Eighth Position: Dancers as Fundraising Tools?

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There's a new position for dancers, and it isn't fifth.
There's a new position for dancers, and it isn't fifth.
There’s a new position for dancers. It isn’t fifth.

I recently spoke at the Beyond Ballet: Why and How conference hosted by ArtEZ located in Arnhem, The Netherlands. Several interesting topics came up in our discussions involving the future of ballet globally. I found a lot of my European colleagues were interested in the Western business model for dance. In most countries in Europe, Government makes up 75 to 80 percent of the income for professional ballet companies. The remainder is made up by ticket sales, so there is no need for fundraising. However, as governments in Europe start to reduce some of their arts funding, they are looking to other business models for a way to sustain their art for the future.

For dance companies, Europe’s number one difference with our business model is our focus on fundraising. In dissecting fundraising strategies, especially those for individual donors, there is a notable focus on to how to best engage them. Clearly getting potential donors to performances is a great start: there is no better way for them to see how a portion of their donations are utilized and therefore why they are so important. If this method is enough for some donors, other donors, especially ones at a higher level, want a higher level of engagement. To engage someone like that, you have to connect with them personally. To do this, we try to anticipate who the donor might want to speak with most. If they want to talk about the business model, they can speak to the executive or managing Director, or the board president or chairperson. If they want to talk about the artistic model, they can speak to the artistic director. If we want them to be truly engaged, there is no better person for them to talk to than one of our dancers. After all, it is the dancers that they see on the stage, the dancers that they applaud for.

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These are your celebrities
These are your celebrities

Our company’s dancers are our number one source — you might say tool — of our fundraising from individuals. The majority of our donors do not know much about our school because they do not attend our classes. They do not see the impact of our outreach because they do not witness it with their own eyes. It is our performance company that yields the greatest recognition from our community. And in return, the beauty of those performances represents the notable and tangible return on a donor’s investment. Make no mistake: it is an investment. We can never forget that. Dancers are local celebrities, and, like any celebrity, they have fans who want to talk with them.

This is when we get into a very grey area. Most dancer contracts do not involve donor engagement, so it is purely voluntary. Some dancers are more enthusiastic about this than others and we cannot always pick and choose whom we want to meet and when we meet them. There is additionally the hierarchy of dancers to consider: the more prominent a dancer, the more a community knows them and wants to engage with them. But being a prominent dancer in a company does not necessarily mean you are good at or comfortable with donor engagement. After all, these dancers have studied an art form that teaches them to almost solely express themselves and emote through their body. Conversely, there are dancers that may not get cast in main roles that are excellent with donors. Both are important, and the more your dancers can serve as stewards of your company, the better off the company will be.

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But this does beg the question: Does being personable to donors affect a dancer’s career? The answer that we would want the general public to think is absolutely not — but there are few absolutes in this world. The truth is more nuanced but at the same time very simple: the more a dancer is known in a community, the more valuable he or she is to a company. Will that be the final determination in whether or not they receive a renewed contract or how they will be cast? To say so would be folly, but to say it has nothing to do with it is also folly. As with any job, being good at what you do is not always enough. The dancers of the future need to understand this and try to grow that side of their persona. If they do that, then when they find themselves at an end of their performing career they will have a gained a new, helpful skill set for future opportunities. Two dancers who retired from our company currently work as part of our development team for this very reason. When I met one of them for the first time, he said, “You know you need to hire me to help fundraise.” I was immediately intrigued and, lo and behold, I did just that.

But there is an incredibly fine line here. You cannot have donors force artistic decisions based on financial support. Yet your larger donors are investing significantly in your company, which means you owe it to them to significantly hear, at least, their advice. If that advice fits with the direction of the company, then everyone wins. If it does not, you want to make sure that company is moving in the direction which is most prudent and that the donor portfolio is diversified enough to withstand any storms it may encounter. There cannot be art without support, but without the subjective nature of art honored, there is nothing to support. This is the catch-22 of my profession.

As the competition exponentially increases for how people spend their free time, I believe fundraising will play an even more significant role in the business model for ballet companies around the world. As that happens, the issue of the dancer-fundraiser needs to be recognized and addressed. Since dancers our are best source of fundraising, does donor engagement need to be expressed in a contract and to what extent? Should donor engagement need to be a part of the training for dancers and when does that begin?

I will look at these issues in my follow-up article next month.

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Shane Jewell
Shane Jewell is the Executive Director of the Oklahoma City Ballet. Previous to this, he was the Executive Director for the OK MOZART International Music Festival. Before his time at OK Mozart, Jewell worked at Celebrity Attractions in Tulsa presenting National Touring Broadway shows to 8 markets in the Midwest. During his tenure there he handled several roles such as: Company Manager, Technical Director and Advertising Director. He also was the Company Manager and Stage Manager for the national touring musical, The Rock & The Rabbi. Jewell currently serves on the Education and Programming Committee for Oklahoma Contemporary and is a member of the Oklahoma Presenters Network.