Tuesday, July 24, 2012

So thats where the money is.

A friend of mine informed me of two new Arts Council inititiatives recently. Both were built around donations. The smaller one offers to add 50% of the value of what you raise and the bigger one, called Raise,  offers mentorship to large organisations to help them implement an effective fundraising campaign. This focus on alternative sources of income is to be welcomed.

We all know how hard it is to raise a donor base and sponsorship in this country, so have they got the strategy right? Will theses schemes make it easier for organisations to raise money? Of course they won't.


Because the incentive is in the wrong place. We don't have a culture of giving because the giver is not encouraged or supported in the giving: there are no tax breaks for charitable donations that can compare with international best practice or that can compete with the available business investment opportunities.

I remember sitting down with a very qualified prospect a couple of years ago while trying to build a donor base for GĂșna Nua. The guy owned a successful, medium sized business in management training, was a friend of the family, and loved theatre. I'd finished my training with Tom Suddes and I made a good presentation and a clear ask. He considered and said "I spend about a €1000 a year on tickets. So does my wife. I pay a lot of tax, some of which makes its way to the arts. And you want me to give you more money? Why? I think what you do is great, but why?"

The mad thing is that if I was looking for money to start a business then the answer to his question would be that even if the business flops you'll get most of your money back within three years in tax breaks. If I'd been able to make that answer then I'm pretty sure I'd have walked out of his office with a cheque in my hand.

If you'll excuse a small digression I want to quote from an Arts Council Newsletter introducing the Raise programme: "Income from fundraising by arts organisations in Ireland is less than 3 percent of total income.  This is a much lower ratio than in other countries such as Britain or Australia, where arts organisations secure up to a third of their revenue from fundraising". It's probably just me but the tone of this seems to suggest that the arts organisations in Ireland have been very bold, and haven't been working as hard as they should, but now that the council knows what is going on in the UK and Australia we wont be allowed to get away with it any more. I don't think this tone is deliberate or conscious. I just think that there is a cultural tendency to blame somebody (usually the wrong person, and usually the person at the bottom of the decision making ladder), rather than admit that the system is flawed or broken or whatever.  At no point in the Arts Council news letter on fundraising does it mention the fact that the tax regime in both the UK and Australia - and particularly in the US supports and encourages donations.  It also doesn't mention that both the UK and Australia have larger populations and significantly larger GDPs - essentially they are bigger (and incentivised) markets. If a comparison is to be meaningful then we need to compare like with like.

The Arts Council newsletter does not acknowledge that most Arts Organisations have been working extremely hard for many years with various levels of success to raise sponsorship and donations, and that those organisations are fully aware of the obstacles to successful fundraising. It is worth bearing in mind that in the three years, 2005 -2008, The Abbey Theatre - one of the largest cultural institutions in the country with a highly skilled and experienced staff raised a total of €189,768 (about €63,000 per year on average). This is not an indictment of the Abbey's fundraising abilities, but a very clear indication of the level of interest in donating to the arts.

It doesn't matter how many schemes are run to improve the sales techniques of the donation hunters, unless the tax regulations are changed to support and incentivise charitable giving, these schemes will have minimum impact. Its basic sales: do not try to sell something to somebody who is not predisposed at a number of key levels to buy.

All I'm saying is that these schemes are great, but without changes in the tax environment they incentivise the seller and not the buyer. The net result of theses schemes will probably be a number of already overworked arts managers making massive, well planned efforts to score money that actually isn't available, and probably being penalised by the Arts Council for failing.

But c'mon, John, there's no way the tax regulations are going to change. Really? Why not? Why can't the arts avail of the same kind of tax incentives as film or small businesses? Well, we don't want a lot of people avoiding tax by hiding their money in the arts. But isn't that exactly what they do in business and film? Ah, yes, but, investment in business and film results in net employment and a significant tax take. Okay, but aren't the arts one of the most labour intensive activities available and - given their current VAT status - wont they produce a bigger tax yield?

I haven't heard an argument against changing the tax regulations governing charitable donations that was not based on ideology, prejudice or fear.  There is no real reason for the Arts in Ireland not to have the same kind of tax incentives supporting charitable donations as prevail in other countries. Put the incentives in place and the money will start to move.

But it will just take too long! And this is a serious problem. There will be more Arts Cuts in the next budget, and in terms of theatre, that tiny constellation of companies orbiting the big five will start to burn out. When you watch the bullish Michael Colgan unable to defend Arts Funding in the face of the visceral "do we save a life or do we watch a play" argument you realise that the big five will be in danger eventually as well. What's important to remember is that these cuts are mostly driven by ideology, not by economics or accounting.

So what to do. OK, here's a rediculous idea. Start a theatre investment fund.  Raise say, €5 million  from some people with real money. Put that money into a medium risk fund yielding 4% per annum. (which is about what these investors would get  if they sheltered the money offshore). In three years that fund is worth €5, 624,320. The investor's money is safe and they get it back with a small profit if they want it back at the end of the three year period. They might not want it back because its performing as well there as anywhere else in the current climate.

Now, what this fund does is,  it goes to a bank and in year one it borrows €1,000,000 and invests it in theatre production. The loan is guaranteed by the fund. There is one stipulation, and that is that whatever number of shows the fund invests in it must make its money back and show a small overall profit. Let's be optimistic and say that it makes a 20% profit on the year. It pays back the bank €1,040,000 and puts the remaining profit, €160,000 into the fund. It repeats this for all three years and the fund is worth €6,123,776.

You can increase the size of the original fund depending on the required final yield.

But surely this is pure fantasy? is it any more fantastical than expecting the Abbey to raise over  €3million a year in donations and sponsorships when they couldn't raise €200k over three years outside of a recession? Is it any more fantastical than expecting the arts industry to replace the lost millions with a potential donor base coping with higher taxes, lower incomes and negative equity?

Do we really think that there are enough people in the country earning in excess of €200,000 a year able and willing to donate to the arts in such a quantity as to support the whole industry?

Of course there isn't, and Oh gosh look, rather than focusing our attention on changing the context in which we work so that a stable sustainable industry can be built, we're back fighting each other again for limited resources. 

I look forward to your thoughts.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

So where is the money?

I was really pleased by the reaction to my last post, so thank you to everybody who commented on it on Facebook. Only one person has left a comment on the blog so far, so please feel free to leave comments here this time. There were negative comments but I had to search for them and I wish they'd been left on the blog. An interesting conversation could have ensued. One prevailing complaint was that I was just stating the obvious: that we had to look for money somewhere else, but I wasn't saying where we should go to look for that money. I'll try to answer this.

So, now that the Arts Council has fulfilled the logic of numbers set out by John O'Kane in Wexford in 2008 and admitted that it will fund only five clients where does that leave everybody else? (Incidentally at least three of those clients had better start thinking about a succession policy or they too could suffer the cut).

Anyway, on to the business of this blog: where is the money. The simplest model is the commercial one. Calculate your potential box office income. Set your budget at no greater than 50% of that figure. Raise that amount in advance. Raise it from family, friends or friends of family. At 50% of potential income there's a good chance they'll make all or most of their money back. If your box office exceeds 50% of potential income they'll make a profit. You will need to prepare an investment prospectus for them, so check out this link. Remember that these people are investing, not donating. They are underwriting the cost of your production and they expect to be paid back so they have first call on the box office income. However, If you're playing a 100 seat theatre for 2 weeks you can't raise a lot of money (probably about €9,000). Spend it wisely and have a smart marketing plan in place. Remember your choice of show and cast is part of that marketing plan (At the very least make sure you read the Arts Attendance in Ireland report).

However, if you are a charity, you can't look for investment. You can look for donations. Under Irish tax regulations at present if a PAYE worker gives you a donation they get...nothing. You can apply to the revenue and they will top up the donation based on the donors higher rate of tax. A self employed person can apply for a rebate based on their higher rate of tax. Compare this to the US where every donor can reduce their taxable income by the amount donated, or the UK where a theatre investor can write off the gains on one show against the losses on another. Also in Ireland an individual can invest in a start up business and claim 41% back and if the company fails to show a profit after 3 years they can sell their shares back to the company at a discount and claim a capital gains loss. It seems to be that the tax regulations are heavily weighted against charitable donors. Lobbying for change on this would benefit us greatly.

It's also worth thinking about how much you want to raise from donations and how much work you can put into it and - most importantly - who you can ask. Lets say you want to raise €20,000 in donations. You set a target of 40 people at €500 a head. Consider this: a PAYE worker on €100,000 is taking home, after taxes and charges, just over a €1000 per week. Factor in living expenses commensurate with their income (and a little bit of negative equity)  and that person does not have €500 to give to you (They might have it there was some real tax benefit to them). So you could reduce the amount you ask for and increase the number of people you ask but this increases the time and the cost of the fundraising. You could target people  in the €200,000 per anum bracket but do you have ready access to them? Bear this in mind as well: according to The Arts Attendance in Ireland report mentioned above there are only 484,000 arts attendees in Dublin. Your question now is how many of these are sympathetic to theatre and how many are in a relevant income bracket. You'll probably find that the people who could donate to you have already been recruited by the major institutions. Again the market is small and the numbers stacked against us. Without meaningful tax incentives the donation windfall will remain elusive.

So what about sponsorship? The brand managers talk a lot about shared values. This is important. How does your event, your brand support theirs. Remember that what you are selling to the sponsor is your audience. Not your event, your audience. So you need to know your audience and how you intend to reach them. The more focused your demographic and sales channels are the better chance you have.

I've spent a lot of time looking for sponsorship over the years and the big question is how much can i ask for? Usually we ask for too much and that's the end of the conversation. It used to be the case in the US that it was calculated on an 8/10 ratio. That was $8 for every 10 audience members. That works out at about €6.40. So if you're playing a 100 seat theatre for two weeks that gives you an ask of about €760. Which, in my experience is about right. Bear in mind that this is not worth your while or theirs. Also bear in mind that a Dublin festival with a large title sponsor only gets €10,000 in cash so you can see the figures are not far off. There are, of course, exceptions to this rule.  Remember as well that the real value of a sponsor is the marketing support they bring to the sponsorship which will boost your box office making the project more attractive to investors.

There is of course corporate philanthropy which is different from sponsorship (I think a lot of people in Ireland confuse these two).  Corporate philanthropy is a long game built on smart networking and personal relationships.

So, where is the money? What lessons can we learn? On the commercial model we need to ensure that audience capacity is high (about 400 seats minimum), the run is about four weeks and the recurring costs are kept low ( i.e. small cast and crew). Always, always pay back the investor. It doesn't matter if the show is a box office flop and you made no money; if you paid back the investors then you can can ask them to invest again.

On sponsorship, size is also important and we need to remember that what we are selling is our audience so we need as much accurate information on that audience as we can get. Also the real value of sponsorship is the marketing support provided.

On donations we need to remember that the numbers are working against us. Without a change in the tax regulations there is no incentive for small, significant donations. We have to target high net worth individuals and for most of us that's a long game and a lot of networking. How many of us know fifty people willing to give us a grand each?

A final word on crowd funding. It takes a lot of careful planning. To my knowledge the biggest amount for theatre raised on FundIt was €15,000 for Misterman. And that had Cillian Murphy in it. A brilliant marketing decision.

So that's my experience. Think big. Think of the audience. Plan your networking and then work that network. Prepare for a long game. Work out the mix. Demand a change in the tax regime. Always pay back your investors.

What do you think?

There is another aspect to this question of where the money is. Ireland has a population about the same as greater Birmingham. Just over half of the population are  "regular" (not less than once a year) arts attenders; 1.3million people claim to have attended a play not less than once a year, and Dublin has a total of 484,000 regular arts attenders. Its a tiny, tiny market. Whether we're looking to sell tickets, convince a sponsor, or raise donations the numbers are not stacked in our favour.  There needs to be a lot of very creative thinking to make the numbers work. Perhaps that's the real challenge.

Monday, April 2, 2012

A Business Plan for the Arts? Should we even Bother

"The Avalanche has already started. It is too late for the pebbles to vote" - Babylon 5

I was looking at the job description for Director of Theatre Forum recently and I began to think about the purpose of these organisations. This, combined with this article from the Irish examiner, prompted this post.

OK, so here are some of the questions: what is the future of the theatre sector in Ireland in a political culture committed to a strategy of continual cuts? What is its future in a society in which rising unemployment and declining wage levels have consumed the greater part of all disposable income? What is its future in a country where an arts based education has never been on the table for serious discussion?

In short what is its future when the traditional sources of income (funding and box office) are both being squeezed and its support base is being reduced by short-sighted educational and arts policies?

The size of the theatre industry - and with it the range and type of imaginations available - is being reduced. It will shrink around the five major clients and it is possible that those clients will be seriously affected in a couple of years.

During the years of growth in Arts Funding the support organisations were mandated to provide information and resources that would professionalise the industry and give it a "voice". During the first years of the cuts the the purpose of the support organisations began to change, to refocus on lobbying, on making the case for the arts. The Campaign for the Arts ran a strong campaign: the arguments were sound, the lobbying was intensive, the cuts continued.

The NCFA argument was based on the "multiplier effect". The straightforward, essentially Keynesian, argument that investment (state spending) on the arts created wealth, provided employment, consumed resources, pushed demand. This is a "demand side" argument: investment stimulates demand, pushes growth. Its a good argument. Unfortunately it never had a snowball's chance in hell.

We live in an economic culture dominated by "supply side" economics - a school of thought beloved of Reagan, Thatcher, the Republican party and others. You get the picture. Trying to win a demand side argument in a supply side culture is a sectarian struggle. I'm reminded of a line from the Rat in The Skull that went something like " ...two fellas in a ditch clubbing each other till one of them gave up and died". 

The funding argument as it is currently formulated cannot be won because of fundamental differences between the suppliers and the consumers of funding. Cutting state support is an article of faith.

So what is the role of the support organisations?  What use is their advice and drive for professionalism when we can no longer afford to be "professional" and when they themselves will be in line for cuts sooner or later?

In terms of the theatre industry, Theatre Forum in collaboration with its members and the NCFA  needs to address and  answer these questions, needs to formulate strategies based on those answers, and needs to support the implementation of those strategies.

In short, I would argue that the industry as a whole needs a new business plan - and  Theatre Forum is ideally positioned to deliver that plan.

It is possible that when we look a the industry in its entirety, as if it was one large corporation, we may find that it just doesn't make financial sense and that all of these cuts are the only way forward. Or we may find that the industry - as a whole - is way more powerful and profitable than any arrangement of discrete, small, underfunded companies. That a large co-ordinated self managed industry is capable of creating not just a diversity of voice and expression but capable of generating properties with significant profit potential, reinvesting that profit and returning investment directly to the key investor - the tax payer.

If an industry is to survive we need to stop talking about art and artists and start building a context in which a artists can create and make a living. 

Over the years the industry paradigm was to make  funding strategies and decisions focused on the quality of the art and the artists (without ever providing a set of criteria against which the quality could be measured). Again, this is not a criticism - the "quality" of art is very hard to systematically describe and usually comes down to a personal opinion or preference. However, in favoring individual artists or specific endeavours they failed to build a sustainable industry, failed to even understand the nature of such an industry.

On the other side of the coin those of us working in the industry ( and I include myself in this) were very concerned with process - the right way of doing it. Whether it was the right way to rehearse or - when the emphasis moved on to administration - the right kind of company to have or the right way to put on a show. This concern with doing it the right way was reinforced by the funding strategies (if you were funded you were doing something right), but it meant that we too were not concerned with building an industry that could sustain us.

I would argue that we all became so concerned with creating the right kind of art that we failed to attend to the context in which that art was being made.

You can solve a problem by tinkering with the innards (creating new funding tools) or by examining the context - there may be nothing wrong with your car, its the potholes in the road causing the problem.

There will be less and less money available from the traditional sources over the coming years. That's a fact. No funding tool will create more money. So how do we create a sustainable industry when the traditional source of investment is drying up. That's the problem. That's the challenge. We have to solve it in the language and within the parameters of the dominant economic ideology.

I never made the application to Theatre Forum. I missed the deadline.