Theatre Critic and Journalist

Tomorrow’s Philanthropists

Tomorrow’s Philanthropists

Published in The Stage, 20.11.2014

Close your eyes and picture a philanthropist. Now, how old are they? Chances are, well, not that young. Weirdly, my imaginary philanthropist always comes out as a whiskery, old Victorian man, but that’s by the by…

Actually, your image isn’t far wrong – and it’s something that theatres are trying to shift. In April, the Royal Court launched a new supporters scheme called Future Court, which is open to non-Victorians between the ages of 18 and 40. It joins the National Theatre’s Young Patrons Scheme, which turned five this year, and is aimed at the under-45s.

These schemes aren’t about access, about getting young people with a penchant for video games and cheap cider into a proper art-form like the theatre. The NT has its Entry Pass scheme for that, providing a limited number of £5 tickets to members aged between 16 and 25 for each show.

Instead, these young patrons schemes are about development. They set out to increase philanthropy, identifying and enabling a new generation of supporters and bringing them into a particular organisation. It makes perfect sense, for a number of reasons, and yet, there are still only a few such schemes in existence. Sadler’s Wells has the Roseberry Group for those under 45. English National Opera launched theirs in 2008. Otherwise, as far as I can find: nothing. Nothing at the Donmar or the Almeida, for example; nothing at the RSC.

A quick look across the world of visual art, though, shows a completely different picture. The Tate, the Serpentine Gallery and the Parasol Unit all have well-established schemes. The Photographers’ Gallery and the Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA) joined them last year, as did the Royal Academy.

Age has a big effect on charitable giving, even where the sums are quite small. Research by the Charities Aid Foundation consistently shows that the over-65s are significantly more likely to donate to a good cause in any given month, as those under-24. Almost two out of three of the over 65s give charitably in a typical month, compared with two out of five of the latter group.

Take into account the amount given and that gap only widens. The median monthly amount rises from £4 or £8 (depending on gender) amongst the youngest demographic to £14/15 amongst the oldest.

Given that theatre patron schemes are significantly more expensive than that, a wider age-related discrepancy seems far more likely. At ENO, the average age of supporters is over 65. For the National, it’s upwards of 55, with 60-70 identified as the key demographic.

However, with the government keen to foster a culture of philanthropy, those numbers start to look conspicuously high. Tapping into younger donors will be a crucial strategy in increasing the cultural sector’s fundraising potential. The very first step is to change philanthropy’s public image, the one that makes you conjure an OAP – old-age philanthropist – to mind, and me, a sideburned 19th Century gentleman.

So, how valuable is young philanthropy? At the moment, the honest answer is: not hugely. The National Theatre has more than 300 members on its Young Patrons Scheme. Members pay between £100 and £1000 per year, with several tiers in between. Last year, the scheme bought in £70,000, with the number of top-level members reaching 19. To put that figure in context, however, the overall amount raised through individual giving last year was 3.3 million. ENO, meanwhile, have only 75 members on their scheme: 58 Solo Patrons at £60 a year, and 17 Associate Patrons at £180 a year.

Of course, the financial impact of such schemes doesn’t stop with membership fees alone. A number of exclusive events cost extra to attend and intend to get patrons giving on the night. In September, the National held its first Young Patrons gala evening, called Bright Young Things, at which a table of 10 cost £3,500. The event raised a total of £100,000 on the night. True, a fraction of the £1 million raised at the comparable ‘grown-up’ gala, but hardly a figure to be sniffed at. Think how many one-man shows in the Shed that buys…

However, the immediate financial boon isn’t the primary objective here. Young Patrons schemes are more concerned with long-term prospects. Dominique Trotter, the National’s Individual Giving Manager, explains: “The idea is that we can graduate people up the ladder as they get closer to us [as an organisation], so that they can experience more of the National Theatre and so that one day, they are the future major supporters of the charity.” In other words: young patrons grow up. It’s about starting a relationship as early as possible, hooking them into a pattern of giving or – to use the official lingo – “introducing people to their philanthropic journey.”

“People are making decisions bout their giving younger now,” Trotter continues. The stats back her up – at least in some respects. In 2012, a worldwide Charities Aid Foundation survey of philanthropists found that those under 30 gave, on average, more per person than those over 45: £6409 to £4640 respectively. What’s more a third of those young donors felt that giving time and expertise, getting involved with their chosen charities was an important element of philanthropy, compared with only 10% of the over-45s.

But, and this is the key, young donors make decisions according to different factors. It’s no good lumping every donor together. Disposable income is entirely different, as, indeed, is disposable time. Tastes change, as do the things one is looking to gain through patronage, often social networking opportunities, crucially, with one’s peers.

There’s no point denying that patronage is, at least partly, transactional and benefit-driven. The Royal Court, for example, lists the monetary value of tangible benefits alongside the cost of different membership levels. The National very deliberately aims to make patronage accessible. Membership starts at £100 per year, rising in incremental amounts up to £1000. (Compare that to the RSC, where membership starts at £1000 and extends to £5000. At the Royal Opera House, it’s £5,500 to – cough, splutter, what? – £43,000.)

Furthermore, its Young Patron events have a completely different tone to comparable senior dos, often continuing until two or three in the morning. What’s more, the organisation will get its younger artists take the lead with fundraising. Playwright James Graham and actor John Heffernan sat on the Bright Young Things committee, while the evening’s entertainment included a new piece for headphones by Michaela Coel, a DJ-set by Rob da Banks and Lyndsey Turner directing Kit Harrington and Kate O’Flynn. What’s doubly smart about that is that it means young donors are directly supporting young artists – a relationship that could, in theory, continue for a long time.

However, if the benefits are long-term and young patrons schemes aren’t immediately (or significantly) profitable, it presents a problem. These schemes and associated events involve a significant outlay upfront, so only certain – large-scale – organisations will have the means to manage such schemes. That means, as is so often the case, the biggest organisations – already best equipped to solicit philanthropy – steal a march on smaller ones. That could present real problems in the future.

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