Sydney Patrons Manager on managing OA’s donors
In the year since OA’s Sydney Patrons Manager Ailsa Eckel took up her position, she has made it her business to acquire a sense of who the Company’s patrons are. “I’ve worked in fundraising for non-profits all my life, and one thing I’ve learned from that is, if you don’t know where you’re coming from, it’s impossible to know where you’re going,” she says.
Ailsa certainly knows where she’s headed: more patrons for Australia’s national company. The question is: who are the people who might support opera, and how may they be convinced to do so?
“In the fundraising game, long-term donors are absolute gold; we go out of our way to hang on to ours,” she says. Top of the pops are two patrons who’ve supported OA continuously for 33 years. Next is a group of 60 who have been with the Company for more than 25 years. Collectively, these 62 opera lovers have given $7.6 million to Opera Australia. “That’s a huge contribution for which we are immensely grateful.”
While patrons who joined the Company more recently are just as important, OA will be thanking its long-term donors with a morning tea to be hosted by patron-in-chief, Yvonne Kenny AM, when she’s next in Australia. Their names will also appear in a roll of honour to be published in the program.
But sadly, many long-term patrons are beginning to reach the end of their time with OA. “They tend to be older and many are finding it increasingly difficult to get to the theatre. It has now become our responsibility to convince the new generation to step into their parents’ and grandparents’ shoes.”
In replacing long-term donors, there are several approaches to take, says Ailsa, who has worked in fundraising for the American Field Service and BellShakespeare before joining OA. The obvious way is to find an existing donor and ask him/her to give a little more. That one of OA’s donors has gone from $500 to $50,000 over the years, is proof of the success of this approach. “People who gradually increase their contribution – and there are many of them – are worth their weight in gold.” Ailsa is not afraid to ask existing patrons to move up to the next level. “People won’t always say yes, and that’s fine, I’ll ask a second time!” (This with a deep, throaty laugh.)
Few people can afford the level of generosity attained by these donors, and yet, some patrons’ passion for opera is so genuine that they go without for the sake of supporting the art form. One such donor has been contributing $3000 a year to OA while subscribing to C and D Reserve seats for herself.
Besides approaching existing donors, Ailsa cultivates the art of finding new patrons. OA has a solid subscriber base, some opera lovers having been with the Company since the days of the Elizabethan Theatre Trust. “It is among people who are already passionate about opera that we identify new patrons.”
Her approach is to suggest to such people that becoming a patron might offer opportunites to indulge their passion in ways not normally open to opera lovers. For example, patrons may be offered tickets to dress rehearsals, drinks at interval or access to stage orchestrals and a Sitzprobe, depending on their level of benefaction. All patrons enjoy ticket exchange benefits.
“Sometimes someone would call up and say, ‘I’m having a senior moment, I can’t find my tickets and the performance is tonight!’ We’d reprint tickets for them; we know we can trust our patrons.”
When it comes to creating awareness of opera, exposure to the widest possible range of people is crucial. “Through its education initiatives, and more recently through Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour (HOSH), Opera Australia works very hard at exposing the widest possible range of Australians to excellent live performance. Without that exposure, finding patrons would be impossible.”
61% of people who went to HOSH had never been to the opera before; these arts consumers might eventually decide to see a show at the Sydney Opera House, and eventually a few of them might even become patrons.
Another way of reaching out to the public is through OA’s regional performances. Besides exposing people to opera, they resonate with Australians’ passion for education and fairness. “Why should the people of Broken Hill not have the opportunity to see opera and become passionate about it too? It’s a tremendous thing about this company that it goes to such lengths to reach out to regional audiences.”
In the year that Ailsa has worked for OA, getting to know all the Company’s patrons and their needs has been a big undertaking. “But I love doing that.” Dealing with the fallout from the GFC has been a more serious challenge. “In 2008-9, many people’s discretionary funding fell away. They’re the people we need to start talking to again.”