Why has theatre become one endless request for donations?

If you’re on the list for lots of theatres, you probably get lots of email. And if you read them all, you have become – whether you know it or not – an expert on what good messaging looks like in the theatre world.

Simply by reading hundreds of emails from theatres all over the world, you have developed some opinions, likes, and dislikes. You’re actually in a much better position than many of those individual theatres to evaluate what works – because you’re seeing the entire flow. You know who’s nailing it and who’s not.

Here’s a recent observation. The best theatres DO NOT ask you for donations. That’s right. Many of the very best theatres there are do not ask you for money. Why? Because they are in the business of creating great product people want – not in taking donations. If your product is selling briskly, stoking demand for it is what your messaging is focused on. You want people to come and buy tickets first and foremost.

But if you are a traditional loss-making theatre having trouble moving tickets at any price, you ask for donations a lot. ALL THE TIME. It is hard to emphasize what a weak message the usual “Hi, we’re so happy to have you on this journey with us. Would you like to donate?” bulletin is.

Note there is nothing in this message for the audience. And you should never send a message to your audience unless there is something in it for them.

When you send a message to your audience with nothing more in it than a request for money, you are telling the world that you don’t know what you are doing in the realm of marketing. And possibly also that your theatre is not doing well. Upon receiving one of these bland requests, the smart audience member thinks: “If they’re not good at marketing, how good could they be at making theatre?” In other words, what is the artistic equivalent of this extremely old school style of marketing? It’s not very attractive.

Remember, any audience member on earth knows that if they desire to donate, a theatre will take their money. That’s not news. You don’t have to tell them that. Because theatres so relentlessly tell the world how poorly they do financially (“Ticket sales only cover 30% of our costs!”), everyone knows darn well that donations are wanted. You are not revealing anything new when you ask for a donation. You are simply asking the audience again to do something that they are not doing, because they don’t want to. If the audience won’t buy tickets for $8, what are the chances they’re going to want to donate to support “the work”. See how weak that sales dynamic is? Very low conversion rates.

Here’s the psychology. If you create a great product and don’t ask for donations – people WILL give you donations (in the theatre world). If you knock the socks off your audience, you will get people who stumble wide-eyed out of the theatre and come up to the box office person and ask how they can donate.

BUT. If you ask people to donate – whether the show is good or crap – it weakens the entire dynamic. And it’s also usually an indicator that what’s on offer in the theatre isn’t all that good.

For audience members, the good news is that often an excess of emails asking for donations is telling you upfront that this is not the theatre you want to go to. So that’s helpful. It’s actually quite useful as an indicator species. If great theatres never ask for donations, what does it mean if this one over here constantly does? Probably that it’s not an exciting place you want to be.

If you’re a theatre, time to switch the mentality. Assuming you have a great product (and you shouldn’t put on a show until you do), try NEVER asking for donations. Try that. Put on great shows, and create great messages that channel the essence of your live experience. But save the “Won’t you please help us!” pitch.

That’s right. Stop asking for donations. Instead, put all your energies into creating brilliant theatre.

If you do that, the ticket sales (and donations) will follow.