Posted: 26 April 2021

Demystifying fundraising with Penny Saward

Ever wondered what fundraising actually entails? Need tips on how to polish up that funding application for your next project? What does fundraising in theatre look like post-Covid? Our Development Director and fundraising Goddess, Penny Saward, sheds some helpful light on all this and more. Read on!

Tell us a little bit about you and how you got into fundraising and development?

I did a Performing Arts degree at DeMontfort, Leicester before a Masters at Goldsmiths: both of which were brilliant, but I felt adrift after graduation, not sure what it meant to work in a producing theatre. I applied for an internship in the Development Department at the Royal Court, not fully appreciating the breadth of what was involved in fundraising. It was most definitely a dream first job. Over three months, I learnt so much about the day-to-day running of a theatre and myself (the role was unpaid, so I continued to work in retail throughout).

Later in the year, I applied for a permanent role and stayed at the Court for almost six years, ultimately specialising in Individual Giving and Events. From there I went to RADA, where again working within a small team, I was able to gain experience across a range of campaigns, before becoming Director of Development, responsible for all philanthropic activity. Contributing to the staging of new work and supporting emerging artists is particularly important for me, so I began freelancing in 2019 and have since worked across theatre, film and dance, as well as pursuing my own ambitions in theatre-making.

So what exactly does a fundraiser do? De-mystify it for us!

In my experience, fundraising is about building relationships that will lead to financial investment. Similar to Producing and Marketing roles, fundraisers act as a link between those delivering the work and those who experience it. Working in development is an opportunity to get to the heart of why an organisation does what it does; alongside understanding what motivates Individuals, Trusts and Businesses to give, and finding ways to align shared values and ambitions. This might involve running a membership scheme, writing grant applications, designing sponsorship programmes, or delivering events.

I’m a big advocate for fundraisers being involved in projects from inception, so they can engage and in many ways, recruit donors as part of an enlarged project team: financial support is fundamental, but the insight and advocacy funders also bring can be invaluable – particularly, when resources are limited. Just as fundraising is about engaging with others, it is also about working towards achieving financial targets, so there’s a lot of planning and research, budget management and communication involved.

What would you say are the most crucial factors when it comes to fundraising for a production or project?

Start as soon as you can. Recognise the timescales involved not just in realising your project or production, but also those from the funder’s perspective: deadlines and response times will vary, and many funders are unlikely to grant retrospective funding. Incorporating fundraising milestones into planning – such as achieving a portion or all necessary income – before beginning activity will also demonstrate good governance and help to build confidence with your partners. Whether they are Individual supporters, charitable trusts or corporate sponsors, all funders are giving in support of what you want to achieve: there is nearly always a lot of good will and encouragement that comes with donations, which in itself can be instrumental in helping to drive projects forward.

Clear, accurate financial information is important. Completely understandable that projects evolve and budgets change, but monitoring and communicating this effectively, can only help to safeguard funding relationships in the short and longer term. Also consider how you are going to feedback to stakeholders: again, including evaluations into your overall planning will ensure that this formal requirement isn’t overlooked, whilst communicating updates regularly can help to address any challenges that might arise or similarly, explore opportunities for enhanced support within original timeframes.

What would be your top tips when it comes to building relationships with supporters?

Keep in touch. Sharing regular updates not only about a specific project but more generally about your work or activity, will strengthen the sense of commitment between you and your supporters. Fundraised income is motivated by shared values rather than financial return for those involved, so reflecting this in communications will help to nurture sustainable relationships.

It is important to do your research. Charitable Trusts and corporate social responsibility programmes will be explicit about the type of projects or areas of work they want to support, so get to know them just as you would any other collaborator, and find common ground between what you both want to achieve. Be realistic. Be ambitious, but also try to avoid over-promising. Funders will want to understand the impact their gift will have, so reference this when making approaches: for example, donations given to support a new work by under-represented artists will help that production to be realised, alongside contributing to a more diverse creative sector.

For someone starting out new to writing a funding application, what would be your checklist of things they need to keep in mind?

Consider the application form as your route to making it as simple as possible for the organisation to award you funding. Every question is an opportunity to demonstrate how well your project aligns with their criteria: keep building your case throughout. It is unlikely that grant administrators will have your specialist knowledge, so detail activity as clearly as possible to ensure that those reviewing can fully understand what will take place and when, and how these steps will result in achieving the project objectives.

Be specific and ensure that the narrative of the application form corresponds with the accompanying budget. Including a contingency in your budget and ensuring that it is balanced (i.e. overall expenditure doesn’t exceed total funds raised or requested from all sources), will also demonstrate effective project management.

Familiarise yourself with administrative requirements early on: online portals, restricted word or character counts, and preparing additional information (such as audience development plans) can all make application writing time consuming, and many requests will be discounted if incomplete. Many organisations will lead training sessions or actively encourage prospective applicants to be in touch in advance of submitting funding requests, so do investigate what further, trust-specific resources might be available to support you.

Predictions for fundraising in the arts/theatre post Pandemic?

The charitable sector has experienced a phenomenal surge for services, at a time when funding has contracted. It will be a challenging environment for at least the next three years, so now more than ever, is the time to welcome funders in as collaborative, strategic partners. It is likely that donation sizes and multi-year commitments will reduce initially, however this may also prompt a deepening of relationships, with public and statutory funders consolidating specific areas of support. Individual donors are much more likely to give and continue giving, if they have direct experience of an organisation’s work. This will be especially challenging for theatres and arts organisations given venue closures and ongoing social distancing measures. Consequentially, direct appeals to audiences and special event or challenge-style initiatives online are anticipated to increase in the short term.

Any recommended resources for someone starting out in fundraising?

The Charity Commission, Fundraising Regulator and The Institute of Fundraising all offer a lot of information online, guidance on legislation and best practice, as well as training opportunities and networking events. The Fundraising Bright Spots podcast presented by Rob Woods is really helpful and includes conversations with development specialists working across all sectors and scales of campaigns. Fundraising teams are often small and faced with challenging targets, so reaching out to peers across the creative industries or charitable sector more broadly can be incredibly helpful. My experience has been to be part of a very supportive professional community, willing to share insights and learn from others.

When you’re not finding money for us, what else keeps you busy?

I’m currently developing my own projects: mainly playwriting, but there’s a few other bits bubbling away, so I’m doing a fair bit of research and creative development at the moment. I love a good story, so I try to see or experience as much as I can – theatre first and foremost, but film, dance and literature also. I’m part of The Writing Farm, a new writing collective formed by a few of us who completed a playwriting course led by the amazing Jennifer Farmer: I’m grateful for the generosity and friendship with which we’ve continued to meet and share work over the past year. I have really missed the community of live performance and haven’t kept up with everything that transferred online, however watching Hymn by Lolita Chakrabarti at the Almeida recently was a bit of a turning point – it gave me everything I’d been craving.