responded as well.
“It would not have happened,” president and founder David Thomas said, “if we had not told the public the real situation.”
Even the Woodruff Arts Center’s divisions, which have some of the highest budgets among Southeastern arts organizations, have come to increasingly court individual giving. Marketing vice president Virginia Vann calls such gifts “large and important.”
“Each of the divisions approaches individuals directly for contributions through various methods: personal asks and ask events, direct mail, e-mail and tele-funding calls,” Vann said.
With an operating budget of more than $8.5 million, the Alliance Theatre has, on different occasions, pursued phone fund-raising with individuals who have previously purchased tickets. The goal isn’t just to raise cash, but to increase interaction with and engagement by customers, encouraging them to feel the importance of supporting the company. If single ticket buyers become season subscribers in the process, all the better.
A more grassroots form of engaging individual donors also is gaining traction on online social fund-raising sites, sometimes via pages set up by supporters rather than an arts group’s staff.
For instance, Decatur Book Festival program director Thomas Bell has a FirstGiving fund-raising page for Several Dancers Core. On it, Bell placed a personal note in which he detailed how he went from an admiring Creative Loafing critic to an admiring board member of the Decatur dance troupe, and how, beyond that, it’s made him “a much better dancer.”
The personal pitch seems to be working: Bell has raised $745 toward a $900 target. One $25 donor posted the comment, “You rock and I support that.”
The through line in these various approaches is that they don’t constitute begging for the arts if single donor contributions help a group survive or, ideally, thrive.
“One thing we’ve learned over the last couple of years as the economy took a hit, is that people don’t know there’s a need unless you tell them,” Horizon development manager Cole said. “And they’re not offended by knowing there’s a need. They just need to know.”
“Shakin’ the Mess Outta Misery”. July 2-Aug. 22 at Horizon Theatre, 1083 Austin Ave., Atlanta. 404-523-1477, www.horizontheatre.com.
“Are We There Yet?” July 14-Aug. 1 at ART Station, 5384 Manor Drive, Stone Mountain. 770-469-1105, www.artstation.org.
Horizon Theatre by the numbers
400 individual donors in fiscal 2008
800 individual donors in fiscal 2009
1,000 individual donors in fiscal 2010
$160,000 donated by individuals in fiscal 2010
40,000 patrons reached by artistic, educational offerings annually
$1 million annual budget