Patrick Reynolds, Fellow for Royal Exchange Theatre in conversation with Jessica Hilton, the Royal Exchange Theatre’s new Membership Manager.
Patrick Reynolds: For those who don’t know you, would you like to just introduce yourself, what you did on the Arts Fundraising Fellowship and what you’ve been up to since?
Jessica Hilton: I was a Year 2 North Fellow in 2014 and I was based at Hull Truck Theatre. Since then I’ve undertaken a maternity cover position at Northern Ballet as their Research & Data Officer and I’ve just started at the Royal Exchange Theatre as the new Membership Manager.
PR: So “Membership Manager,” do you want to tell us a little bit about that new role? What is your day-to-day like?
JH: I’m looking after the new Membership scheme we’ve recently launched at The Royal Exchange, to coincide with our 40th anniversary. This will involve looking after the scheme and its day to day operations, along with recruitment of Members and planning all the exciting events which will be going on. We’ve had a big brand refresh here at the Royal Exchange so there’s been new branding for the scheme as well. I’ve been keeping on top of how all of that is going and refining what the message is. I’ve now got my own card printer to create personalised Membership cards which was pretty exciting.
PR: Which we recorded and put on twitter because you were so happy!
JH: Yes it’s quite a cool bit of kit. There are some really exciting benefits on offer as part of the new scheme, so I’ll be doing things like organising backstage tours and cast Q&A’s for our Members. I’ll also be ensuring our Members feel really involved in our work, so regular communications and newsletters will be a big part of my role.
— Patrick Reynolds (@dontlimitmyspee) May 25, 2016
PR: What made you apply to the organisation?
JH: I’ve always wanted to work at the Royal Exchange. The theatre is a beautiful building and the quality of work is always outstanding. I’m from the North West originally and for me The Royal Exchange is great at telling local stories that really resonate. I think I came to see ‘The Accrington Pals’ and my Grandma’s dad was actually part of the original Accrington Pals himself.
The prospect of launching a new Membership scheme was really exciting. It was something that I’d done a little bit of in my Fellowship year at Hull Truck. I’m a total data geek, so the chance to launch a scheme in a venue was an interesting prospect, especially after previously being part of a touring company. For a lot of donors a Membership scheme is their entry level point in terms of their ‘giving life’ with an organisation, so it’s really interesting to be at that point with them and be that first step for them.
PR: Can you explain the rationale behind the new scheme?
JH: It’s our 40th anniversary at the Royal Exchange and as I mentioned we’ve had a new brand launch across the theatre, so it was just a good opportunity to review our offer for audiences and how they can take that extra step to engage with us.
The message behind the scheme is ‘completing the circle’ which fits nicely with the fact we’re a theatre in-the-round. I’ve always liked the idea that as an arts organisation your company is at the middle of wider circles of people; your audiences, stakeholders, education participants, your board and your Members. There are huge groups of people surrounding your organisation and supporting it. So that feels quite nice – being part of the circle. Part of what drives people to membership is a desire to feel some sort of ownership so having a membership card will hopefully help achieve that.
PR: What would be your tips for a successful membership scheme?
JH: With something like this it can be the really little things that can be the make or break. By that I mean the nitty-gritty administrative processes; your mail merges can’t be ‘Dear First Name,’ your collateral has to be proof-read and of a professional standard, your renewal process needs to work, you need to be keeping a record of all communications on the CRM system because you can’t expect to remember every conversation you’ve had with 300 people. It’s all of the really basic attention to detail.
A challenge when you’re making changes, especially in something like introducing a new membership scheme, is very carefully communicating why those changes have been made and making sure that current donors/friends/season ticket holders still feel that their contribution is valued and that they can still be a part of the theatre. You really have to fine-tune what your offer is, and what the motivation will be for people to sign up. Our Membership scheme has been designed in conversation with our audiences through questionnaires and focus groups, which means so many people have been part of the process of designing the schemes end result. We are now able to go back to those people and say thank you for your help and your contribution – it’s yours as much as it is ours.
PR: What’s your advice to the other Y3 Fellows now that we are approaching the latter stages of the scheme ourselves?
JH: Being part of the Fellowship instils some useful skills to have early on in your career. It gets you to be reflective and constantly evaluate what you’ve done, what decisions were made, and what you’ve learned. That’s a really good thing to get into a habit of early. In five years time when hopefully we’re all Development Managers, that mentality will stay with you and you’ll still be taking the time to ask why is this working? What went well?
The other big lesson from the Fellowship is that because you meet so many interesting people through training and through the scheme you get a wider perspective and you get into the habit of asking for help and advice. Just saying to somebody “I’m doing this, I’d love to buy you a coffee and pick your brains about it” – you don’t realise that you’re networking because it comes naturally, but you really develop that skill of learning from your peers and from other organisations.
The Arts Fundraising Fellowship gives you so many training opportunities. I’d say don’t be shy of applying to the sort of roles that you think are going to be challenging. You’ll surprise yourself with what you know and what you can do.
Finally, just keep in touch with the other fellows! The Fellowship programme has developed a really big network – it’s a great resource to have people to ask about a whole range of things.