116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
The year-end giving cycle is drawing to a close, but for Corridor arts organizations, the needs will keep on spinning long after donors have embraced the spirit of the holidays, opened their wallets and noted their gifts on their upcoming tax returns.
Donor contributions can make up to 50 percent of a local arts organization’s annual budget, with upward of 10 percent of that coming at year’s end — and even more for Orchestra Iowa, based in Cedar Rapids.
“We typically expect to see somewhere around 30 to 35 percent of contributions that are made somewhere between Nov. 15 and Jan. 15,” said Jeffrey Collier, the orchestra’s chief executive officer. “That is a critical time of year for cash flow and building up some cash reserves for over the winter months. January, February, March tend to be some of our slower months.”
The Gazette spoke with six area arts nonprofits, which have varying operating budgets: Revival Theatre Company in Cedar Rapids, about $200,000; Riverside Theatre in Iowa City, $750,000; Cedar Rapids Museum of Art, $1.2 million; Englert Theatre in Iowa City, $2.2 million; Orchestra Iowa, $2.5 million; and Theatre Cedar Rapids, about $3 million.
Most of them don’t follow the calendar for their fiscal years, so projecting the donations they’ll receive before Jan. 1 becomes a budgetary guessing game. One that’s made even more difficult in the wake of the pandemic, derecho, capital campaigns and economic uncertainty — as well as the rise of Giving Tuesday the week after Thanksgiving, when many more nonprofit organizations urge people to dig deeply to send some year-end cheer their way.
“I suspect Giving Tuesday raises greater awareness for the important role of nonprofit organizations, especially among people who may not consider themselves regular donors,” Collier said.
“We actually don't do anything specific for Giving Tuesday,” noted John Schickedanz, executive director at the Englert Theatre, a popular concert and arts venue in downtown Iowa City. “Generally, when Giving Tuesday happens, we're already in the midst of our year-end campaign.
“What we've found is more than homing in on that one day, it's really kind of the start of the season where people are thinking, ‘OK, it's getting to the end of the year, I want to donate to nonprofits that matter to me. Who do I want to donate to? And how do I want to contribute those funds?’ ”
So the challenge lies with making each organization’s voice heard.
“Everyone's asking for money this time of year, and especially with the economy where it’s at, we try to recognize that there's increased need,” said Adam Knight, producing artistic director at Riverside Theatre, which moved this year into its new home in downtown Iowa City.
“The question we ask ourselves and ask our donors is, ‘Where does arts and culture fit into the larger landscape of your giving this year?’ We want to make a case that it should fit in somewhere, and each individual is different as to where their priorities lie. A healthy ecosystem needs great access to health care, it needs food security and it needs arts and culture.”
But does it make sense for so many nonprofits to ask for year-end gifts, during the holiday shopping rush?
“I think it does and it doesn't,” Knight said. “It does, because it's creating a groundswell of giving. I think a lot of folks, myself included, wait until this time of year to make some decisions about how much of your income you're going to give to worthy causes. So if you don't join that chorus, you're going to be left behind.
“That said, there is always power in being different, in making that push in another time of the year,” Knight added.
Leaders of all six organizations said the key is to space out the mailers, emails, direct appeals and events. And since operational needs run year-round, that’s why donation requests also pop up in the spring and summer.
Theatre Cedar Rapids generally offers a spring luncheon, playing off the theme of the upcoming summer show. And Orchestra Iowa, which typically stages smaller events for 100 to 150 people, Collier noted, is gearing up for a centennial season gala in April, hoping to draw 350 to 400 people or more.
Other groups, like the Cedar Rapids Museum of Art and Revival Theatre Company, stage a year-end fundraiser that gives audiences an event in return for a higher ticket price.
Revival staged the musical “Plaid Tidings” Dec. 10 in a ballroom at the Cedar Rapids downtown convention complex, which brought in $15,000, up from $10,000 with a holiday-themed fundraiser in 2019. The Museum of Art held its fall gala Nov. 4 at the Cedar Rapids Country Club, which sold out with more than 300 in attendance.
Still, organizers agreed staging major fundraising events so close to the end of the calendar year is tricky, even though the Museum of Art’s gala and Revival Theatre’s holiday songfest are proven successes.
“I do worry about donor fatigue,” said Brian Glick, co-founder and artistic director at Revival Theatre Company, for which contributions throughout the year bring in 50 percent of the professional troupe’s income. “It's really important that you understand your donor base and the asks, the amount and how many times you've reached out throughout the year. …
“Is it worth hitting (donors) up with 20 emails in one day? I think it's more beneficial to say, ‘Hey, come to our fundraiser, help us reach our goal at the end of the year, whatever that may be, and buy a ticket.’ Those are more tangible things that have less fatigue on the donors. …
“On the other hand, if you do have a strong connection to a donor, and they've given a lot, and you keep hitting them up, it's going to be uncomfortable for them. So I think you just have to really understand your market and your donors, and decide where you're at.”
While giving to the annual fund accounts for 10 percent of the Museum of Art’s budget, its fall gala, through a combination of individual and corporate giving, brings in another 10 percent of the museum’s $1.2 million budget. Other funding sources include grants, foundations, corporate giving, admissions and museum store sales.
“In a way, we have all of these different revenue streams, which really is wonderful,” Sean Ulmer, the museum’s executive director, said. “It's complicated, but it's wonderful, because we don't rely on any one of those revenue streams exclusively. So if one of those streams is not performing well, it's not going to cripple the institution. We're lucky that way.”
The pandemic didn’t put the museum in the same bind as the performing arts organizations that rely on ticket sales.
“We just have a different business model, with multiple revenue streams that helped us weather the storm,” Ulmer said.
The performing arts organizations all sing the praises of their donors who kept the contributions coming, and the ticket holders who said to just keep what they already had paid for the events that ended up being canceled.
When the curtains did rise again at Theatre Cedar Rapids, audiences were ready to come back, and the shoe fit with “Cinderella.”
“I feel like people have were hungry to get back to it, and it's just wonderful to see them want to support the arts again,” development director Hannah Brewer said. “ … There's just something about that shared experience with a big room full of people. You laugh together, you cry, and gasp and applaud. There's nothing else like it. I love that our first auditorium show back in our building was ‘Cinderella,’ because it had so many elements of magic.”
Both the Englert Theatre and Riverside Theatre in Iowa City are coming off capital campaigns while emerging from pandemic shutdowns. Donors continued to step up.
“It's been a challenge to be honest,” Schickedanz said, noting that the Strengthen Grow Evolve campaign, which raised more than $5 million between 2019 and 2020, represented a collaboration with FilmScene.
“Throughout that campaign, the donations that came in were jointly owned between both of us. And so both parties have a vested interest in making sure that the campaign was as successful as possible. Those dollars are allocated towards very specific projects that were detailed in the campaign. But coming out of that, that's where we've seen some donor fatigue because there's some overlap in what we're doing.
“The campaign didn't solve all of the challenges that the Englert has ahead. We still have some infrastructure things that we need to invest in,” Schickedanz said. “And so we continue to push on and show the value that we're providing to the community, while also investing every year in bettering the historic facility and making sure that this is a place where people can come for generations to come.”
Continuing to ask “has been tricky,” Knight said of Riverside Theatre’s $2 million campaign to secure and renovate a new facility on the downtown Iowa City Pedestrian Mall.
“Last year, we did a dual ask, because we were in the middle of the capital campaign,” he said. “We specifically asked donors with that mailer, will you give 50 percent to general operations and 50 percent to the campaign, because we didn't want general operations to be left behind in the campaign giving.
“Now we’re in a different cycle. … It is a bit of a dance. We want to make sure that we honor the fact that so many donors stepped up for us last year. … It's also an opportunity, with year-end giving, to have a touch point with those donors to let them know what we've been doing in this last year, to let them know of the success of the capital campaign, what their investment has brought, and whether they're interested in continuing that relationship to support the operation of the organization. …
“We want to make sure in the ask — especially when we're talking to donors who have given a lot, particularly to the capital campaign — that we're asking in a spirit of thanks and gratitude for the distance already traveled by these donors. And we want to make sure that (capital campaign) donors know that we recognize their gifts and their history with us, and the fact that they've been a part of the success that we now have,” Knight said.
“I think that's the challenge — that this ask is actually part of a much longer relationship with the patrons.”
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