Sanpreet Janjua was Fellow for Nottingham Playhouse until September 2016, and has remained with the organisation as Development Officer.
The age of the internet means that all sorts of content is readily available for free. Our favourite news and blogs sites come ready armed with donate buttons.
Working comedians are now also asking for donations – not to fund themselves, but to ensure that the work they do can remain free for everyone else who cannot afford to (or is willing) to donate.
There also seems openness to this direct way of asking that some other free institutions like galleries and museums are sometimes resistant to. For example it means that Adam Buxton can be honest about his intentions to seek sponsorship to fund his new gloriously funny podcastand that Stuart Goldsmith can include a direct ask to his listeners in every episode of his Comedian Comedian’s Podcast with minimal hesitation and embarrassment. It democratises the act of donating where fans are encouraged to give whatever they feel the show is worth.
In my memory, the first comedian who I was aware of actively fundraising is Richard Herring. He has successfully fundraised through Kickstarterfor his Leicester Square Theatre Podcast and is an expert at asking for money to ensure that he can still keep making his work available for free. He graciously allowed me to interview him for this blog to gain an insight into what methods comics use to fundraise for their projects.
I think you were one of the first comedians who started actively fundraising. What drew you to do this and what was the initial reaction like?
I initially thought that doing this would be a nice way to give the whole audience a free programme (theatre programmes seem to be a rip-off) whilst raising money for charity and also, I suppose, promoting my other work. It seemed like a win for everyone. The first charity I offered the programme money to, Macmillan, did not want to be associated with the show I was doing at the time, Talking Cock (even though it was actually a perfect fit). I sent them the money anyway. Then when I came to tour, with a raft of reviews about the show, demonstrating it was classier and more thoughtful than they had perhaps thought, I tried again and they still said no. So I asked Scope, who I was running a marathon for at the time and they were very happy to take the money. Macmillan have lost out on £300,000 and counting as a result of their sniffi-iness, but I am glad that SCOPE has benefited and I have become much closer to this cause as a result.
I didn’t really think about raising money for myself until recently. I hoped that the free content would encourage people to see my shows and buy my DVDs which has worked to a good extent I think. But as I have become more ambitious I can’t afford to pay out tens of thousands of pounds a year, so I have hoped that my audience would give a small amount each in order to get loads more content.
So a couple of thousand people are giving me a pound or more a month on our website and when I need to raise larger sums I have tried Kickstarter, which has worked well. If you give people something good, especially for free, enough of them will want to pay something back. But if all my listeners gave a pound a month for my 100 or so podcasts a year then I could afford to make my own feature films.
Crowdfunding websites like Kickstarter have worked successfully for you and many other established acts. But it’s also true that most on-line crowd funding campaigns fail rather than being successful. What methods would you recommend to newer acts that don’t already have the audience to pledge?
I would say keep giving stuff away for free for as long as possible. Lots of podcasting is essentially free to do, only your time is taken up, which can be an investment. Or find people at a similar level to you who are prepared to work for nothing in order to learn. If your free stuff is good, then after time people will want to start paying you to make more.
You need to build up an audience to make this model work and I still think only about 2-5% of your audience will donate, so you need a good few thousand before you can fund yourself this way. I have been podcasting for eight years, but only started making any requests for donations about three years ago. I still put out almost everything for free because I don’t want lack of money to mean someone misses out. In an ideal world those who can afford a tiny amount to keep something going will be paying for those who can’t.
Many arts organisations are fearful of future cuts and the impact that they will have on their work. Does this sense of fear of austerity exist in the comedy scene too – especially when in conjunction with threats to the BBC, which will presumably be unable to fund new and innovative comedy?
I think this is why it pays to be self-sufficient. If you can get funding from someone then great, but if you can’t then you just have to get on with it yourself. For me it’s always been about the work and not the money. You sometimes need money to do the work, but there is always work you can do without money. The best way forward is the autonomy of working for yourself and within your means. And if you’re good I believe that money will follow anyway.
Do you have any structure or strategy to the way you fundraise, or does it vary according to the project?
I am not a businessman and have very much been going with the flow and seeing what happens. We have no real plan beyond seeing what we can achieve with what we have and asking for help if the funding is beyond us. Sponsorship is an option, but I’d rather do it through individuals who like the stuff if possible.
What would you say is the most important thing to do when asking for money?
Make sure you are giving good value. The people who pay me a pound a month get access to a channel of extras, offers, advance info on podcast guests and chance to win prizes. I think that’s worth a lot more than a pound in itself, but their money will go towards giving them more content too.
So what can we in arts organisations learn from sole comedian fundraisers? My three take away points from Richard are:
- Give to get – we need to ensure that we are giving our donors something – whether it be a theatrical experience or laughter – before we can expect to get anything. What we give has to be valuable to our donors if we want something valuable in return. This may vary from donor to donor so as fundraisers it’s our duty to find out what it is they want and then give it to them.
- Make people laugh – ok, this doesn’t have to be so in the strictest sense. But it is important to keep the human and personal touch alive. Comedians can raise money because donors know who they’re giving money to. People give to people, not organisations.
- Prove your worth – a harsh truth is that no-one will donate to an idea. Before asking for money you have to prove that you can already deliver.
If we make something valuable, in whatever form, our audiences will want to donate to make sure it can continue to happen. As fundraising starts to become a normalised practise for all forms or arts, culture and entertainment, making the ask will become easier – as long as we always make a donor feel good. So arts fundraisers – its time to start practising your jokes…