Case Study: Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park

Case Study: Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park

Number of annual fund gifts up 51%, revenue up 28%

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The Situation:

By the end of the 2011-2012 season, Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park had been slowly losing audiences for the last seven years. Although revenue had grown by 12%, admissions were down 18%.  

Believing patrons preferred more flexibility than a fixed seat subscription package offers, the Playhouse had expanded their focus on selling more Build Your Own (BYO) subscriptions and prospecting for new single ticket buyers. The BYO subscriptions were popular, but subscribers renewed at much lower rates. Total subscription units had dropped 30% since the 2008-09 season.

In turn, subscription declines had diminished the number of patrons likely to give to the annual fund. Declines in loyalty contributed to a 21% decline in donors who gave under $2,500 over the last five years. Although overall annual fund revenue was only down 1.7%, overall donor households had declined by 19%.

The Playhouse hired TRG Arts for a full suite consultancy in December 2012, to reverse these declines. TRG’s initial analysis pinpointed retention as a main source of declines among single ticket buyers, subscribers, and donors. In each category, the number of patrons becoming donors or subscribers couldn’t keep pace with the large number who lapsed each year. TRG urged the Playhouse to turn inward to revive audience volume and revenue. 

The Playhouse and TRG started a comprehensive reform of retention and loyalty practices. One of the most immediate needs was campaign planning for the annual fund. A few factors were holding the Playhouse back:


The Doctor (Michael Marotta) and Rosemary Clooney
(Susan Haefner) share a musical memory in the
Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park’s production of Tenderly:
The Rosemary Clooney Musical
Photo by Sandy Underwood.

ArtsWave, Cincinnati’s united arts fund, provides the Playhouse with significant support. ArtsWave campaigns on behalf of all the arts organizations in the community from February through mid-April. Arts organizations in the community have solicitation “blackout dates,” which enables the success of the larger campaign. At the Playhouse, the annual fund tended to lose momentum after the ArtsWave blackout, even with the fiscal year ending in June. The Playhouse needed more aggressive annual fund campaigns earlier in the season to front-load their donations.

New Donors

New donor acquisition was targeted at subscribers and single ticket buyers through two mailings a year. Segmentation in these campaigns was not always consistent, and revenue from each segment did not always give the Playhouse a positive return on investment.

Existing Donors

Large number of donors lapsed each year in both the new
 and existing categories. The Playhouse couldn’t make up
for these numbers with new donors.

The Playhouse had two major pushes in its annual fund renewal program, one in the fall and one in the spring. This had worked well in the past, as the timing created urgency and avoided the blackout dates. Donors typically received four or five renewal mailings, with the first timed around when they’d given their gift. 

Additionally, the Playhouse had been missing a large segment of renewing donors in the subscription renewal campaign. Each year, the Playhouse solicits gifts through subscription renewals. The Playhouse did not count these gifts in their annual fund goal. Subscribers who had donated through their renewal got a thank you note, but the Playhouse did not include those patrons in their list of annual fund donors going forward. These donors were asked to donate again on their renewal form the next year, but they never got another ask.

The Results

By February 2014, Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park had surpassed their goals for both revenue and number of gifts for the 2013-14 season. The Playhouse closely monitored the campaign and increased the goals twice. They surpassed the original $362,165 goal by 21%. 

By the end of the fiscal year, the number of annual fund gifts had increased 51% over the previous year. The number of donors had rebounded and now exceeded 2007-08 levels. In total, annual fund revenue had grown 28%. 

Gift numbers grew at every giving level under $2,500. Gifts between $10 and $49 grew the most, nearly tripling from 2012-13.

How they did it:

In August 2013, the Playhouse launched a new annual fund campaign, focusing on making the right ask to the right patrons at the right time.

New donors: Most likely to give, early and often

The Playhouse started the annual fund acquisition campaign earlier in the year, before the season began. This boosted revenue early on in the campaign. In addition to starting early, the Playhouse also appealed to new donor prospects more often. They expanded the total number of acquisition mailings from two to five throughout the fiscal year. They also started to consistently segment each campaign, using response reports to determine segmentation year-to-year.

“We no longer solicit single ticket buyers because the response reporting told us it returned negative net revenue,” Development Director Patty Rosely said.

In December and January, the Playhouse tried telefunding for the first time. Previously, they had integrated asks with the outbound telemarketing calls for subscription, with more limited success from this channel in the last five to seven years. There was no expectation of what the ROI could be. Due to the large number of subscriber-non-donors, they focused on acquisition, a unique challenge for the telefunding company. The December/January telefunding campaign resulted in 295 gifts and $26,031 in gross revenue, largely from new donors.

Ask Subscribers to Step Up

Addison (LeRoy McClain, left) clashes with his brother Frank
(Shane Taylor) over their family’s future as their aunt
Dorcas (Stephanie Berry) intervenes in the Cincinnati
Playhouse in the Park’s world premiere production of
  Safe House by playwright and Cincinnati native Keith
Josef Adkins. Photo by Sandy Underwood.

TRG encouraged the Playhouse to continue asking subscribers to donate even after they’d been asked on their renewal form. The Playhouse implemented a Super Subscriber program. This program asked subscribers for a small donation, touting the benefits of being a subscriber-donor. While the program didn’t attract very many brand new donors, it was successful in upgrading lower level donors to the $125 mark. An additional Super Subscriber ask was implemented during the subscription renewal campaign, which was more successful, yielding $29,116, 25% more than budgeted.

Love the ones you’re with: retention of current and lapsed donors

Traditionally, the Playhouse had solicited existing and lapsed donors in September through the end of the calendar year and again at the end of the fiscal year. The timing worked well for them and TRG encouraged them to make it even bigger. The Playhouse secured a match to encourage new and upgrade gifts, which was successfully leveraged throughout the year.

“One of the goals of our strategic plan is to expand the number of patrons who are donating to the Playhouse,” noted Managing Director Buzz Ward. “As we reverse the number of declining subscriptions and begin to see renewed growth, TRG is helping us be strategically aggressive in expanding our donor base. Our marketing and development teams are working in a more integrated manner, and we are seeing patron retention improve and patron-generated revenues grow.”

Leading Ladies

The Playhouse also got creative with donors giving at higher levels. Beyond the work the development team did with TRG, they created the Leading Ladies campaign. The campaign targeted new donors as well as upgrading existing donors to gifts between $500 and $1,500. The campaign raised $61,000 from 91 donors, who are now more deeply invested in the Playhouse’s work through the additional “behind-the-scenes” benefits the Playhouse offered these Leading Ladies. The program nearly doubled the number of gifts in this giving range.

About Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park

Nestled on a hill in beautiful Eden Park and commanding a superb view of downtown Cincinnati, the Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park has been offering audiences the finest in professional theatre for more than 50 years. With an annual budget of $10.6 million, the Playhouse produces ten plays each season on two stages, along with an annual production of A Christmas Carol. The Playhouse is nationally known for its excellence and commitment to new works and as an artistic home for America's best actors, directors and designers. More on Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park at

Posted February 23, 2015

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