In this video, William from Studio Tenn Theater Company shares how they’ve raised over $150k since COVID-19 hit this past spring—all through creative virtual events on Givebutter! Unfortunately, they had to cancel all in-person productions for this season and next. But since then, they’ve launched virtual variety shows, happy hours, summer scholarships, talk shows, matching gift campaigns, and more! William reveals everything that happened backstage, including:

  • How they used Givebutter to pivot into an all-digital world
  • What has made their virtual events so successful (Hint: Donor retention strategy!)
  • Tips, tricks, and lessons learned for building community online—especially if your nonprofit has had to close its doors
“Every time that we've reached out [to Givebutter], everyone that I've ever talked to has been so quick and willing to help. We really, really appreciate that; that's been huge. I even had one week—in one of our first weeks on—during a stream, I was having problems with something going live. I was able to get someone and we were able to fix it while the stream was going. That was great! The accessibility and the help. One of the [fundraising] tips I would say is to be sure to reach out to [Givebutter support]. I have appreciated the responsiveness and the help on that.”

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Full video script

Rachel: Hey everybody, Rachel here with Givebutter! Thanks for joining us for another Success Story from the Givebutter community. Today, we are featuring the Studio Tenn Theater Company based in Franklin, Tennessee. During the last six months, the company has raised well over $150,000 through a wide variety of creative fundraising events. If you are watching this and you're looking for inspiration with the arts OR virtual fundraising event series, I think you're going to find this one really helpful. I have William here with me to share why they turned to Givebutter as well as tips, tricks, and lessons learned. William, thank you so much for joining us and for sharing your success story.

William: Glad to do it. Thank you for all the help!

Rachel: So to start, why don't you go ahead and introduce yourself, your role with the company, and what you are all about.

William: Yeah! My name is William Guice. I am the Advancement Director at Studio Tenn Theater Company. I have been with the company since August of last year, and I handle all things marketing and development there. We are a professional nonprofit theater company. We’re based out of Franklin, Tennessee, which is just south of Nashville (about 16 miles south of the city), but our reach, as far as our audiences go, is—we’re a regional theater company, so we have people that come in from all over the middle-Tennessee area.

Rachel: Very exciting. So William, your company has been using Givebutter to have a number of creative fundraisers: you participated in #GivingTuesdayNow, there was a matching gift campaign, happy hours, variety shows, summer scholarships, a virtual talk show . . . tell us more about why you chose Givebutter and how you've been so successful through a series of virtual events.

William: Well being a theater company, you're used to producing. You're used to putting out content. When everything hit in the spring, we were just on the verge of not only putting out a show that we do every year—every season we do a show in a Legacy Series where we take an artist and we just showcase their work. This year was Aretha Franklin. It was supposed to be in April and then we had 9 to 5: The Musical that was coming in May. Both of those got tabled. We were also on the edge of putting our season tickets for the upcoming season on sale. So all of a sudden, all of that production got shut down. Then also that sale got wiped away. All of a sudden you find yourself like most other theater companies and most other nonprofits: scurrying to recreate themselves in a digital world to try to make up for lost ground or to try to just recreate yourself in a new way. So for us, one of the things—it’s a thing I remember, and I think it's a thing to commend you guys for—you were one of the very first platforms that I saw that seemed to pivot real quick to be able to go and roll out live digital content. It's funny, even weeks and months later I would get emails from people going, “Now you can live stream through what we're doing,” and you guys did that very quick. That was great, and it was perfect for us. We were already set up on the platform; we were already using the platform. It was great to be able to really quickly—in the spring when we were starting to put out all of these different types of digital content—be able to house it in the development or an a on a giving page. To be able to create that just really quickly. It was really easy to set up and really easy to use, and it's just been great for us.

Rachel: Well I'm so excited to have watched, with the entire Givebutter family, all of your success over the last six months. Your creativity is absolutely astounding. I know you've had a couple different events that have been particularly successful, so I'm going to go ahead and share my screen so people can see some of your beautiful campaign work. Here's where all of your events are hosted—we will definitely link this in your Success Story. All of you who are watching, you can check out all the campaigns. But we're just going to be highlighting two in particular. We have the most recent campaign: one’s live, happening now, ongoing talks. Then, we also have your The Show Will Go On campaign. This fundraiser was more towards the beginning of COVID and this one was incredibly successful, raising over $100,000. Why don't you walk us through—let's start with this one first—what made it successful, tips and tricks . . . that sort of thing.

William: Yeah! The Show Will Go On campaign was, like you said, launched first. We rolled it out right around the beginning of April with the idea of ending it in July towards the end of our fiscal year. It very much was that campaign that we're reaching out—and we did it in different ways. There were ways where we really, at the very beginning, went to core supporters. Our donors are with us through thick and thin. Quite honestly, we ran it that way through April and May: just really leaning in and talking with our core folks who really jumped in to support us on this. We feel incredibly fortunate—the way that our donor base has responded in this. Studio Tenn has always worked hard—and I should say, I've only been there since August, but my relationship with the theater company is a little bit unique. I go back to the very beginning because two friends of mine started this.

Rachel: Oh, wow!

William: We've been around . . . I have a daughter that's acted and been in shows, and we've just always been involved. We've gotten to see the theater company grow and be involved in the community and stay involved in the community, even during this time, through education programs and different things that we have offered. As this campaign began, we reached out to our high-level donors and subscribers. People that were very committed. They really jumped in in the beginning. They helped to spread the word on this. We tried to thank them. I think what you mentioned in the beginning—some happy hour events that we did. We did host those here on the platform, but those were actually thank you events that just went out to donors and subscribers. Those were not mass appeal events. We actually built that base with our solid core and then went out more widely to the public in the last two months. One of the things that has been so exciting in this campaign—and then you showed, as well, the talk show slide, which is an ongoing thing we can talk about in a second. One of the things that’s been so great is as this campaign went on (and even with the talk show) from April 1 until last week—which was actually last time I ran their reports check—we picked up 116 new donors over that period of time!

Rachel: Woo!

William: As somebody that’s looking at all this from the big picture, I love the gifts that are coming in—those are always great and appreciated—but I love those new donors. That’s been so huge for us. We're working to appreciate them, thank them appropriately, and grow them into friends that take this journey with us to keep going forward with us. We were fortunate enough in this campaign that we had gotten close to—we felt like we were going to hit our goal by the end. One of the things that really helped in growing a lot of these new donors was in the final days of this campaign, we actually—it ended on a Friday—just did a $5 Friday campaign. We threw out, “Hey, if you just throw in five bucks, you’ll help us reach our goal.” I think the average gift on that day ended up being $28 a gift—I think is what it was. Most people jump in and give more than the $5. The $5 just made it a very easy entry point. It was just a great campaign for us. For us, it was one of the things that was so encouraging because I felt like—again I had a third-party perspective for so long, and then to step in on the inside, I felt like I was able to see where years of investment in the community and building relationships paid off for the theater company when a time of need came. Because we had worked so hard over the years to build those relationships in the theater company, the community really stepped up and supported us. We're very appreciative of that.

Rachel: Yeah! Some great tips, William. I think part of your genius in crafting this campaign was that you really made a donor retention strategy to start, instead of making it about acquisition and acquiring which then made this campaign feel more relational and less transactional. It sounds like you've also been incorporating a lot of donor appreciation and stewardship throughout all of your virtual event series and events that you've had which then helps diminish that donor burnout or donor fatigue. You kept the momentum going by giving thanks and keeping it, like I said, relational. These are all great tips for everybody who is following along because it's so easy to fall into the trap of making it about getting as many donations as you can and the transaction of it. I love that you're thinking about sustainability and looking ahead to, “How are we going to keep the ball rolling and help them become loyal friends of Studio Tenn in the next year?”

William: Yeah, absolutely. I think that's so key. In that campaign—I can't tell you the exact number—there were a number of core donors that not only told other people or shared the campaign, but they gave multiple times to the campaign. On the thank-you side of things, we always try to follow up. I'm a big note writer. Thankfully, I have a board member that’s a big note writer. We also started tying in Bonjoro, doing the video thank-you notes, which we've gotten great responses from as well.

Rachel: What about your current success with your Talks with Patrick? Walk us through what you have been doing that’s a little bit different on this one to be successful.

William: This one is a unique thing for us. Patrick came to Studio Tenn really around the first of this past year. When everything hit, he—in the South here I say, “Bless his heart.” He moved to Tennessee to become the Artistic Director here at Studio Tenn. He actually landed in January and then everything hit in the spring. So he has moved and has not yet gotten to produce a show.

Rachel: Oh, wow.

William: He landed here, and if you don't know exactly who Patrick is, Patrick is the son of Jack Cassidy, who sits over my shoulder, and Shirley Jones. He is Shaun Cassidy and David Cassidy’s brother. Patrick is a well-known actor himself. Patrick has done a lot of screen stuff, but is widely known in the theater circle. One of the things that’s just been great that we've been able to do is in—we started it . . .I guess it began in April. As we were exploring different ideas on digital content, we began this talk show. He would just reach out to friends from the theater. The show ran for, I guess, about the first 20 weeks on Sunday nights. We actually recently moved it to Monday. It's a part of that reaching out to new donors because of the reach with some of the guests. We've been really fortunate with the guests that he's been able to get on. Chita Rivera, Lisa Mordente, and Casey Hebbel were on this past week. And Patti Lupone was the week before that. We've had Victor Garber and Norm Lewis and Jason Alexander. We’re actually at my house which is where we do the show from.

Rachel: Oh, nice!

William: He actually comes here and sits here, and I usually sit over here on the other side. Just getting to be a part and watch these conversations first-hand has just been amazing. But it's brought a lot of new people. Beside gifts that have come in, we've seen our social reach grow a whole lot over the months that we've been doing this. It's been great. We do our best to try to interact with everyone online during the show. As you can see, we have people that have chipped in. Just looking at the gifts that are there that you have right there on the screen. Let’s see . . . of those that you have there, that you just scrolled through, two of those people actually live in our town. The others are from outside the area. It's been great. We've been very fortunate with the promotions and different people. Playbill and Broadway World picked this up and promoted it. It's been an exciting thing to be a part of. Quite honestly, it's one of those things that when we did it, it's not something that we said, “We're going to put this show out and we're going to make a lot of money doing it just fundraising.” For us, quite honestly, it was the thing that we can do to stay in front of people. Keep our name out there and keep our audience engaged. It's been great. We have great viewership; the viewership has actually grown over the last couple of months. We're still going. It's one of the things that it's been so good, we constantly say that even when things go back and we're producing shows, we're probably still going to keep this talk show. It's just been so good and it’s helped us reach new people that we've never been able to reach before.

Rachel: Yeah, that's amazing. It's been a lot of fun for our team to watch this every week and see the new guests. Your supporter feed is always full. Tons of heartwarming messages. People are obviously really excited and engaged in the series, so we're excited to see where it heads next. William, do you have any other words of wisdom or pieces of advice for other Givebutter fundraisers?

William: Just taking the step—leaping out there, taking your idea, jumping out, trying to do it—just do it and create and get people to share it. The talk show has been great, but it has not been perfect. I look back at things that we did 20-or-so weeks ago and think, “that didn't look right,” or “that didn't come off real well.” Just be willing to jump out there and take the idea and run with it and build excitement around it. Again, we've been very fortunate that we had huge community support and people have jumped on board and shared. I would say the other thing is we've also been real fortunate with you guys. Every time that we've reached out, everyone that I've ever talked to, they’ve been so quick to help and willing to help. We really, really appreciate that. That's been huge. I even had one week—in one of our first weeks on—during the stream, I’m having problems with something going live. I was able to get someone and we were able to just fix it while the stream was going. That was great: that accessibility and that help. So one of the tips I would say is be sure to reach out to you guys. I have appreciated the responsiveness and the help on that. Then, the other thing that I would say as well is because of the time that we're in right now, you can use this to to connect with people. We're all doing the best that we can, but there's always still this level of detachment that's going on. I can't say enough that I believe how important it is to thank your donors over and over again in different ways. Clicking the heart button on the Givebutter page, following up with a note, we try to follow-up with video messages. I personally believe, in any instance, you can ever say thank you too much. We tried to do that over and over and over again. None of that is very novel, but it's—I was a coach for a while and you find yourself in coaching moments at different times just over and over going back to, “It's just the basics.” We have found, during this time, that it’s the basic things that have really worked for us. Again, we feel very fortunate about the support that we've gotten all the way around.

Rachel: Well, thank you! Givebutter is so proud to be hosting all of these beautiful events that you've been putting on. Congratulations on all your success on your fundraisers. Those are excellent words of wisdom. We call them foundations and basics for a reason: because they work!

William: That’s right!

Rachel: Well done to you and your entire team, and we cannot wait to see what's next. Thank you for sharing your Success Story with the entire Givebutter community today. For everybody who's following along, please remember to like, share, and subscribe to Givebutter’s YouTube channel. If there are any questions that we didn't ask, comment below. We will try to get to as many as we can. We look forward to seeing you again next week for another Givebutter Success Story. Bye everybody!

View campaigns: Studio Tenn Theater Company

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Rachel Mills

Rachel Mills

Givebutter Marketing & Contributing Writer

Rachel is a fundraising and marketing consultant for nonprofits whose aspiration since she was 16-years-old is simply this: help others, help others.

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