COVID-19 has challenged nonprofits like never before—and nonprofits have risen to the occasion in their own unique ways.
In this podcast series, we explore how nonprofits are adapting their fundraising strategies to a difficult moment. We sat down (virtually, of course) with leaders from across the sector to hear what they have been doing and what they have learned. Follow us as we discover strategies that have helped a diverse array of organizations survive and thrive during a challenging time.
Our second episode features Campbell & Company Vice President Melissa Berliner speaking with PJ Powers, Artistic Director of TimeLine Theatre Company.
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Listen to the podcast or read the transcript below:
Melissa Berliner: Welcome, PJ. Good to have you here.
PJ Powers: I'm thrilled to be here.
Melissa: I’ve had the good fortune to partner with you, PJ, over these last few months and learn from you. I think that TimeLine is doing some pretty exceptional things with respect to donor engagement and cultivation. I’m looking forward to sharing those learnings with our audience.
First, why don't we start with a little background on TimeLine? If you wouldn't mind telling us a little bit about the Company and yourself, that would be great.
PJ: Sure! TimeLine was founded in 1997 by myself and five others. We had all met at DePaul University here in Chicago at The Theatre School.
A couple of years after graduating, we all were out pursuing our own respective careers. We came back together, really under the leadership of my colleague, Nick Bowling, who presented an idea that we start a not-for-profit theatre company in Chicago with a mission that was focused on exploring history.
My great badge of dishonor, that I've worn now for the past 23 years, is that I was one of the first naysayers to the idea, not only to just starting yet another theatre company in this very rich community of theatre companies. But I questioned the sex appeal, if you will, of a company focused on history. And it sparked a great debate that first night, April 9, 1997, literally the first time that we had the conversation.
We had this rigorous debate about what is a “history play,” and excitingly we've been having that debate for 23 years. And really the focus of what TimeLine was born to do, and what we've now been doing for 23 years, is not just about looking back at history, but looking for links between the past and the present.
So really TimeLine is about exploring the social and political issues of today by using the lens of the past for insight on how we got to where we are today and how we might perhaps move past where we are today.
Melissa: Boy, do we need that lens right now. Is there anything you can do to bring that lens up on stage for us in this moment?
PJ: Yeah, we started in 1997, really with the humblest of beginnings. All six of us threw in $50 to become incorporated as a nonprofit, and we turned that nest egg of $300 into our start.
We spent a full year before ever attempting to produce a play to build that $300 into a foundation and to really develop what this mission was and develop an infrastructure to essentially start behaving like we were a far bigger organization than our $300 really showed.
That time and thoughtfulness that we spent in the first year has paid dividends. So that 300 bucks has turned into, I mean, this past year we had an operating budget of about $3 million, and we've now produced over 85 shows in 23 seasons. That $3 million budget was pre-COVID, so our budget in the coming year is not going to look like that, but the growth trajectory of TimeLine has really been slow, steady, and consistent of just up, up, up.
Melissa: I've heard your origin story before, but I never knew that you were the naysayer, so you might have to bring that up in the future. What you built, it's pretty amazing.
The thoughtfulness you describe and the way you've grown and evolved over the years is something that I've noticed in this time, in particular, as you work to pivot. I think about fundraising, engaged donors in new and different ways.
Can you share with us the most innovative fundraising practice you've introduced during this time?
PJ: Well there's nothing innovative about this word, but I think the most important word is transparency. Being honest with your supporters about where we are and what we know and, more importantly, what we don't know. If ever there was a time that it is a no-brainer to be transparent, it's now because people have the same lack of facts in their daily lives as we have trying to think, plan, budget, and program.
Early on in our shutdown when this room and this screen became all I had, we started a robust outreach of just calling our supporters. First and foremost, just to check in with them as people, as human beings.
If there's one thing that I would say has permeated all of the conversations over the past weeks and months is that many of the conversations we’re having with our supporters are as much about “How are you and your family doing?” as they are about how is our organization budgeting, and what does this mean for our payroll? And what does this mean for programming?
In many ways, the relationships with our supporters have deepened, and I've learned things about them, and they've learned things about me because there's this great equalizer of vulnerability that we all have right now. There's this great equalizer of anxiety that we all have right now. And there's this great equalizer of, we have time to talk because we can't go anywhere else.
Back to your question about an innovative thing, it developed unexpectedly. In late March when mask wearing was just starting to be a thing and when you couldn't just go into any store and purchase one. My wife, who's unbelievably crafty, started selling masks because she just wanted to feel useful for friends and family. And what she initially thought was “I'm going to make a few dozen masks for the people most beloved for our friends and family.”
I said to her, “Hey, I've just got a few of our supporters who maybe are in the vulnerable category or elderly, or may not have access to a mask, would it be okay if I reached out to a couple people and said, ‘Do you need one?’”
Well, a couple hundred masks later, she ended up making over 300 masks and probably half of those ended up going to people connected with my organization. It was really lovely.
So I spent a lot of time in late March, early April driving around town, when it was shockingly easy to get around because there was no traffic, dropping off little care packages of masks to many of our donors.
Just last week, this is almost four months after delivering a mask to one of our donors, I received a phone call from him saying, “You just have to thank your wife again because I wear her mask every single day. It’s been a lifeline for us." That's a really unexpected, bizarre thing that she should take much more credit for than me, but it really was about just meeting our donors on a very human level and asking, what do you need right now?
That has nothing to do with running a theatre company, but yet it has everything to do with how we run our theatre company, which is about building relationships with people that go beyond buying a ticket, coming in, and going home.
Melissa: There’s so much to unpack there in addition to just the relational aspect of it. I think there's an instinct to give people space during this time, quite literally, because we have to, but also that's translated into other realms as well. That sense of “I don't want to bother you; I just want to let you process and do what you need to do.”
But you've, in fact, done the opposite, which is to keep donors closer to you in any way that you can. In any reasonable way that you can. I think that’s pretty incredible.
As you look forward, what is it about fundraising in this period that you will take with you? What will you apply going forward?
PJ: Being unafraid to ask for help and being honest about why my organization needs it.
If there's one thing that TimeLine's trajectory over 23 years has taught me, definitely this past year has taught me, is the people who support our organization are invested emotionally, intellectually, and financially. Perhaps in that order.
They want us to come back, and they want us to make it through. They're aware that not every organization is going to, not every theatre is going to make it to whatever year or month live performances resume. And the people who have connected with TimeLine, whether it's over a couple decades or just in the past year, they believe in what this mission is.
The more that we're honest with them about what it takes to run our business, the more that they want to step up. Many of the conversations I've been having haven't been asking for anything; it's just been talking about what's happening with us. And yet many people have decided, even unasked, to make a contribution.
It's about just being very candid about, "Here's what we're trying to do, and here's what stands in our way." Again, just being as transparent as possible.
I've had conversations in the past few weeks with donors and let them know, “Hey, by the way, I'm on furlough right now, but I'm very happy to still be talking with you.” The surprise from many of them like, “Wait, the Artistic Director is on furlough!?” But then within that same breath, so many of them said, “Well, of course you are. That’s how thoughtful TimeLine has always been. I trust that the organization has a plan. It's helpful to know what part of that plan is.”
As we look at the next couple months, a lot of our communications are going to be about taking that even further and trying to reach out even more, whether it's through this medium or just on the phone, because it's sadly probably a little while now before we can get together for coffee.
Melissa: Well, I think you've offered our viewers some expert advice here: thoughtful, transparent, relational. Really, that's it, that's what it takes. You've got it all. So thank you for being our guest today. Thank you for your insights.