Asking our audiences

by Jini Stolk

Theatre Passe Muraille has been inserting a simple and appealing audience survey in its show programmes. We Want to Hear From You asks for thoughts about the show (such as “What would you say to a person who has not bought a ticket yet?” and “What part of the show had the greatest impact on you?”) along with the standard “How did you hear about this show?” and the less standard “What neighbourhood are you joining us from?”

I’m a big believer in regularly asking audience members for their thoughts and opinions by way of focus groups and on-line and exit surveys. One of the major successes of Creative Trust’s Audiences Project was our intensive audience interview sessions with Alan Brown, and our research survey on audience engagement.

Among the things we learned is that people like to be asked their opinions.

Passe Muraille spoke to audience members before instituting its 7:30 starting time, which makes it a bit of an outlier in Toronto’s theatre community which has, by and large, stuck with the more traditional 8:00 pm curtain.

I’d like to suggest that we begin asking our audiences whether an 8:00 start still makes sense (or whether, as I’m beginning to think, it’s a small but important disincentive to attendance.)

I have recently been conducting a small and exceedingly unscientific survey about this – being very well aware that my personal demographic, and the demographic of many of my friends, might not indicate a wide-spread yearning for earlier evenings. I’ve therefore been talking to people of all ages who attend all types of shows, and have found a definite enthusiasm for the idea of a 7:30, or even 7:00, curtain. Even among those who like 8:00, a few people added “only if the show is no longer than 90 minutes.” Hmm.

Here are some of the things I’ve heard.

In favor of an earlier curtain time: starting at 8:00 can make for a very late night if I’m going to work the next day; if I go home first for dinner, I often don’t feel like leaving the house again; if I don’t go home for dinner, it gets expensive to eat out every time I see a show; if I go home to walk the dog, I can still get to the theatre before 8:00; if I haven’t paid for my ticket yet, I sometimes just decide not to go; I’ve stopped going to shows in the evenings – but I love weekend matinees; I’ve reached the point where if the program says the show runs 70 minutes I feel like cheering.

In favor of an 8:00 start on weekends but an earlier curtain time during the week: on the weekend it’s great to get together at a restaurant and then go to a show, but it isn’t relaxing to do that during the week; if the show ends early on a weeknight you can still go out for a drink afterwards; I get restless if I know I’m going to get to bed late and be tired the next morning.

For keeping the 8:00 curtain time: it’s easier because you know without thinking when the show starts.

Okay. I repeat, this was an unscientific sampling of people I ran into over the past two weeks. However, we’re all worried about audiences. This discussion of three recent studies of audience trends in the States is a must-read. In addition to confirming that the trend to our south is alarmingly downwards, it identifies reasons why the public attends arts events (socializing with friends or family members, 73%, learning new things, 64%, and supporting the community, 51%), and barriers to attendance (lack of time, 60%, lack of accessibility in terms of location for retirees, elderly, and those with physical disabilities, and lack of an attendee partner, 22%.)

In Canada, StatsCan’s 2010 General Social Survey, while interesting on the overlap in arts attendance between arts disciplines, didn’t include questions about motivations for attendance, but CAPACOA’s 2013 Value of Presenting Study shows that all age groups agree on the most important benefits of arts attendance – “entertainment, fun,” followed by “stimulation”, “experience something new”, “exposure to different cultures”, and “social opportunity”.

What this says to me is that people see our shows for social reasons, first and foremost, and that anything we can do to make it easier for them  is worth trying (or at least worth asking about.) Theatre Passe Muraille’s audiences continue to be happy with an earlier curtain, and although I have no doubt that some companies’ audiences will opt for an 8:00 pm start, I bet that others would welcome a change.

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The future of shared platforms

by Jini Stolk

I thought about calling this post “Shared platforms: the future”, but I’m not yet sure that’s the way it will go. At this point, there’s a lot of discussion, an insightful research paper by Jane Marsland and funder support for new “platforms” that take on major components of the administration of small arts and other non-profit organizations.

Marsland clearly identifies the context and motivations behind this surge in interest: “there are no longer enough resources in the public arts funding system to make it feasible for many of our artists to establish fully independent, adequately capitalized, charitable, non-profit organizations.” At the same time, “there is less desire among many artists to incorporate as a charitable, non-profit organization, because they realize it is increasingly difficult to raise the resources required to support an ongoing organizational structure and keep it healthy.” So very true.

The Metcalf and Laidlaw Foundations, with the Ontario Trillium Foundation and the Toronto Foundation, have been at the forefront of supporting and developing shared platforms and shared platform initiatives. Modeled on TIDES Canada, these can take on the tasks of board oversight, budgeting, financial and corporate reporting, grant oversight, personnel policies, and accounting for projects and small organizations – leaving independent artists and community change agents to focus their energies on programming.

Many types of non-profits in addition to the arts world’s small theatre and dance companies, indie opera groups, writers, community arts organizations, and youth arts groups, are exploring this notion. The Ontario Nonprofit Network (ONN) has had an active Shared Platforms working group for over four years. It identifies benefits including reducing duplication and charitable start-ups, increased efficiency and administrative expertise, nimble and responsive structures, reduced governance risk, focus on the project rather than administration, and increased collective impact.

Some groups have decided to “incubate” new initiatives – a mentoring approach with many similarities and some differences to shared platforms. This article uses the example of the Ontario Nonprofit Network itself, which spent seven years as an incubated project of the Social Innovation (CSI), the co-working space where my office is located, which has a mission to “catalyze social innovation in Toronto and around the world.” Creative Trust incubated, or acted as a platform and charitable trustee, for Picasso PRO for three important years in its development.

The way forward is not going to be smooth or straight ahead. Organizations formed as administrative support structures in the arts (STAF and DUO) have had ups and downs and are revising how they work; new, more project-oriented shared platforms are struggling to find the resources to do the job well. However, for anyone prepared to seize the challenge of starting up one or more of these new structures, the need is urgent and the potential is huge.

The Ontario Nonprofit Network recently issued a Request for Proposals to create a Shared Platform Guidebook to lay out the “must-haves” for a strong shared platform approach from a legal, governance and fiduciary standpoint, and the administration required to support those specifications.

Toronto Arts Council’s Open Door funding initiative, taking applications until April 15, aims to provide catalyst funding for big ideas and initiatives – perhaps like Shared Platforms – that have the potential to create transformative change for artistic disciplines, communities of artists and arts organizations and the arts sector at large. Project proposals for Open Door must demonstrate the potential for impact in at least one of the following areas: Market Development, New Models and Innovations, and Exceptional Opportunities.

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Fundraising and your board

by Jini Stolk

It was recently my pleasure to present a webinar on Fundraising and Your Board for Business for the Arts Mentorship program. Two hours (which felt at first like a very generous timespan) flew by, with interesting questions calling up new thoughts, perspectives and avenues for discussion.

I’m hoping that I may have the opportunity to integrate some of what I said into a live workshop – stay tuned for details – but I’ve become a convert to the power of webinars to reach people in far-flung communities with information they need to develop their professional skills. Interestingly, many of the webinar participants were arts board members, which reinforces my feeling that boards are yearning for information and advice to develop their skills – all in service of our many vital community-based arts organizations.

Without giving everything away, I believe that the major messages around boards and fundraising are: that board members must be empowered and enabled by professional staff to succeed at fundraising; that a detailed fundraising plan should be developed with board member participation; that board members can be essential in identifying prospective donors, sharing the passion they feel for the organization, and ensuring that donors feel thanked, involved and engaged so that they give again; that each board member should be helped to identify where they can best contribute, based on their skills and desires; and that fundraising is all about relationships, starting with clarity, trust and shared values within the organization.

A few thoughts to ponder from the wonderful Simone Joyaux:

“Fundraisers complain about board members who don’t help fundraise. Executive directors complain about poor governance. Look in the mirror, I say! In general, board members fundraising and board members governing are only as good as they are enabled to be. And enabling is the staff’s job.”

“Enabling is the process of empowering others. Enabling means giving people the wherewithal, opportunity and adequate power to act. When you empower someone, you distribute and share your own power. And power shared is multiplied.”

‘Every single board member can help with fund development—but only if you, the staff, enable them well. Every single board member can be successful in fund development—but only if you, the staff, understand that fund development is not about money. Rather, fund development focuses on helping donors and prospects fulfill their aspirations”.

Ponder away.

And if you’re wondering why board members should become involved in donor retention, think about this:

It is a well-known rule of fundraising that it costs less to retain former donors than to recruit new donors, but do you know how well are you doing at retention? Do you know how that measures up in comparison to others? The Urban Institute and the Association of Fundraising Professionals have just released their enormously useful 2014 Fundraising Effectiveness Project (FEP) Survey Report. The study is based on donor data from 3,576 survey respondents, covering year-to-year fundraising results for 2012–2013.

During this period, although respondents raised more than $2.44 billion from 2.2 million donors…

For every $100 gained, $92 was lost from lapsed donors and smaller gifts from current donors. (This net $8 is up from a net loss of $19 in 2009.)

For every 100 new and returning donors, 102 lapsed (an improvement from last year’s report of 105.)

43% percent of 2012 donors made gifts to participating non-profits in 2013 (up from 39 percent in last year’s report.)


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Greening our buildings

by Jini Stolk

“Under threat of possible city punishment, landlords of no-frills Class B buildings step up their game.” So goes the subtitle of a piece, reprinted in the Globe and Mail, about a rash of energy efficiency initiatives in New York’s old commercial buildings.

Owners are saving significantly on energy, although they haven’t yet recouped the initial costs of energy retrofits like installing low-flow toilets and motion sensors that shut off lights in empty spaces, or creating bike storage rooms and sealing exterior doors to reduce heat loss.

The carrot for these New York landlords includes high LEED ratings, public praise and perhaps, although not certainly, more and happier tenants. The stick is the city’s tough new emission standards with their phased mandatory goals aimed at reducing fossil fuel use by 80% by 2050.

Isn’t it interesting how persuasive legislation can be in stimulating important social change?

For example, the Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA), although it got off to a slow start, now seems to be very much front of mind for property and cultural space owners. Not surprising: as of January 1, 2015, new construction and major renovations are required to provide barrier free access, washrooms, and accessible seating – something Creative Trust has long focused on.

Yet a very quick look through the list of projects funded by the federal government’s Enabling Accessibility in Communities, one of the only programs available to help nonprofits meet these requirements, includes astonishingly few in the arts. And the program is not accepting new applications.

Ontario’s EnAbling Change Program, although it is rolling out a new grant stream to help nonprofits make accessibility a regular part of their human resource practices explicitly “DOES NOT provide funding for building renovations such as ramps, lifts, or elevators.”

Between a rock and a hard place, anyone?

It looks like we’re going to have to find (or create) our own solutions to these two urgent social priorities of accessibility and energy conservation. One of my goals in 2015 is to find the right partners to accelerate the greening of Toronto’s theatres. One will undoubtedly be  the City’s Better Buildings’ Partnership, which is  already helping with programs like Sustainable Energy Plan Financing for Community Based not-for-profits. I’m also eager to hear more about Harbourfront Centre’s Refocus, a new social enterprise that teaches how a  commitment to sustainability can actually strengthen the bottom line.

Toronto’s relatively new Green Standard might be a first step towards New York-like mandated energy efficiency standards. I hope we’re not planning to wait until energy efficiency changes are legislated before we begin finding ways to green our buildings.


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Predicting the “future”

by Jini Stolk

I’ll go out on a limb here. My prediction for 2015 is that arts organizations will adapt to new funding, producing and audience realities by moving away from expecting/assuming that healthy organizations are characterized by growing seasons, expanding budgets, and ever more senior corporate board members. Instead they’ll move towards accepting/embracing the reality that the healthiest organizations will be open and nimble, changing structures and tactics as necessary to support the work that needs to be done.

Oh wait. That’s already happening. My prediction is that it will continue. (For an insightful view of how the U.S. arts sector is responding to a similar reality, read this post written by Eileen Cunniffe almost exactly a year ago.)

Running an arts organization has never been simple (there was no easy recipe to follow.) But what used to be complicated (a difficult process with rules and techniques one could learn) has become more and more complex (where the future is unknowable, the situation changes constantly, and the only way to move forward is continuously to evolve.)

Many of us learned these concepts – and their importance to arts and non-profit management and organizational dynamics – from Brenda Zimmerman, a leading Canadian researcher, teacher, writer and innovative thinker who died way too soon at the end of 2014. Getting to Maybe: How the World is Changed, which she co-authored, is an inspiring guide for people involved in innovation and social change.

Independent artists and small companies are rethinking the most basic assumptions of what makes a “company.” Many are no longer trying to form the traditional “nonprofit corporation” structure, and are creating artistically focussed producing models based on collaborations and non-traditional spaces. They’re more loosely structured, with part-time, multi-talented and entrepreneurial producer/managers. At a Business for the Arts workshop a while back, I was truly surprised by how many attendees were managing two or more companies.

STAF, one of the cultural community’s original “shared services” organizations, is responding by transforming itself from a place that provides subsidized administrative services to one that builds the skills and capabilities of independent theatre producers.

Large organizations, too, are rethinking their size and programming, opting for shorter runs, and incorporating commissioning and presenting as essential parts of their artistic mandate. In October 2012 Canadian Stage was called “The Incredible Shrinking Theatre Company” in The Globe and Mail for its radical changes to reel in costs and become more artistically flexible. Two years later, they’ve become an exhilarating and compelling cultural force.

We all have a role to play in shaking off resistance and removing the barriers to change. Both funders and those of us who might find ourselves on peer juries, have to understand the value and real costs of change, supporting those who are searching for new ways of working. As a community we should be providing time and assistance to people creating new business plans and artistic platforms.

In the words of one of our very smart colleagues, “If we wish to have a vibrant theatre community that reflects many visions we will have to push ourselves and our peers to operate ‘beyond our walls’.”

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Digital new year’s resolutions

by Jini Stolk

We (I) may not want to, but that’s no excuse. As long as we’re communicating online, it’s so much smarter (and such a better use of our time and energy) to know how to have the greatest impact with digital communications.

This interesting piece on “digital must-do’s for 2015” has some good advice on personalizing messages, and some great links on the essential task of designing them to work fluidly across platforms and devices.

What I liked most was this challenging question: “What is the online journey you plan to take your donor on? Have you charted the course from Point A (e.g. ad or email) to Point B (donation form) to Point C (thank you email) to Point D (quarterly eNewsletter) to Point E (monthly donation appeal)?”

The answer – that planning each of these touch points simultaneously, in advance, forces you to think about the purpose each serves, how they interact and intersect, and how you can improve your donor’s overall experience – seems like a smart way to make sure your marketing, fundraising and stewardship messages are as effective as you need them to be.

Thank goodness for the stats geeks. Who else would have extensively analyzed which email subject lines increase click-through and response rates (hint: Thank You scores high). I was not surprised to see that results varied between industries and sectors: what works for commercial messages doesn’t always score high for arts and non-profits, although sometimes it does.

While I haven’t found any extensive analysis specific to arts and non-profits, I’m pretty sure this wins as the worst subject line of the year: “Do you need a 2014 tax receipt?” from The Princess Margaret Cancer Foundation (offering themselves up, I suppose, to anyone frantically seeking to reduce their “tax burden” in the waning hours of the year…)

People like Nina Simon from Museum 2.0 are learning from experience that e-blasts that offer “invitations to get meaningfully involved; documentation and celebration of community members who have shared experiences, made unexpected connections, or experienced moments of ignition; and clear and welcoming language about a diversity of available opportunities where you too could have these experiences” get great click-through results – while reflecting our missions, programming, and values.

Another thing: SEO (search engine optimization) best practices are not exclusively fodder for your junk mail folder. Read more here.

Some knowledge update combined with a bit of informed communications planning and a touch of creative thinking: a new year’s resolution that’s going to be easy to keep.

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Saying thanks

by Jini Stolk

Now that you’re back in the office, I hope you’ve been busy opening donation envelopes, checking in with Canada Helps, and saying thanks to all those wonderful people who decided to end their year by helping you start yours with money in the bank and joy in your hearts.

There’s a lot of advice on the care and retention of donors, but step 1 is simple: you have to thank them sincerely and quickly, and let them know how their donation makes a difference. “Receiving a thank-you and being shown how their gift has clearly furthered your organization’s mission are the two things donors want most.”

I don’t need to tell you, do I, that all thank you’s have to be out by Friday of this week? (This year’s prize for quickest and most delightful note of thanks goes to Kaeja d’Dance.)

This piece on amazing donation thank you letters should help kick start the writing process. It’s always a bit weird to read a thank you letter that sounds…strangely familiar, perhaps almost word for word like the one you received last time. Not good.

Pictures are good, and quotes from someone affected by the donation are excellent – not just as part of your year-end thank you, but often, through social and other media. I’d love to hear more from the artists themselves – not just the AD, but the writers, actors, production team members.

Small blessings coming our way. As of April 1 you should see a drop in the transaction cost of credit card ticket sales and donations, thanks to the federal government’s agreement with MasterCard and Visa to reduce interchange fees (charges paid by merchants when they process credit card payments) to an average of 1.50% of the transaction value. The reduction for charities is promised to be even greater.

This welcome development (and, I would argue, moral victory) is in response to continuous efforts by the charitable sector led by Imagine Canada. Good work, everyone.



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Me and squirrels

by Jini Stolk

I don’t really like squirrels, for obvious reasons. This fall I purchased $68 worth of squirrel feed at the Stratford Farmers’ Market (in the form of beautifully colour coordinated tulip, fritillaria, crocus and allium bulbs) and watched the little critters nose their way through layers of hot chili powder to get at their snacks. No; I don’t much like squirrels.

However I also bought a few ears of decorative corn between shows that weekend. These came in handy at Thanksgiving, but were feeling de trop by early December. After thinking it over quite carefully, and calling on all the forces of my better nature, I put them out in the yard to be enjoyed, first come first served.

The next morning only the husks remained – but beside them was a shiny, silver-painted, woven Christmas decoration which I gratefully hung on our tree.

For 2015, I wish you many unexpected gifts, happy encounters, and joyful surprises.

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Wishes for you

by Jini Stolk

My New Year’s wishes for you are:

That your mission statement will be as beautiful, precise and inspiring as a poem.

That your volunteers will grow in commitment, numbers and happiness.

That your board meetings will be energized and focused.

That all of us (“Barely Managing Directors” included) learn to reduce stress, stay calm and be healthy.

The continued blessing of not having to implement an “active shooter program” at our arts spaces.

And don’t forget that theatre tickets make the perfect holiday gift!

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The next Canada and the arts

by Jini Stolk

The “debate over audience diversity” recently discussed by Kate Taylor in the Globe and Mail is, as was pointed out, more a necessity than a debate. And the answer to the question of where it should start seems to me to be “everywhere, in many companies, in many different ways” – until, as the wonderful Jovanni Sy of the Gateway Theatre is hoping, audiences’ attendance patterns reflect their diverse artistic interests more than their ethnic backgrounds.

The Pew Research group’s fascinating report on the demographic future of the United States (described by The Nonprofit Quarterly as “one of the most beautifully executed yet content rich interactive posts we have seen“) has been generating a lot of discussion about the speedy pace of change in racial dynamics to our south – but also about the “graying of America.” The study projects that the combination of low birthrates and people living longer is creating an American future where the average person will be much older than at any point in history. This too has huge implications for those of us who work in the arts, particularly the performing arts. The need to focus on the lifetime value of an audience member requires renewed efforts not just to bring in and diversify audiences, but also to engage and retain them over the long-term.

The author of The Next America says that “Demographic transformations are dramas in slow motion. America is in the midst of two right now. Our population is becoming majority non-white at the same time a record share is going gray. Each of these shifts would by itself be the defining demographic story of its era. The fact that both are unfolding simultaneously has generated big generation gaps that will put stress on our politics, families, pocketbooks, entitlement programs and social cohesion.”

Since the demographic changes he describes also exist in Canada, they may also up-end our approaches to audience development.

A new study by Hill Strategies Research Inc., provides a look at Diversity and Arts Attendance by Canadians in 2010, examining arts attendance by eight “diverse” demographic groups including visible minority Canadians, first-generation immigrants, Aboriginal people, Canadians with disabilities, Youth (15 to 24 years of age) and Seniors (65 and older).

Alan Brown’s A Study of College Student Preferences towards Music and the Performing Arts for The Hopkins Center for the Arts at Dartmouth College provides insights into how to draw the elusive young adults audience into arts programs and how to engage the next generation of audiences. The research is available for download from


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