5 Lessons Learned From Transforming Into a Non-Profit

May 9, 2016 AudienceView Staff

Gateway Playhouse has been a commercial family business since 1950. The 7 acre estate on the coast of Long Island started off as a bed & breakfast for Christian scientists. Part of the estate held a barn that was owned by a family whose college-aged children would return from school every summer to arrange live theater performances with their friends, including thespians like Gene Hackman and Robert Duval. After seeing the success that these productions had and the crowds they attracted, the family who owned the property decided to scrap the bed & breakfast and dedicate the property into a professional theatre. In 1962 they renovated it into a professional 500 seat theatre, which now sits as the oldest continually running theatre in Long Island. The 70s and 80s saw Gateway Playhouse’s business boom continually as patrons turned to theatre and bought subscriptions to ensure access to their favourite productions. 

But 30 years later in 2004, the team at Gateway Playhouse saw the subscription sales start to lower as alternative forms of entertainment began to spread to the masses. As they looked for a change, the team started to make the switch into becoming a non-profit venue. “A fade off of subscription sales and the subscriber was the spark to turn us into a non-profit," says Scot Allan, who was tasked with turning Gateway Playhouse into a non-profit. ”Now we’re able to fundraise and pull in resources from a board of directors and trustees, as well as apply for state funding and grants and become a full on performing arts center funded by the state, and funded locally by the government as well.”

As someone who has been at the helm of this transition from for profit to non-profit, Scot has learned a lot about how to best make the change. We asked him to share the five best lessons he learned along the way.  

1. Offer Something of Value

“You can’t ask people for money for nothing,” says Scot. “You need to give them some sort of incentive, and that incentive is the tax benefit that you give to people.” Even after recognizing the offer you can provide, you need to understand how you’re going to achieve those results without scaring people away. “A lot of theaters have had success with the online donation and generating pop ups when people buy tickets. I was really pushing to do a pop up of $25. It wasn’t really that successful, but we started a campaign where we started adding just $1 to their order, and that has proven to be far more successful. It also flags them as people who will take a second to contribute, and when we ask them to make a larger donation at a later date, we’re able to recognize those patrons.”

2. Understand Your Benefits

Gateway Playhouse knew that despite subscription sales being down, patrons still saw going to their theater as an event. And with so many lifelong patrons, Gateway understood that they needed to appeal to their loyal customers while still attracting new ones. “Our pitch is that we save everyone a trip to the city. We’re so close to Manhattan that people can be at a Broadway show in 90 minutes, so we give them a reason to stay on Long Island. We were able to migrate our data over from our old system into AudienceView, so we still have historical data on the 30 year patrons, so we know that they’re loyal,” says Scot. “What we’ve done in the past few years is a 3/4/5 program, which is where you get a discount if you buy more than one show at a time. So you’re not committing to a full season, but you’re committing to see three shows, which shows us that they’re interested in our theatre and we can target them for potential fundraising.” 


3. Know Your Audience

Changing your patron’s expectations of your business to encourage them to donate means that you need to understand their habits. The box office understands how often a patron purchases a ticket, but that information traditionally lives in a silo away from the development department. “We liked how all of the records live on one customer profile, so their fundraising and their ticket purchasing history was in one place. In my office, I want to see everything the box office sees, and I want the box office to see everything I see. If either of us are dealing with a customer on a fundraising or box office level, we have access to that information. Are they a donor? Have they made a donation? How many shows have they seen? When is the last time they saw a show. The box office and I do very different things, but we want the same perspective on our customers.”

4. Work With Your Community

“A big campaign I started is partnerships with other non-profits,” says Scot of his efforts. “We work with a group up in Riverhead, which is north of the Hamptons, and they are called East End Disability Associates. We actually just wrote a grant with them to have access to the health and human service state level to build handicap accessible rehearsal studio on our property for their program. It`s a huge benefit to be able to partner with other non-profits. As a performing arts center and a commercial business you couldn't do that, but as a non-profit you sure can.” Scot has been diligent in looking for potential partnerships, and has found a number of beneficial programs in turn. “The access to county money through a lot of the legislature ship in New York county, in addition to state funding, is a big benefit in us turning into a non-profit.”

5. Don’t Be Afraid to Spend

Exposure is important for a non-profit theatre, so you need to stay on the top of patron’s minds. Scot Allan and his team do this by throwing a large party every year. “We do an annual gala in August every year, and that is our big fundraiser. And then we do a couple annual appeals throughout the year between January to generate membership perks where they get invites to events and they're rewarded.” The results have been paying off, as Scot says each year has been more prolific than the last. “We’re about 75-25 in our split, but it goes up every year. This year is the best year yet and we're only in April.”

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