Sean Byrne, seen from the torso up standing in a hallway, facing forward and smiling.

Development Manager, Imagination Stage

Making the ask accessible


7 min

How do you successfully engage busy donors

when they are working full-time jobs, dropping children off at rehearsal, then turning around to pick up other children somewhere else, grabbing groceries, maintaining a home, all while trying to stay on top of a budget in a rising-cost world?

We found the answer to be surprisingly simple: You make the ask accessible.

As a theatre for young audiences, Imagination Stage offers professional theatre and arts education programs aimed at families with children ages 1–18. Before COVID-19 we welcomed an average of 100,000 audience members to these programs each year. But in 2018, even though our audiences remained strong, we saw a 20% decrease in our year-end fundraising. The numbers weren’t adding up and it became clear something was stopping our families from converting from theatre and education participants to active donors.

An actress leans her face close to a large, intricate puppet of a lion operated by three people

The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. Photo by Margot Shulman

We talked to local Tessitura user groups and theatres and discovered that some level of contributed income loss was common. We also learned that Woolly Mammoth Theatre in Washington, DC became an outlier to this trend after they performed an in-person campaign that offset the loss. Generously, their Development Operations Manager engaged with me about their success and after talking with them, I felt hopeful.

To reach our family audience, Imagination Stage needed an effortless yet meaningful way for these busy patrons to donate.

I realized that to reach our family audience, Imagination Stage needed an effortless yet meaningful way for these busy patrons to donate. We needed a way for patrons to give a gift, well, instantly. And so I developed some ideas for an in-person campaign, and soon the Imagination Stage “Instagift” was created.

Our solution was to convert a simple ticket stub into an actionable donation. The stub became the perfect vehicle because it already included the patron’s Tessitura ID and was linked to the account where the patron made their credit card purchase online. Plus, everyone had their ticket stub with them at the end of the show. We started with the stub representing $20.19 for the year 2019, and later $40 to represent Imagination Stage’s 40th anniversary.

This was the first ticket printed to demonstrate where the patron’s Tessitura ID number could be incorporated onto the ticket. Staff would then use this ID number to look up the patron in Tessitura and make the donation.

The first ticket printed to demonstrate where the customer’s Tessitura ID number could be incorporated. Staff would then use this ID number to look up the customer in Tessitura and process the donation.

The strategy was also simple to execute: our actors volunteered to read a brief script after their bows. It read: "If you enjoyed the show, drop your ticket in the box and we'll charge a $20.19 donation to your card on file." Simple. Patrons could choose to drop a ticket stub in a box outside the theatre, self-identifying themselves as donors, and Imagination Stage staff took care of the rest.

The breakthrough success spoke for itself:

  • The $20.19 Instagift campaign raised $5,528 during our summer show, representing a 50% increase of funds normally raised in a summer campaign.
  • The $40 Instagift campaign raised $7,623 during our holiday show, representing a 20% increase of funds normally raised in a holiday campaign.
  • Overall, the campaign brought in 460 donors. A high majority (94%) of those donors, 436, were new donors or those who hadn't given in the past two years.
  • Almost half the Instagift donors gave repeatedly, show after show.

The $20.19 Instagift campaign represented a 50% increase of funds normally raised in a summer campaign. 94% of donors were new or hadn’t given in the past two years.

Our low entry amount and simple one-step process were keys to the success. We made the ask accessible in both donation level and method. Nine times out of ten the next communication from us was in their contribution acknowledgement 48 hours later. If a patron’s credit card was declined or they had purchased tickets with cash, we reached out to them via their contact information stored in Tessitura. Super simple for our donors, and super simple for us.

An ad reading in part,

An ad that appeared in the program for The Ballad of Mu Lan. The ad emphasized easy-to-understand language and simple phrasing.

Breaking it down, here are the other factors that contributed to our success:

1. Efficient turnaround

Once the patron dropped their ticket stub in the box, we always processed the gift within 24 hours and sent an email communication acknowledging the donor within 48 hours. With most patrons utilizing our Tessitura e-commerce site to buy tickets online, their most recent purchase in Tessitura provided us their preferred credit card. Running a simple report (the Fund Activity Report) and printing the batch details provided us a cross-check on our entries so that no patron was charged twice.

2. Advertising

Since the ask was simple, we needed the message to be equally so. We took steps to guarantee our messaging was consistent, could be understood in just a few sentences, and advertised it on social media, in WordFly emails, and in our building and theatre.

3. Sufficient tracking

By assigning a unique source code to the gift, staff could compare engagement amongst the Instagift asks and against traditional campaigns in a Tessitura Analytics dashboard. For example, the $20.19 ask brought in almost twice as many donors as the $40 ask, and yet the $40 ask saw 30% better financial success. And in comparison to our FY20 annual campaign, the Instagift campaign brought in 140 new donors through one source compared to 344 new members over 23 different sources — proving that theatre productions were a highly efficient way to engage new members.

4. Follow-up engagement

With the source code, staff used Tessitura's WordFly email integration to engage Instagift patrons with accessible offers at a similar price point. These offers included a family scavenger hunt, entry-level subscriptions, and matching donation opportunities.

By making the ask accessible, we showed our families that every gift was meaningful, and that every family could make an impact.

An actor in a red hooded costume and long white fake beard, facing left and speaking.

An actor from The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe reading the Instagift script to the audience

All of this combined led the Instagift to be a hugely successful new individual giving initiative for Imagination Stage. By making the ask accessible, we showed our families that every gift was meaningful, and that every family could make an impact — even with just $20.19.

Tessitura’s tools made for a streamlined process: we spent no more than four hours a week processing gifts and acknowledging donors. This made the Instagift ROI very attractive, and I feel confident we will continue it moving forward. My next benchmark is to keep these Instagift donors engaged, and once again I’ll be turning to our Tessitura community for ideas.

Your patrons care about your organization and mission, but sometimes they may just be too busy to take action on it. I encourage every charitable organization to make your ask accessible. I hope that just like us, you see a wave of new philanthropy and new donors you hadn’t yet reached before.

Top photo: Imagination Stage, Lerner Theatre. All images courtesy of Imagination Stage.


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