What impact can different voices have on the success of a fundraising campaign – and whose voice speaks the loudest?

What impact can different voices have on the success of a fundraising campaign – and whose voice speaks the loudest?


Laura Winson is the Head of Development at Derby Theatre, leading the organisation’s fundraising strategy & delivery as part of the Senior Management Team. She is a 2023/24 Professional Fellow.


In a recent fellowship session, the discussion turned to how an organisation can make itself “fundable” by being true to its Misson, Vision and Values – which in many ways seems obvious, but in a venue-based organisation these can be varied and broad. The ‘theatre’, for example, means a lot of different things to different people.  And this is before we even consider the funding challenges in the current climate. 


With a background in corporate support, a key part of my role is to build relationships and give voice to all the great work that my organisation does.  However, when it comes to successful fundraising, the question I have been considering is whose voice has the most power?   


Do we rely on our advocates; major donors, a ‘celebrity’ patron, or our board? Should the fundraisers or senior team really be doing all the talking? Or does it make more of a difference to amplify the voices of the people who have benefitted and let them speak for themselves about what the ‘theatre’ (or organisation, project, or campaign) means to them? 

There are lots of examples of national and local charities being supported by celebrity advocates or patrons, and it could be argued that arts charities have already taken a backseat to more ‘obvious’ counterparts (e.g., Health, Animal or environmental charities) so may be considered less appealing to a public face. Yet research undertaken by Third Sector in 2018 also found that 69% of respondents were neither more nor less likely to donate to a charity if a celebrity-backed it. 

One successful example from the arts sector is Kiln Theatre’s 2018 capital redevelopment campaign, where multiple celebrities including Kenneth Branagh and Imelda Staunton lent their support by donating funds to name a seat in the new auditorium – perhaps a relatively small commitment financially, but an impressive list of supporters from the world of stage and screen.  

More recently, we have seen actors and celebrities lend their voices locally, in attempts to save Oldham Coliseum, with a focus on personal memories, and dismay at the lack of support, rather than a formal campaign front. 

Likewise, UK Theatre’s ‘Theatre for Every Child Campaign’ cleverly uses ‘known’ voices from the theatre world sharing memories of childhood experiences to drive advocacy and support for the campaign. 


So, what about the beneficiaries - does it work to amplify their voices?


Earlier in my career I was involved in delivering two Christmas match-funding campaigns which successfully used this technique. Quotes, pictures, and statistics told the stories, and these were utilised in conversations with potential donors to secure support. In both cases, the public campaign was elevated by creating videos featuring the voices of project participants directly.  By inviting them to share their thoughts, memories, and the impact on them first-hand, we had a powerful tool that resulted in a direct increase in donations whenever a video was released. Yes, it meant an investment financially and significant staff time, but the return was worth it when both campaigns exceeded their match-funding target. 


Launchpad Christmas Challenge Video 2019: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_9P4NGdac_E


Sheffield People’s Theatre Christmas Challenge Video 2021: https://www.facebook.com/shefftheatres/videos/598039264737374/


Bringing this right up to date, I was recently in a wrap-up meeting for a large scale, funded project at Derby Theatre involving the funder, the project team and some of the artists and partners that had been involved in the project.  We had completed evaluations and legacy documents and had already consciously decided to share the success of the project via a series of ‘unconference’ videos that hear directly from some of the people involved, but we were able to create a real impact by inviting the participants to share their experiences first-hand with the funder. 


Perhaps there is a real opportunity for future funding applications that use different formats – video submissions could allow us to directly share the underrepresented voices who will be impacted by the funding, at the very start.   


On a wider scale, playwright James Graham used his ‘known’ voice to advocate for the importance of the role the public can, and do, play in securing a future for the arts. 


So, why have I been thinking about this? 


At Derby Theatre, we are about to embark on a large-scale capital campaign to secure vital funding for the redevelopment of our much loved, and nearly 50-year-old venue.   


Conversations have already turned to who we know that could advocate, or perhaps more importantly donate to New Horizons – who are the famous artists who started their career on our stage or had their first theatrical experience in Derby etc..?


Should this be the goal? Or would it be a much stronger message to raise the voices of the people whose lives have been changed by Derby Theatre; shouting out loud their memories, affection, and stories of how and why Derby Theatre and its mission made a difference to them?  


In all likelihood, there is probably room for both.