Worthy FR

The Home of The Worthy Way of Fundraising

Bristol Old Vic £12.95m
Front of House Capital Appeal


An artist's impression of completed work


In 2008 Bristol Old Vic embarked on a £25 million restoration and redevelopment of the Grade 1 listed theatre complex. Fundraising for Stage 1, the restoration of the auditorium, had gone well and the restoration was completed in 2012 both on time and within budget.

Attracting funding for Stage 2, the demolition and redevelopment of the largely 1970’s front of house, had not proved so easy however and by late 2014 the project was in danger of grinding to a halt, which was when Artistic Director, Tom Morris and Chief Executive, Emma Stenning, asked if we could help.

Upon investigation we learned that the primary approach to date had been to ask the major trusts that had provided the bulk of the £12 million Stage 1 funding, if they would now fund Stage 2, the answer to which was, for the main part, negative.

Upon examination, it was also quickly apparent to us that the HLF bid that had been recently submitted was, for a number of reasons, unlikely to be successful.

Plus there had been no significant HNW giving in the previous year or so. Indeed there appeared to have been little in the way of ‘asks’.

Not good.

And with the final deadline June 30th 2016, potentially terminal.


However it soon became apparent to us that all was not lost as a number of positives quickly emerged from our initial talks…

  • 2016 would mark the 250th anniversary of what was, we were told, the oldest working theatre in the English speaking world.
  • It had a rich theatrical history encompassing some of the most famous names in theatre history.
  • The theatre had been founded by 50 Bristol merchants each of whom had been given a ‘silver ticket’ – ‘a round job, the size of an old penny’ as Peter O’Toole described his most treasured possession – granting them free admission in perpetuity.
  • As creator of the stage version of Michael Morpurgo’s War Horse, Tom was much in demand both in the UK and in New York where it had played on Broadway for several years.
  • This was about so much more than the theatre. It was bigger than that it was about Bristol, about its place in the world, about its aspirations to be a great city, to be European Capital of Culture in 2023, about how it saw itself and critically, about what the ‘great and the good’, the ‘movers and shakers’ were going to do about it? Starting by making it happen and donating to the appeal.

The Campaign

Our view was that to persuade Trusts to provide further funding we first had to demonstrate that the campaign had the support of the people of Bristol and further afield. To achieve this we set an individual giving target of between £2-3 million. Our assessment that the campaign was about more than the theatre, was important in forming our view of the likely strength of support. Meantime trust applications were put on hold; we would go back to them only if and when we were in a position to ask for closing gifts. Achieving the £2-3 million individual giving target was therefore critical. Fail and the campaign would fail. A fact we made clear to Tom & Emma. Important that everyone knows the score. No false hopes or promises. But we had no intention of failing. Not only that, we were going to have fun, something we are great believers in: putting the fun in fundraising.

The Silver Tickets

So how would we raise a minimum of £2 million and a target of £3m? And, as always, one has to begin by seeing things from the donor’s point of view, ‘What’s in it for them?

The 1766 silver tickets gave us an idea: why not mint a new set of 2016 250th anniversary ones, these to be identical to the originals save for the date. The originals came with the right of free admission in perpetuity, perhaps we could offer the same?

Phased Payments

A figure of £50,000 each would raise £2.5m if we could find homes for 50 tickets. Our experience told us this would be hard unless we made it as easy as possible to donate. We therefore proposed that donors could subscribe over a period of up to 5 years. There was some client resistance to this but given the building works would not be completed for 3 years we were insistent and it was agreed.

This was a key decision. Had the client refused, the campaign would almost certainly have failed. It was the key decision and from the moment it was agreed, there was a belief we would find homes for all 50.

Donor Tax Benefits – Income and Capital Gains Tax Deductions

We also produced a document setting out clearly and simply, the tax advantages to donors. You cannot run a successful campaign unless these benefits are fully understood by all concerned. With income tax relief of up to 45% reducing the net cost of a £50,000 donation to £27500/£5500 pa and with gifts of shares being CGT free, this offering a potential 28% CGT saving (2015) on top of the income tax saving, this proved to be a popular way of making the gift (in a couple of cases the combined income and CGT savings resulted in a net cost to the donor of about £20,000, a 60% saving.) This is something that is not fully understood by many fundraisers and donors. Many ‘sophisticated ‘HNW donors are hazy or unaware of these benefits.

The combined effect of phased payments and tax reliefs was to make it as painless as possible for donors to give and all 50 were sold, the majority in the local area. The average giving period was about 2 years.

The Gold Tickets

Being responsive, listening to what prospective donors are telling us – and not telling us - is often key to unlocking major donations. As is being quick on your feet.

Having listened to our silver ticket presentation, one of our New York based donors response was, ‘Dontcha have any gold ones?’ Literally what he said. The answer to which was "No", but the response to which was "Yes", they’re £100,000 and there are only 5 of them, and a few months later with 5 sold, there was our £3 million.

And that is the power of a good story - it can cross continents.

The Attraction of Creativity

The relationship between creative genius and those with money is a long and distinguished one and when fundraising on behalf of the Arts, donor access to the ‘creatives’ is key and the more eminent the Artistic Director or performers, the greater their ‘value’. As the creator of the stage version of War Horse Tom’s ‘value’ was considerable - everyone wanted a piece of Tom - which was why his willingness to make himself available was key to our decision to take on the campaign. It was the first question we asked. Had the answer been negative it is unlikely we would have taken on the campaign and highly unlikely we would have succeeded if we had. Emma’s role was critical too. Indeed it is difficult to recall a successful campaign that did not involve our working closely with the Chief Executive with the involvement of the Artistic Director as required. As we said to Tom & Emma, ‘Success will be your success, failure will be ours’.

We quickly agreed with Tom that there would be regular Wednesday morning 0800 breakfasts to which we would invite prospective silver ticket subscribers. The format would be Tom, Alan Moore and no more than two and preferably a single donor/donor couple.

From the start, these went well, very well. In selecting our guests we noticed when examining the donor records that there were twenty or so who had ‘bought’ an auditorium seat for £5000, a large sum when seats normally go for £250-1000. To our mind this indicated both strong support and deep pockets. Identifying these potential major donors on the back of their previous giving seemed obvious to us but plainly had not been obvious to our predecessors.

And so it proved with a dozen or so breakfast guests quickly signing up. We were on our way.

To complement this invitations were sent to Bristol’s ‘great and good’ inviting them to an ‘Evening with Tom’ – this to consist of a pre-show supper during which Tom would talk about both the show they were about to see and the campaign, followed by a post-show backstage get together. Numbers were no more than five couples max. Again the results were very good.

We were aided in all this by Deputy Chair, Denis Burn who not only drew up the list of invitees but led the way by subscribing for a silver ticket along with Chair, Liz Forgan.

While it is possible to run a successful campaign with little or no input from Trustees, (We once ran a very successful and for the client, groundbreaking appeal despite the opposition of the Board who chose to believe that no one would donate at the levels we were suggesting were possible [£25,000 and above] and contributed not a penny themselves). It is certainly much easier if they are supportive both as donors and in being prepared to do whatever is reasonably asked of them. And there are major donors who will not donate unless the Trustees have shown their willingness to do likewise.

We are not great fans of fundraising committees, preferring to work with individual trustees and supporters as needed. These committees can work of course but usually only when they lead by example, asking people to follow their lead as donors, rather than do what they are not prepared to do themselves.

US Fundraising

In 2012-13 BOV had twice toured the US with A Midsummer Night’s Dream and on the back of this, fundraising efforts had been made but had come to nothing and our attempts to rekindle the interest of those involved quickly told us that the moment had passed.

We therefore decided to take a different approach. With War Horse having enjoyed great success in New York and Tom having directed The Death of Klinghoffer at the Metropolitan Opera in late 2014, we decided to again centre our efforts on Tom.

Given it was from Bristol in 1497 that John Cabot set sail on his voyage that led to his ‘discovery’ of North America - and that America was quite possibly named after Richard Amerkye, Bristol Customs Officer at the time – we also decided produce a 500 year history of the many links between Bristol and New York, a booklet entitled, Our History is Your History, with the theatre making an appearance in 1766. Story-telling again. Turned out to be critical not only for the story it told but for the appreciation by US donors of the effort made.

In June 2015 Tom and Alan Moore flew to NY, met with half a dozen or so assorted millionaires and billionaires and returned with five silver tickets sold and the promise of a lot more to come. Meeting with one of the donors in her jewellery shop – one where if you have to ask the price you very definitely can’t afford it – and assessing her as the generous and warm-hearted woman that she is, Alan asked her if she would consider making the silver tickets, to which she replied, ‘It would be a privilege’. This was a spur of the moment decision based on his assessment of her body language. She also made the gold ones ,again as a donation. And so another chapter was added to the Our History is Your History narrative.

Alan returned several more times, each time returning not only with further generous donations, but the increasing involvement of the donors in the BOV story, this confirmed by the subsequent visits to the theatre of the US donors. Of course, Alan persuading NY based and BOV alumnus, the notoriously reclusive, Sir Daniel Day Lewis to meet with the lead donor was helpful.

As for the mechanics of transferring US donations to the UK there is nothing inherently complicated about this, but it is critical it is done in a way that does not jeopardise the US tax benefits to which the donors are entitled, nor risk any problems with the IRS.

There is no doubt that fundraising in the US is ‘easier’ than in the UK. The philanthropic impulse is deeply ingrained in the rich, they are used to being asked and are quick to respond with a yes or no. However you have to have something of real interest to them, something exceptional, and you have to be ‘at home’, not overwhelmed, by multi-million dollar apartments and estates ,huge wealth and straight talking. This suggests that age, maturity and a degree of personal wealth or a familiarity with wealth, are useful attributes when it comes to successful major donor fundraising. They expect to be ‘sold to’, not taken for granted. And if you’ve a story to tell, it had better be a good one.

250th Anniversary

People like anniversaries. From a fundraising perspective, they are pure gold. But you have to be realistic about the appeal of the particular anniversary, you have to be able to build a compelling narrative around it and you have to do all you can to make the most of it.

The average life-span of 18C theatres was less than 20 years. They burnt down or went out of business with monotonous regularity. Add to that the Bristol Blitz and for BOV to be still standing and prospering is little short of a miracle. It is the oldest working theatre in the English speaking world. It is also exquisitely beautiful. And in early 2015 with its 250th anniversary looming in 2016, an event of national and international significance, it was to our minds surprising it was barely getting a mention on the BOV website.

How about a countdown?, we suggested. And its own microsite? This was quickly set up as BOV250 and played a big part in both informing and motivating donors. And what of the programme itself? From a fundraising perspective, it was essential it was a stellar one, c/w stellar names. People would expect no less. We live in an age of celebrity and that’s what people would want. The history of BOV since the 1950’s was the history of British theatre with almost every famous name either starting or appearing there, with triple Best Actor, Oscar winner Sir Daniel Day Lewis and Best Actor, Oscar winner, Jeremy Irons recent examples of world famous alumni. In short, while the 250th anniversary season would be Tom’s creation, the fundraising needs demanded stellar shows and stellar names. Hence Jeremy Irons returning to the stage accompanied by Lesley Manville in Long Day’s Journey into Night; hence Timothy West in Macbeth; hence a star-studded 250th anniversary gala with the late Tim Piggot Smith , Nick Mason of Pink Floyd, Susan George, Tony Robinson, ………… and last but not least an appearance by Joey from War Horse.

And £250,000 pledged on the night.

Trusts & Foundations

By the autumn of 2016, with the likelihood of all 50 silver and 5 gold ‘tickets’ being finding homes, the time had come to re-approach the trusts and foundations.

Looking at the annual T&F decision time-table, essential to any efficient fundraising operation, it was noted that first up would be a major trust with a liking for being the lead trust, the one the others followed. A phone call indicated that they were happy to accept an application for a closing gift of £250,000.

Next reading the files Alan noted in a letter of rejection from a major trust, a passing reference to there ‘being some disappointment regarding recognition in respect of donations to date.’ These totalled £950,000. He had an idea. The basic cost of the new 200 seat studio theatre being created as part of the FOH redevelopment was c.£1.45million. He knew the Director well. He picked up the phone. Tell me about your disappointment ? he said. Time and again turning a negative into a positive results in major donations. Mainly this involves listening, giving the would be donor the chance to voice their grievance. And the more passionate they are, the better :it shows they care. Forty minutes later he had his £500,000 and the new studio had a name.

Further major gifts were quickly secured.

Closing the Appeal

With 72 hours to go to the June 30th 2016 deadline we were staring failure in the face: we were £300,000 or so, short. Not enough to derail the project perhaps, but still a failure.

So where do you go, who do you ask, when in need? Answer: your existing donors. Once a donor, always a donor. And the big gifts are rarely the first. So, an updating email was sent. And a heroic response was received. From a relatively unexpected source. A silver ticketer, yes; New York based, yes – but someone who was a ‘creative’ rather than ‘Master of the Universe’. Turned out there was a family trust. Not a big one, but he thought perhaps, at a stretch, they just might be able to help. Keep him informed. On holiday on a Greek island. Text best.

So the countdown began and continued until approaching the close of business on the 29th. £189,000 the final text of the day announced. And by return: ‘You got it’.

And, after 18 months and with a day to spare, we had done it. A campaign that was dead in the water had been brought back to life and the result would be a glorious new chapter in the life of the oldest and most beautiful theatre in the English speaking world.