I Gave $10,000 and All I Got Was This Lousy T-Shirt

10 ways to attract and reward donors

If you run a nonprofit studio, you might depend on tuition and performance revenue to keep it going, but your donor base plays a crucial role in its success. Donors are the ones most invested in your mission—and the level of their giving can often determine decisions as important as the number of scholarships you’ll be able to award and what part of your facility you’ll be able to make over or renovate. But how can you cultivate reliable, generous donors? It’s all about visibility, establishing relationships and making sure your donors feel appreciated. Here, we offer five ways to attract great donors and five ways to reward them appropriately.


1 Ask at every single event “Every performance—whenever you’re in front of people—is an opportunity to do a small ask,” says Craig Johnson, executive director and co-founder of The Center for Contemporary Dance in Winter Park, Florida. Johnson stations younger students at the exit doors after performances and arms them with baskets to collect donations. At the Gulfshore Ballet in Fort Myers, FL, executive director Lisa Tafel inserts giving envelopes in programs at each production. “Audience members see what we’re producing and then want to donate,” she says. “In addition, our school brochure and most of our marketing materials include ways to give.”

2 Use compelling language “We call them ambassadors, not donors,” says Johnson. “‘Donor’ is so focused on dollars, and that’s not what our context is. We talk about them becoming ‘partners in mission fulfillment.’”

3 Explain exactly where their money will go On the website for Dancewave, a Brooklyn-based dance center, executive director Diane Jacobowitz clearly delineates that a $25 donation will provide dance attire for one scholarship child; $250 will pay for a teaching artist to give one day of free dance classes at a New York City public school. On CCD’s website, donors can click to give $500 to send 50 inner-city children tickets to see a performance for free. A donation of $5,000 awards an exceptional pre-professional student a year of free training.

4 Ask your board members to help recruit donors “We’ll ask our board members to invite two friends to a meeting who are on the same page as they are and who they think would make quality contributions to our organization,” says Johnson. “Like attracts like. Our best resources are people who are already making contributions.”

5 Welcome in-kind donations Every new student at Gulfshore Ballet receives a folder that describes volunteer opportunities for his or her family. The studio’s volunteers handle all the costumes; staff the box office “will call” station and the concession stand; serve as ushers; set up the performance lobby; clean mirrors and ballet barres; and scrapbook the event. “We seek out volunteers through the local university and online volunteer programs,” says Tafel. “It’s a great way to get student volunteers who need community service hours for school.”


Find out what donors want—and give it to them. “Every donor is different, and you need to know who they are and what they want to support,” says Jacobowitz.

1 Inside access Jacobowitz will invite donors to rehearsals, including the dress rehearsal. “They’re the first ones to be part of something,” she says. “They want to have an inside view of the process, to talk with the kids and see what makes your program great.”

2 Their name in lights “We have people who want everyone to know they helped sponsor us,” says Sherese Campbell, creative director and founder of City Dance Studio in Houston. Campbell allows her donors to sponsor parts of her facility, in exchange for a plaque bearing their names. “They can sponsor our office, the dancers’ lobby, the teachers’ lobby, the black-box theater,” she says. “We have individual mirror sponsors. We put a plaque above the mirror stating ‘This mirror is thanks to so-and-so.’”

3 Anonymity Campbell also has had donors who “don’t want anything,” who will “write a check blindly and don’t want their names in the program,” despite their five-digit donations. Remember to thank them graciously, but respect their wishes to remain anonymous.

4 Membership levels with varying benefits Gulfshore Ballet gives donors different benefits, depending on how much they pledge. The lowest level—“Student Friend”—acknowledges donors for their gift of $5 to $49 in the season program. The highest level, “Director’s Circle,” which requires a donation of $5,000 or more, offers the donor a full-page advertisement in the season program and tickets to all performances. Jacobowitz warns that “no one’s giving anything away for nothing.” Make sure benefit packages match the amount given. “If they’re going to give you $5,000 to support your gala, you’re going to give them lots of promotion,” she says. “Have them onstage, give them signage, mention them on your website, help promote their advertising.”

5 Personalized thank-yous “It’s about showing rather than telling the donor the impact of their gift,” says Johnson. “It could be sending a picture of a child whose ballet shoes they purchased. It could be sending them a YouTube link of a performance, if they couldn’t get there.” Jacobowitz will call or e-mail her higher-level donors to take them out for a cup of coffee or lunch. DT


Keeping Nonprofit Finances Healthy

In a nonprofit, revenue comes from two main streams: contributed and earned. As executive director of the nonprofit Center for Contemporary Dance, Craig Johnson spends a lot of time cultivating a robust contributed revenue stream—that is, funds from donors, corporate sponsorships and foundation grants. But CCD’s ratio of earned revenues (tuition, ticket sales, studio rentals, booking fees) to contributed revenues is actually five to one.

Diversification of revenue sources is what keeps many nonprofits healthy, because depending heavily on any one stream makes you vulnerable to changes in the economy or corporate giving from one year to the next. “Even federal funding can be cut from year to year,” says Johnson. “The values change. It’s unstable.”

Though there’s no magic ratio of earned to contributed revenues to ensure nonprofit sustainability, diversification—and predictability—are key. “While our ratio shows that we’re successful at earning revenue with less dependence on contributions,” says Johnson, “we would certainly like to increase our donor power and see a ratio closer to one to one.”


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