Ballet Business | the business of fundraising
“It’s my dream. There’s nothing else I want to do.” I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard that. Dreams are vital and if you’ve got to the stage where you need to be thinking about fundraising – well done! The transition of dream to reality begins here. Most people know of someone who had to give up their dream of vocational training because they couldn’t get funding and their family couldn’t afford the fees without it. It’s sad, of course, though at the same time it’s helpful to look at the facts and take a balanced approach.
I can’t help everyone who contacts me directly, and Ballet News is running its own fundraising campaign at the moment. I know how difficult fundraising can be, but at the same time I’ve been swept away by the generosity of readers whom I don’t know but who have wanted to help me fulfil my dream on Ballet News. Northern Ballet recently ran a successful Sponsor a Dancer campaign following the cuts to funding, and were the subject of a documentary called Arts Troubleshooter on BBC Two when CEO Mark Skipper acknowledged that fundraising can sometimes feel like begging. So it can be done ! It’s just a question of having a clear, realistic vision and working very hard to make it happen.
At The Royal Ballet School in England, they have a stated policy of never turning away a talented student because of finance. 96% of students there receive some form of financial assistance. Ballet is tough, and it could be argued that it’s too tough if a student doesn’t have the necessary physical and mental attributes to begin with.
I’ve said before that if the ballet industry were a shape, it would be a pyramid, with high numbers of ballet students gradually thinning out until a tiny, tiny few hit the top level of Principal dancer.
You only have to consider the average numbers at The Royal Ballet School for an example of how difficult it is if your dream is to be a professional ballet dancer : Every year, approximately 1000 students audition for White Lodge, the lower school; 24 are accepted. Roughly 50% (sometimes fewer) will go on to the Upper School in Covent Garden and of those, 2 or 3 students will make it into The Royal Ballet company (though for the past few years every graduate has been offered a contract with a ballet company somewhere in the world).
I’m not suggesting that everyone wants to get into The Royal Ballet school/company or to be a Principal dancer, but even so the sheer number of students who do, or who are in training, makes every level a fiercely competitive one and that affects the chances of success, so it makes sense to review your chances realistically at the start. How can you do that ? Most advice points towards talking to your ballet teacher, who is best placed to advise on your suitability to audition for various vocational schools, so that’s a great place to start. And listen to that advice, please!
Here’s something important to think about. At audition, as well as looking at a range of other factors, vocational ballet schools take into account a students projected ability to cope with the pressure of a competitive atmosphere & regular assessments, and one of the ways they can do that is to consider how much the student wants to get into the school. Believe it or not, it is possible to want it too much; to be too eager.
How to raise funds ?
It’s a subject that crops up regularly in my mail and I’m sure I’m not the only journalist to say that! Ballet students sometimes need to pay for all or part of their fees at vocational school. There is help available; in the UK there are Dance and Drama Awards (DaDa’s) which are available from 21 private dance and drama schools in England for over 16’s (for a dance course) which is given regardless of household income but you do need to make a personal contribution, currently for the 2011/12 academic year it’s £1,275, and a Music and Dance Scheme for under 16’s. There is extra help available depending on your circumstances so I’m not going to go into detail about the schemes here. You can check the Directgov website for qualifying details.
You can also raise funds by launching a project on kickstarter – which has recently expanded to the UK and is the largest platform for crowd sourcing funds. You’ll need plenty of material before you start – photos and crucially, a video, and you need to work out what to offer people who pledge money to your project. For example, you might offer a limited edition photo, or an early copy of the finished film, or whatever it is you are raising money for. Make it specific and make it stand out – there are thousands and thousands of people who want to train to do ballet and need help with the funds for that. You need to find a unique angle and raise money for a specific cause – pointe shoes, competitions, costumes etc and not just ‘I need to fund my training for the next 5 years’ because that’s harder for people to buy into. A specific goal supported with great media is the way to be a successful crowd sourced fundraiser.
So what can you do ?
Quite a lot, and be prepared that it will take your time and concentrated effort over a long time. If you don’t have the time, or don’t want to make the effort, stop reading now, because fundraising is not easy or quick.
The first thing to really think about is your own story – what sets you apart from other students who love ballet too ? While I’m asking you to come up with your compelling personal story, please remember to keep it businesslike too. You’re aiming for a balance between what makes you, well - you, and what makes a good news story that is relevant to today and angled towards the readers of a particular publication : a blanket approach here won’t win you any friends, it’s a small world. It can be very difficult to achieve when you’re so close to the story so ask someone objective to look at what you’ve written.
In PR terms I’d call it an elevator pitch – sell yourself the best you can in 2 minutes and at the same time, include the benefits for your reader. If you’re really prepared then you’ll also have an escalator speech, which is a longer version of what you’ve just compiled – 5 short paragraphs - concentrating again on benefits, and not features, because people want to hear about things that help them, hence this article.
When you’ve got something together, here’s a list of my suggestions :
The first thing to do is to write a blog, as this is the central hub around which everything else will orbit. wordpress.com is the best place to start and it’s free. Don’t go to wordpress.org and self-host unless you are technical and are willing and able to pay for the hosting yourself. Come up with a great, original title for your blog and visit wordpress.com to see what sort of themes are on offer for your design. During the process of working out your USP – what’s unique about your story – you will hopefully have thought of a great name for your blog that really sums up YOU. You still need to do some research, because however original the name sounds to you, it is likely that someone else has thought of it too and is already using it – and that can cause you problems. Have a plan – map it out so that you have all bases covered before you do anything. It’s a lot easier to back-track during the planning process than it is to correct a mistake during set-up. Just because you’re setting up a personal blog doesn’t mean you shouldn’t thoroughly plan and research before you do anything. This is a long-term project and not something you can do properly with minimal time or input. You need to write engagingly and you should write a post for your blog very regularly -readers don’t like it when bloggers go quiet for ages; it’s better to set yourself a timetable and stick to it. Write a few posts before you set anything up and keep them as spares that you can schedule in when you are too busy to write something new – you will have weeks when you don’t have time, but you still can’t let the blog slip. Once a week is the least you should aim for – more often is better. You’ll only have followers if you regularly publish engaging content and know how to share it effectively. Read this book to help you understand search engine optimisation as it relates to WordPress.
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If you take your own photos – and I do urge you to use lots – protect them online with a watermark. The watermark should promote the name of your blog rather than your name. You can do this yourself with software such as Photoshop Elements (you don’t need to buy the whole Photoshop package so it’s not as expensive).
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You can set out why you need funding as a start. It’s not just about writing though – you’ll spend more time sharing your posts around social media & bookmarking sites if you want to have readers beyond your family and friends, and don’t forget about SEO (search engine optimisation). It’s important that you know the basics but be aware that algorithms change all the time so you’ll need to keep up to date.
A really successful blog could earn you revenue and help with your fundraising – the whole point - so start early !
As far as social media is concerned, as a minimum you should have accounts with Pinterest, Instagram, Stumbleupon, Digg, vimeo, YouTube (see point 2), facebook (a page, not your personal account) & twitter (which can be quite impenetrable to begin with so I recommend reading this book
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which will help you make sense of the basics and get the most out of twitter) though it will depend on the type of content that you can produce. Think about joining LinkedIn if you want to build professional contacts.
You can link all your accounts together so that whatever you post on one, will be automatically spread over them all. Don’t do it. Each platform has a specific audience, so don’t take a blanket approach. It looks like you can’t be bothered to spend time looking at each one, and honing your content accordingly. The same people might follow you over a number of different platforms, so they don’t want to see/read the same content three or four times over. It’s better to take the extra time and tailor content to each, with your blog acting as the main hub, if you want a good following.
Make sure that you put the links to your facebook page, YouTube channel and other social media platforms on your blogs homepage, so that people can see you’re connected.
Don’t show your blog stats publicly unless you have a daily count of thousands; no-one needs to know that stuff.
For more general social media advice I recommend this book
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- Join Amazon, if you haven’t already, and their Associates programme. You can earn money by recommending their products on your blog.
- Sign up for a YouTube account/channel and fill it with fresh, fun content that is as professionally filmed as you can manage (really think about the sound quality here). If you get enough hits, YouTube will invite you to partner with them, and you’ll earn money.
- Sign up for Google Ads. You can put these at the bottom of every post by embedding the code into your blogs template, and if anyone clicks on them you will earn money (as with YouTube – not a great deal unless you have lots of followers, but every little helps). If you have enabled an RSS feed on your blog then make sure Google Ads are enabled on your feeds so that the ads show up there too. Google chooses the ad content, so keep an eye on the ads that are displayed, and tweak the settings accordingly. People don’t like ads, so your aim here is to have an offering that doesn’t impact on your writing but helps with the revenue-building.
- Get some great photographs of yourself (professionally taken if possible) or video footage that is really well shot with good sound (usually recorded separately). You can use this content on your blog and also you’ll need it if you get press interest (yes, they’d take their own but it’s better for you to have your own, properly accurate ballet shots). Think about what sort of photographs you’ll need : a headshot is great for your blog, audition shots have their own use (but once you’re working professionally they are not appropriate) and for press coverage, think about dancing shots (not audition poses) but also portraits. For more advice about photography read my Ballet Business feature on being a media-savvy ballet dancer.
- Set up a crowdsourcing page to raise the money you need. There are a lot of options to choose from including gofundme which is popular at the moment - it’s really up to you. Link the page to your blog.
- Try to attract the local press – get in touch with the news desk and (briefly) tell them your story – but make it newsworthy to them. Consider what the news angle is.
- Visit the Prix de Lausanne and Youth America Grand Prix websites and look at the page where all the supporters/sponsors etc are listed. Visit every single Foundation or Trust and see whether or not you fit their criteria – don’t send a blanket email to them all; that will not work! Do your research first. You need to adopt the personal approach – that’s really important because these people get hundreds of requests. I know I struggle to answer all my emails and the ones that get deleted without being read are the ones where it’s clear that the person hasn’t done any research about who they are contacting.
- There are lots of other Trusts and Foundations you could contact – check the back of your ballet programmes for some inspiration.
- If you get some local press there is a chance that the Mail Online will pick up the story, and if they do then you are likely to attract a lot of interest – both good and bad. Please – be prepared for the fairly horrible comments you might get – it’s not uncommon but certainly not very nice! Don’t take them personally if you do get them; for some people being online seems to mean that they ignore the normal rules of social engagement and basic good manners. On the upside, you might get someone interested in sponsoring you, or paying for your pointe shoes etc, as a result of this publicity.
- With some local press you might also attract the attention of The One Show on the BBC – it’s worth contacting your local tv networks anyway – if you have local tv programmes based on news then aim for them and see if they are interested. The local news programme itself is a good place to start!
- Try your local radio stations. Make sure you’ve listened to them and are familiar with the sort of topics they like to cover, and then make your story attractive to them.
- If you get any press, don’t forget to add it to your blog. Press coverage is one of the things that will set you apart from a lot of ballet students so make sure you ask for a PDF or a podcast or whatever it is, and add it to your blog under a ‘press’ section.
- If you’re taking part in a big event – perhaps Big Dance or the Olympics Opening and Closing ceremonies or the Torch Relay – consider writing a press release and sending it to your local radio and tv stations. You have to write your press release in a recognised format, but take a look at the press releases on Ballet News to give you an idea of what you must include and how to construct it. If you don’t write it properly, chances are no-one will read it, so once again, do your research.
- Here on Ballet News I’m always interested in good stories. The From Student to Star interview series and the Cupcakes & Conversation interview series both promote great dancers and may be options for you - though I would urge caution as I usually invite interviewees. I do get a lot of requests from people who need publicity for various reasons; it doesn’t tend to be a successful route. Your need for publicity isn’t my priority; nor will it be for most news organisations so keep that in mind.
When dealing with the press, remember this : be brief and be memorable. I can tell you that I don’t have time to follow links or read lengthy emails to get to the nub of the story, so make it easy for journalists like me to get your story.
I’m here if you want to ask me any related questions and I have a limited amount of time to act on a consultancy basis, so please do send me your compelling story and I’ll try to help you.
Aim high, don’t give up, and good luck !