How an iconic London theatre has elevated it fundraising to an art.
The Old Vic has a ladies toilet situation. “Is it that you think women don’t wee or that women don’t like the theatre?” asks an exasperated Glenda Jackson. “Ten women’s toilets in this 1,000 seat theatre. Sort it Old Vic,” opines Rupert Everett. “The ladies are about to storm the men’s loos! They can’t manage to have a drink and a waz at half time…” tuts Joanna Lumley. Theatregoers, staff and luminaries of the stage and screen all agree – the Old Vic needs more loos.
The More Loos campaign, with its centrepiece video, is a reflection of The Old Vic’s ethos: “Dare, always dare”. These words hung above the desk of Lilian Baylis, a visionary who during her tenure from 1913 to 1937 brought Shakespeare to the working class, launched the careers of some of the greatest actors of the 20th century, and shaped the cultural landscape of London. Fiercely embraced by Artistic Director Matthew Warchus, the words now glow neon orange above the entrance to the theatre’s auditorium.
While daring, eclectic and inclusive pulse through it programming, these adjectives now describe the entire organisation. Which in its current incarnation goes back to 2004. Before the existing theatre company was formed, the 200-year-old cultural icon weathered a past as interesting as its productions. It was the original home of the English National Opera, the Sadler’s Wells
dance company and the National Theatre. At less auspicious times it operated as tavern, a college, a coffee house, a lecture hall and a meeting place. It survived The Blitz in WW2 – although not without significant damage – and no less than 13 bankruptcies.
“It’s notable that we didn’t have a fundraising team in all of those different scenarios,” says Natasha Harris, The Old Vic’s Director of Development. “A development team is absolutely critical for the survival of any institution like The Old Vic.” This is especially so as, unlike many cultural institutions in the UK, The Old Vic does not receive any government support.
“It’s of course, difficult when you don’t get that cushion to fall back on, but also you can’t miss what you don’t have,” says Natasha. “It makes you be really lean, smart and sharp about what you do.”
Natasha joined The Old Vic from another significant London cultural institution, the Serpentine Galleries, where she also led development. While she felt echoes of similar issues, of more significance was the timing of her arrival – in May 2008 the Global Financial Crisis was in full swing and destined to get much worse.
“So a really, really challenging moment to enter the scene and be able to build up funding,” she laughs. But over the ensuing decade that is just what happened, and her team has more than tripled to 14 fundraisers. “It’s been a very sort of lovely growth upwards of raising more funds as we steadily build up the team.”
With box office at £9 million and an additional £1 million from front-of- house spend, that team must raise £4 million each year to break even. It’s a precarious situation. Any downward movement in ticket sales puts incredible pressure on the organisation.
On top of that pressure, came the launch an ambitious £24 million capital campaign in 2017. It was a necessary step for The Old Vic to unlock new income streams and fulfil its social mission to bring the community together and to educate and inspire the next generation of young people and artists.
True to the organisation’s entrepreneurial spirit, that campaign has been structured and funded in an ingenious way. Firstly it is a phased campaign. “Rather than an overwhelming target of having to reach a certain amount of money, we created phases. It’s a much smarter and safer way to fundraise,” says Natasha.
The More Loos campaign formed the first £3.7 million phase, along with essential upgrades to the façade and better disability access. “It just flew,” says Natasha. Alongside a groundswell of community support, it also triggered some significant gifts outside the campaign.
With fundraising critical to The Old Vic’s survival – let alone its expansion – it was time to take stock and ensure the optimal performance of the fundraising function. A consultant was invited to conduct an audit.
“Of course, that takes immense bravery on all of our parts because it is examining our strengths, our weaknesses, how can we be doing this better,” says Natasha. But out of that process came an honest and open exploration of what was and wasn’t working.
What wasn’t working was the division of development into two teams – one to handle the capital campaign and one working on annual revenue fundraising, which funded, productions, other building needs and all the education, outreach and emerging talent development programs. Not only was it inefficient, but it set up fundraisers to tightly guard the relationships they developed and be unwillingly to relinquish them to another area.
“Working with the consultants was really a defining moment. It was clear that we needed to converge these two areas into one and have all of our fundraisers working across both of those territories,” says Natasha.
All the team member took a long, hard look at how they could use their time more efficiently, clear KPIs were developed for each fundraiser and there was some restructuring of functions within the team. They also migrated the ‘Friends’ team to the marketing function, enabling the fundraising team to focus on engagement at higher levels and the marketing team to better service that demographic.
“It was a way also of decluttering fundraising,” says Natasha. “We are now all guns blazing working towards annual revenue target of £4 million a year and phase two of the capital campaign.”
Announced in July, the second phase is the construction of a five- storey Annexe adjacent to the theatre. Community outreach and providing educational opportunities for young people is central to the Old Vic’s identity, and the addition of a learning centre and a library of playtexts freely available to schools and visitors will help further its social mission. The Annexe will also include a café-workspace, much-needed back of house space for The Old Vic’s staff and companies, and a studio theatre space that will enable them to diversifying their offering with intimate drama, music, comedy and dance.
“I think for us, it’s all about the storytelling. I always say to the team that I think our answers are right in front of us. You’ve just got to be open to seeing them.”
The funding for this phase once again mirrors the ethos of The Old Vic. “We took a loan from Lambeth and Southwark, which is really kind of audacious and it’s the first of its kind, as far as I’m aware,” says Natasha.
Lambeth and Southwark are the boroughs of London that the theatre straddles. Each borough loaned The Old Vic £3.75 million towards the £12m total required to complete the Annexe, which is set to open in 2022. The seed funding, and the two councils belief in the project and its importance as a civic resource, has meant they can approach other funders to help quickly propel the project forward. With a compelling case for support, a plan is in place to raise the remaining funds through transformational gifts and a founding group, as well as the grassroots fundraising that is so important to The Old Vic. The loan itself will be paid off over a 10-year period via fundraising.
As the capital campaign continues (phase three will address structural issues such as a new roof), other fundraising activities must be nurtured and maintained. The Old Vic has a very strong corporate program built on shared values and meaningful conversations and an impact fund that covers the theatre’s education and outreach programs, which is underpinned by support from trusts and foundations. But individual giving, in all its various forms, is the lifeblood of the theatre’s development efforts. In recent years a pubic fund has been formed to address the lack of government subsidy and support new works.
This approach coincided with the arrival of Matthew Warchus in 2015. While The Old Vic thrived under the direction of Kevin Spacey, who favoured four shows a year, usually classic revivals with a twist and star casting, Matthew has taken a different approach. Shorter runs, more productions – up to eight a year – and more eclectic and new works. What could be seen as risky, especially for a 1,000-seat theatre outside the West End, has provided the fundraising team with a strong narrative that is more varied and better understood by supporters.
With a goal of £1.5 million over three years, that fund now stands at £1 million. “We have an amazing group of individuals who are part of the public fund. That was very much the goal, to have a group of ideologically aligned partners who understood entirely what Mathew was trying to achieve in the absence of any subsidy, and to be able to support that ambition of supporting new works. It’s been lovely to have those supporters at the heart of it.”
No matter the fundraising activity or channel, the development team’s approach to comes down to a strong overarching philosophy. “I think for us, it’s all about the storytelling. I always say to the team that I think our answers are right in front of us. You’ve just got to be open to seeing them,” says Natasha.
“It’s about capturing imagination and breaking it down in the same way that we have done with our capital fundraising. Rather than it becoming something that’s overwhelming, you break down large targets to smaller chunks, and then you wrap around your story. The narrative around that makes for much more successful fundraising, or it certainly has been at The Old Vic.”
And it is not just the development team; a fundraising culture permeates the entire organisation and feeds into a larger idea that everyone at The Old Vic is part of one team working towards a central purpose.
“We wouldn’t be as successful as we are without the engagement of the production team, the communication and marketing team, and the cast team,” says Natasha. “Everyone who works in this building, from the minute you step in the door has a compete 360 degree understanding of what the need is and has to be able to express that to anyone who asks.
Download the full article from F&P magazine here.
Natash Harris will be speaking at the Culture Business conference in Sydney on 21-22 November 2019.