Are We Done Crowdfunding?

Why dance companies have started looking beyond Kickstarter.

Traverse City Dance Project, here in Jodie Gates’ Delicate Balance, is trying new fundraising tactics. Photo by Susan Kettering, courtesy TCDP.

Last year CHOP SHOP: Bodies of Work, a contemporary dance festival in the Seattle area run by Eva Stone, ran into a severe funding issue. After seven years of grants from a local arts organization, a bureaucratic snafu disqualified the event from receiving the money Stone had planned on. At the last minute, Stone launched a Kickstarter campaign. “The bottom line message was, Pitch in or we are dead,” Stone says. “I asked for $8,000 and we made it. But I felt like it was a one-shot deal. I knew if I did it again, it wouldn’t be as successful.”

It’s no surprise that crowdfunding through sites like Kickstarter and Indiegogo has changed the way dance companies fundraise. The idea of raising money online through small contributions from a large number of people came onto the dance scene at the height of the great recession, right when big, reliable donors and corporate philanthropy programs had less money to allocate. Since Kickstarter’s launch in 2009—which brought the techie idea into the mainstream—more than 1,800 dance projects have been funded through the site, the bulk of them raising between $1,000 and $10,000.

But the golden-ticket model of crowdfunding is beginning to lose its veneer. Many choreographers and directors, frustrated with the limits of crowdfunding, are now finding their way back to more traditional fundraising practices, finding that the best approach to sustainability is a combination of analog and digital, in person and on screen.

“For individual artists with smaller budgets, crowdfunding is a lot more work than they think,” cautions Shawn René Graham, artist services manager at The Field, a nonprofit organization in New York City that offers services and support for performing artists. “If you start a campaign, you must engage in constant follow-up and announcements to meet your goal. A crowdfunding campaign does not mean that people you don’t know will just find it and decide to donate. You have to engage them. You need a target audience before you start.” Claire Baum, artist services and communications associate at The Field, insists the same skills are required as in traditional development: You have to be a strong writer, create compelling visuals and be prepared to do the ask. “Those are skills that choreographers are not necessarily trained to have,” she says, “but crowdfunding is not a shortcut.”

Often the only people who see your campaign are those in your social media network, which can put you at risk of exhausting their funds and patience. For the past three years, Jennifer McQuiston Lott and Brent Whitney, co-founders of Traverse City Dance Project, a summer pickup company in Michigan, have been able to raise a quarter of their budget and engage with potential patrons outside of the Traverse City area through crowdfunding. But they’ve grown tired of constantly pushing the fundraiser on friends and family through Facebook. “I’ve had friends apologize for not being able to donate,” Whitney says. In order to avoid donor fatigue and start creating more separation between personal and professional relationships, Lott and Whitney plan to establish the company as an official nonprofit, a 501(c)(3), in order to pursue more of their funding through grants and corporate donations. “We may do one more crowdfunding campaign for next year—for more specific needs—but moving forward, we would like to be less dependent on it, and hope to be recognized as a valuable arts organization that the community will invest in.”

Alex Ketley’s Poem, presented at CHOP SHOP 2015. Photo by Rex Tranter, courtesy CHOP SHOP.

That route can actually be more lucrative. “One of the horrors of Kickstarter is that you can get within 94 percent of your goal and then not receive any of the money,” says Baum. To that end, every artist sponsored by The Field has a page on the organization’s website where patrons can give to the artists directly—there is no need to meet a goal in order to receive those funds.

Instead of returning to crowdfunding for the 2016 iteration of CHOP SHOP, Stone decided to expand her team by organizing an advisory committee of volunteers who believe in the organization and are dedicated to the cause of raising money, similar to a board. “They get the same pitch as Kickstarter, but they get to hear our story more intimately, help us raise money in the community and act as a sounding board for future plans,” she says. While Stone feels done with crowdfunding for the time being, the experience taught her a lot: “I learned the art of asking for money. I also learned that I hate it.” No matter how they raise money, dancemakers have found that the key is to develop lasting relationships along with the pitch. Using technology can be a powerful development strategy, but just one among many in your fundraising toolbox. 

A former dancer, Candice Thompson is a frequent contributor to Dance Magazine

Latest Posts

Courtesy Harlequin

What Does It Take to Make a Safe Outdoor Stage for Dance?

Warmer weather is just around the corner, and with it comes a light at the end of a hibernation tunnel for many dance organizations: a chance to perform again. While social distancing and mask-wearing remain essential to gathering safely, the great outdoors has become an often-preferred performance venue.

But, of course, nature likes to throw its curveballs. What does it take to successfully pull off an alfresco show?

Marisa Grywalski and Alejandro Diaz in Dwight Rhodens "Ave Maria," part of PBT's Open Air Series last fall.

Kelly Perkovich, Courtesy Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre

Keeping dancers safe outside requires the same intentional flooring as you have in the studio—but it also needs to be hearty enough to withstand the weather. With so many factors to consider, two ballet companies consulted with Harlequin Floors to find the perfect floor for their unique circumstances.

Last fall, Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre invested in a mobile stage that allowed the dancers to perform live for socially distanced audiences. "But we didn't have an outdoor resilient floor, so we quickly realized that if we had any rain, we were going to be in big trouble—it would have rotted," says artistic director Susan Jaffe.

The company purchased the lightweight, waterproof Harlequin's AeroDeck® sprung floor panels and the heavy-duty Harlequin Cascade™ vinyl, which is manufactured with BioCote® Antimicrobial Protection to help with the prevention of bacteria and mold. After an indoor test run while filming Nutcracker ("It felt exactly like our regular floor," says Jaffe), the company will debut the new setup this May in Pittsburgh's Schenley Park during a two-week series of performances shared with other local arts organizations.

Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre's Open Air Series last fall. The company plans to roll out their new Harlequin AeroDeck® sprung floor panels and Harlequin Cascade™ vinyl floor for more outdoor performances this spring.

Harris Ferris, Courtesy Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre

In addition to the possibility of rain, a range of temperatures also has to be taken into account. When the State Ballet of Rhode Island received a grant from the state to upgrade its 15-year-old stage, executive director Ana Fox chose the Harlequin Cascade vinyl floor in the lighter gray color "so that it would be cooler if it's reflecting sunlight during daytime performances," she says.

However, for the civic ballet company's first performance on its new 24-by-48–foot stage on November 22, heat was less of a concern than the Northeastern cold. Fortunately, Fox says the surface never got icy or too stiff. "It felt warm to the feel," she says. "You could see the dancers didn't hesitate to run or step into arabesque." (The Harlequin Cascade floor is known for providing a good grip.)

"To have a safe floor for dancers not to worry about shin splints or something of that nature, that's everything," she says. "The dancers have to feel secure."

State Ballet of Rhode Island first rolled out their new Harlequin Cascade™ flooring for an outdoor performance last November.

Courtesy of Harlequin

Of course, the elements need to be considered even when dancers aren't actively performing. Although Harlequin's AeroDeck is waterproof, both PBT and SBRI have tarps to cover their stages to keep any water out. SBRI also does damp mopping before performances to get pollen off the surface. Additionally, the company is building a shed to safely store the floor long-term when it's not in use. "Of course, it's heavy, but laying down the floor and putting it away was not an issue at all," says Fox, adding that both were easy to accomplish with a crew of four people.

Since the Harlequin Cascade surface is versatile enough to support a wide range of dance styles—and even opera and theater sets—both PBT and SBRI are partnering with other local arts organizations to put their outdoor stages to use as much as possible. Because audiences are hungry for art right now.

"In September, I made our outdoor performance shorter so we wouldn't have to worry about intermission or bathrooms, but when it was over, they just sat there," says Jaffe, with a laugh. "People were so grateful and so happy to see us perform. We just got an overwhelming response of love and gratitude."

Marisa Grywalski and Alejandro Diaz in Susan Jaffes "Carmina Terra," part of PBT's Open Air Series last fall.

Kelly Perkovich, courtesy Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre

February 2021