How a Foundation Raised More than $1 Million in Its First 18 Months
The Educational Theatre Foundation hit the ground running, assembling a board and racking up big donations early on. An inside look at how it happened.
Within just 18 months of the Educational Theatre Association launching its foundation, the group was able to raise more than $1 million to fund its programming. When organizations raise significant sums quickly, people always want to know how they did it.
The answer, says Marion Combs, vice president of development for the Educational Theatre Foundation (ETF), is equal parts inspiration and preparation.
“We’re an association of middle school and high school teachers, and an honor society for high school thespians,” Combs said. “We were not particularly known nationally outside that area. What we did is we set goals and identified our board members before the launch.”
ETF spent a year honing its message and selecting board members who could reach wealthy donors with a past in theater. “I think there is a lot of passion for access in underserved schools,” Combs said. “When we started exploring how we could provide access and increase racial equity, we started getting introductions and referrals from a lot of our long-time members.”
ETF’s structure includes multiple boards. The board of trustees, which oversees the foundation, includes theater and film professionals from industry standouts like Disney, Netflix, and Broadway. The honorary board, made up of donors and endorsers, includes people like actress Viola Davis, actor Val Kilmer, and Warner Media Entertainment Chairman Robert Greenblatt. The group also has an advisory board.
The boards are passionate about ETF’s goal of providing theater instruction in underserved communities. “Having a theater program has expenses for sets, costumes, technical,” Combs said. “A lot of kids don’t have that access.”
Sending out this message and cultivating boards with strong ties to generous members of the performing community has been extremely important. The foundation received a large contribution from Hamilton and Rent Producer Jeffrey Seller. ETF received a large gift from Greenblatt, who was chair of NBC at the time. Also, while under Greenblatt’s direction, NBC provided $500,000 for theater grants ETF administers.
“Mr. Greenblatt was a high school theater student in Illinois,” Combs said, noting that Greenblatt thought that experience was pivotal in helping him learn important life skills.
The group has many donors, like Greenblatt, who credit theater with helping them be versatile in the workforce. “Theater teaches essential 21st century skills; things like memorization, being on time, team work,” Combs said. “The people who are in the industry—and even if they’re in other industries now but came through the theater—look back and realize so much of their success came from this, and they want to help other people have it.”
For associations wondering if they can apply ETF’s approach to their own fundraising, Combs mentioned the things that his foundation did that worked well. First, the group had Greenblatt’s contribution very early on and was able to build momentum on that when it publicly announced the new foundation. The fundraising effort also benefited by being announced at Thespians Go Hollywood, a glitzy Hollywood event that EdTA hosts annually. So, pairing foundation fundraising with any big events an association already hosts is a good idea.
While those two things were helpful, Combs contends a crucial part of fundraising is ensuring the association has a message that resonates with donors.
“I think that the main piece of advice that I would probably have is to have a really transformational purpose and message, be confident in the importance of what you’re doing, and then to go at it,” Combs said. “And do your homework. We worked for a year before the public announcement.”
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