Rebecca: Celia, would you mind just giving us a general sense of how things have been for you since we last spoke to you.
Celia: Sure. We’ve been very occupied with recruiting a new Board of Trustees for the Trust, that is, the Trust that looks after the business aspects of The Playhouse. We’ve also been focused on developing the Council to run alongside this. We hope that by bringing in new expertise this will help us to deliver more effective fundraising across our different strands of work.
I’m the only employee at The Rose so my time has been stretched this last year, but we’ve still kept up with the online events. That’s where most of our fundraising has come from. We’ve found that, in comparison to what The Rose has been able to do in the past, that collecting donations from online events has been very beneficial to our fundraising.
“We’ve found that collecting donations from online events has been very beneficial to our fundraising.”
Out of this has also come our opportunity to encourage friends and to encourage subscribers from the varied audiences that have tuned into the online events from all different parts of the world as well, not just nationally. So, we’ve had bigger audiences than we would have had in our little space on Bankside where we could only sit 50 people. That’s been a massive learning curve for us and we’re building on that success.
Rebecca: Fantastic, that sounds like it was a really successful branch of your digital engagement. Have you been able to track your online donations since the beginning of the pandemic, and have you noticed any trends in this two-year period?
Celia: We’ve always had a culture of Friends donating independently but we haven’t yet got a way of donating online beyond PayPal, and that puts a lot of people off. So, we’re trying to address this as part of a new website that we’re developing as well.
However, we have been able to keep a track of the donations that we have collected alongside the purchase of tickets for our online events. What we’ve found is that if people are very interested in the work of The Rose, and particularly interested in a specific kind of event, whether it be data archaeology, education, or that kind of thing, this has generated different levels of donations. Some people might want to donate five or ten pounds, but we’ve also had people who’ve donated hundreds of pounds, and this says to us that it’s the interest they have in the specific topic that makes them want to support.
“Out of this has also come our opportunity to encourage Friends and to encourage subscribers from the varied audiences that have tuned into the online events from all different parts of the world as well, not just nationally.”
Rebecca: You speak about the broadening of your audience to include international audiences. Perhaps that’s also why you’re getting some larger donations that you speak of – because maybe there’s an element of novelty about them from abroad. In terms of your future plans, do you have plans to create larger scale fundraising events, perhaps even specifically to engage your international audiences?
Celia: Yes, we do, but we’ve recently had more of a focus on the new Board coming in, and there’s a few things we haven’t completed yet – specifically the excavation work that we need to do.
We’d also like to have a facility whereby people could watch the discovery of the excavation because we feel that will bring in different audiences. But that wouldn’t be through an event. We hope to do this through some kind of digital storytelling medium, whether it’s a video or an online portal, that potential donors can engage with to be able to view the work that we’re doing – and we hope that this would attract the major giving. But we have to get a lot of funding in place before we can do something like that.
Rebecca: That’s interesting. It sounds as if you’re talking about using different online methods to target the smaller, regular giving and the major giving.
Celia: That’s right, yeah, and we want to be able to focus on what people are interested in. What we have found out is that it’s just not enough to say that we really need the money. It’s very difficult to generate money when people can’t see exactly where it’s going – it’s very easy when you’re building a theatre like the Sam Wannamaker Playhouse at The Globe, but much more difficult to fundraise for something when you can’t see the actual end product.
“We want to be able to focus on what people are interested in. What we have found out is that it’s just not enough to say that we really need the money.”
Rebecca: Right. It’s really interesting how, because you’re not able to rely on a physical space, how that element of digital storytelling becomes really important. But it also seems as though you’re therefore more creative in those ways because you have to create that visual connection for potential donors in a slightly different way.
So, are you intending to returning to smaller in-person events? Or do you see a sort of blended hybrid model of in-person and online events continuing?
Celia: I think this experience has taught us that you never say never to anything. If something’s brought you success you don’t just turn away from it. Yes, we hope we can do some hybrid events. But at the moment the building above us is currently being refurbished and the last part of their rebuilding is going to be our exterior walls, so there’s still quite a lot of actual physical work to be doing.
“We have got an audience that we could never replicate in the space itself, and some of those people have given strongly.”
Rebecca: Going back to your plans for the visitor centre that you mentioned, do you have a way for people to donate to specific campaigns on your website?
Celia: That’s what we’re in the process of trying to improve and change, because there isn’t this facility on our website at the moment but that’s going to be the idea – that if people want to donate more to the archaeology, then they will be able to do that, and if they’re more interested in theatre or education, then they can donate there. That’s the ambition.
Rebecca: Sure. Finally, in terms of the education strand of your work that you’ve talked about: is that part of your fundraising strategy as well?
Celia: Yeah, part of the idea behind recruiting a new Board was to bring in people who had knowledge and history of all these different areas we’re involved in, and one of our Trustees who’s newly joined the Board was the Director of Education at The Globe, and he has a lot of international contacts – as do other Trust members, so we feel that this is the strongest way of us being able to explore that particular avenue and get us more on the map.
Education is important because Shakespeare is always on the curriculum, so our history is important both locally and nationally. And we want to encourage drama schools and local schools to be interested as well. It’s not something we’ve been able to explore a lot in the past, other than in person visits and tours, and we hope that these will return.
Rebecca: And do you think there’ll be a strong element of your education programme moving forwards that will include digital engagement as well, so that it allows you to reach national audiences?
Celia: Yeah, I think we’re looking at doing something so that we can help people to achieve greater learning and greater interaction with history; so that people can relate to and find out more about The Rose in a different way than reading a book. I’m not decrying reading a book – it’s just it sometimes helps to focus people in a different way.
Rebecca: Absolutely, and I think it sounds as if the digital element has been an ideal way in for you for your audiences.
Celia: Yeah, it’s funny because it wasn’t just the pandemic that got us into developing our online engagement, it was the fact that we couldn’t use the building. So, we kind of stumbled upon this way of communicating, and then realised there was a long avenue ahead. I don’t think anybody in the world had expected the possibilities that could evolve from such a situation. It’s just opened doors and it’s opened eyes to different ways forward both in terms of fundraising and in terms of operations.
We’ve got a very loyal following, but the idea is that, through slightly differently focused events, we might pick up some more interest from other people.
“You’re never going to be able to sustain everybody for everything, but we’ve learnt that it’s important that we offer a diverse programme of events because that will bring in more funds.”
Celia Gilbert, The Rose Playhouse in conversation with Rebecca Ward, Cause4
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Please attribute as: "How online events can increase audience engagement and donations (2022) by Rebecca Ward supported by The Heritage Fund, licensed under CC BY 4.0