Raising funds has been hard for so many charities this year, but it’s been especially hard in the arts and for small charities.
Ensemble Reza is both these things and yet they’ve found ways to not only keep serving their audience (and grow it significantly), they’ve even done remarkably well in fundraising terms too. Responding to the challenges, they’ve actually DOUBLED fundraising income compared to the previous year.
In this episode Rob asked Hannah to share some of the tactics they’ve used to adapt and grow during the pandemic.
This includes starting a You Tube channel from scratch; growing a loyal and broader audience; and using powerful feedback stories in applications for funding.
Ongoing training and inspiration
Free E-book. If you’d like to know powerful strategies to help you raise funds during the pandemic, then do check out my free E-book: Power Through The Pandemic – Seven ways to raise money with major donors, corporates and trusts, even now. You can download it for FREE here: brightspotfundraising.co.uk/power
Are you tired of one-off conference sessions and training days, where any info you learn fades away within a week or two of the event?
One thing Hannah mentions is how helpful she’s found it to be a member of the Bright Spot Members Club since the start of the pandemic. If you’d like to find out more about the training bundles and live weekly coaching sessions that Hannah and the rest of the club get access to, or to try for just a month, go to www.brightspotmembersclub.co.uk/join/
Want training, inspiration and support to increase fundraising income? You can find out more about the Major Gifts Mastery Programme; the Corporate Partnerships Mastery Programme or the Individual Giving Mastery Programme by following these links.
Quote from this episode
‘Building the relationships, rather than generating income, was really the main motivation…We just knew that a lot of our audience would be really isolated.’
Full Transcript of Episode 57
Hello, and welcome to episode 57 of the Fundraising Bright Spots podcast. If you’ve not heard us before, this is the podcast for anyone who works in fundraising, and who wants ideas, and a dose of inspiration, to help you enjoy your job and raise more money, especially during the pandemic. This week, listeners, I was excited to discover that our podcast has now been listened to more than 20,000 times, so thank you so much to everyone who’s been listening and subscribing, and to everyone who’s been sharing these episodes with your colleagues and on social media. I’m so amazed and delighted we’ve been able to grow the show so quickly, and clearly we just couldn’t have done it without your help, so thank you.
Today, if you’d like to hear an encouraging story of a really small charity battling through and triumphing against considerable odds during the pandemic, I think you’re going to find this episode really interesting, not least because the wonderful small organization in question is an arts charity. Today, I’m talking to Hannah Carter, who’s the managing director of Ensemble Reza, which is a small music charity based in Sussex in the South of England. As Hannah has been a member of our Bright Spot Members Club for the past year, while she’s been on this journey, I’ve enjoyed getting to know Hannah a little, and I’ve been really inspired by her energy and her curiosity and her creativity to keep trying new tactics.
As you can imagine, since having to cancel all their events in March 2020, Hannah and her team have had to deal with plenty of challenges since the pandemic began. In finding a way through, they’ve not only doubled the amount of fundraising income they generate compared to the previous year, more importantly, they’ve transformed the impact that they make. So here’s the conversation with Hannah, I hope you enjoy hearing her story as much as I did.
Hannah Carter. How are you?
I’m very well, Rob. How are you?
Yes, really well, thank you, at the end of a long week. And thank you so much, at the end of this long week, for making time to chat to me for the podcast. In a moment, I’d love to get into some of the results, and crucially, some of the tactics you’ve used, but just before we get into that, I need to just set the context and get the name of your charity correct. You’re the managing director of Ensemble Reza. Would you like to say, really top line, a little bit about your charity?
Yeah. Ensemble Reza, we’re a professional string sextet, so that’s six string players, and we’re based in Mid Sussex and we’ve been running for about eight years. The key things that we do really are concerts, all kinds of concerts, family concerts, free lunchtime concerts, evening concerts, school concerts. And then a lot of education work, projects from primary up to sixth form, special needs. And then a lot of community work. We really love our local community, so we’ve been running all types of different kinds of community projects, but most notably our community orchestra, which is… Well, pre-COVID, of course, this is all life before COVID, we had over 120 players of all ages and all abilities, which was a very special thing. And one day we might be able to get them all back together again.
The reason I wanted to set up this conversation is because, goodness knows it’s been hard for lots of charities, but I’m especially conscious of how hard things have been for arts charities, and for many smaller charities, and your charity is both of those things. My goodness, I can’t imagine what it was like having run your organization and then COVID hitting, and what was going through your mind at that point. It can’t have been easy, and yet the reason I wanted to have this conversation is, very hard work though it’s been, you’ve somehow, you and your colleagues, have managed to find a way to not only survive, but also make fundraising work. So top line, could you talk me through what was going through your mind in March, and then cut to the end, or the current point in the story, where you’ve actually done really well?
Yeah. Okay. Well, you’re absolutely right. I mean, it’s really difficult to think that actually, this time last year, really, isn’t it? A year ago, now. At this time last year, we were growing our programs, we had lots of stuff to look forward to, and by mid-March I was canceling absolutely everything, and really with a very heavy heart. It was really, really, quite a dark moment, of actually knowing that we were a small arts charity and that there was no way that we could be running anything live. We didn’t have a YouTube channel, I had no idea how I was going to be able to reach our audience. And yeah, it was a really difficult time. And yet, we’ve made it work.
Do you know Rob, in the last year… I would say this has been a transformational year, actually, it’s just been a completely transformational year for us. We’ve reached new audience, I’ll tell you about that in a minute, but we’ve reached new audiences all over the world and our donations have doubled. We’ve not yet even done an urgent appeal or a direct financial ask. We’ve just made it work, and it’s been an amazing musical journey.
So compared to the income you were able to generate in the calendar year before COVID, in this last 11, 12 months, you’ve raised twice as much as that previous year?
Twice as much, yeah. We knew in March that it was a sink or swim moment for us. I had, well, with a fantastic team of musicians that are Ensemble Reza, and trustees and volunteers, we’d worked really hard for eight years to really build ourselves up in our local community. And the idea, suddenly, of that all going to pot, I just wasn’t going to let it happen.
The first thing was, well, how are we going to get everything out there again? So I had a long chat with my 17 year old son who quickly showed me the wonders of YouTube. I quickly set up a YouTube channel, which in fact was something that we’d been talking about doing for a really long time and we hadn’t got around to doing, so we quickly set up a YouTube channel. I knew that a lot of our audience were elderly people, a lot of our audience would be isolated and on their own. For me, it was more about making sure that we could reach them and that we could stay in touch with them. So rather than running things that we used to do, lunchtime concerts we used to run free every month, I felt that, actually, we needed to be doing these things weekly. That people needed to have one thing in their diary they knew that they could… That it could be their thing to look forward to.
And so, with a little bit of seed funding from one of our previous trustees, we set up a series called midday music. I scraped together enough funding to be able to run 12 sessions over 12 weeks. And I just thought, “Let’s just see how this goes.” I hadn’t got any more funding for anything else virtual, but we knew that we could run this. And it was incredible. Within 12 weeks, we had a new audience that suddenly came from, like I said, nationally and internationally.
In fact, the beauty of YouTube actually, is that we could record these concerts from our musicians’ homes, so we didn’t actually have to worry about venues or anything like that, we could do it really basically. And actually, a year on, looking at the set up that we started with, it was very basic. It was really, actually, some of those concerts, the quality is really poor. But our audience didn’t seem to mind, they were just like, “Well, you’re there, you’re doing this, it’s fantastic.” With YouTube, you can also create a chat option, so we could chat to people as the concerts were going on.
I created, with a bit of help from my son, a little video on how people could actually log on to be able to do the chat, because some of our audience found tech quite difficult. We wanted, at the time, to always try and make things as accessible to people as possible. But the chat was, actually, I think as important almost as the music, because it’s like standing in a foyer, welcoming an audience as they come through the doors. And it was all those little things, “Morning, Brenda”, or, “Morning, Jack”, or, “How is it in Scotland?” It’s the little chat, that is really important, that makes it feel personal to people.
So the series continued, and by the end of the 12 weeks, we had actually managed to secure some Arts Council funding to then be able to develop our programs, our virtual programs, even more. So all, pretty much, new ideas began to develop. We had managed to create a music club a bit like a book club, which was online, which we’ve been running fortnightly. We had a virtual community orchestra, which we’ve developed even more now, but to begin with was just an awful lot of backing tracks and music videos, to just be able to inspire people to keep getting their instruments out. The idea of trying to do a Zoom orchestra at that point, last June, always felt like it was just never going to happen.
We did a lot of videos for schools, a lot of schools films, just trying to keep a way to be able to reach… What we had was a really, really wide audience of different ages, and we wanted to be able to make sure that we could still reach our diverse audience that we’d had before our series started. We just wanted to make sure that we could carry on with that connection. And I think that building the relationships, like I said at the beginning, I don’t think the fundraising, the making, generating income, was really the main motivation. It was actually the fact that we just knew that a lot of our audience would be really isolated.
And with the work that we do in concerts and running education community programs, if we lose our audience, then we’ve lost our future as well. So it was really important that we found a way not only to keep them, but potentially to grow them, so that when we could get back to being in the new normal, as we kept calling it last year, which I’ve got sick of now, that we would still have audience. I didn’t want to feel that we had regressed by five years after all that hard work that we had done. So it was very much about maintaining the audience, but growing the audience as well, and that’s what we really managed to do.
And goodness, it must’ve made such a difference to the musicians you work with, to be having this chance to share what they do. Can you give me a sense of the kinds of musicians you were working with?
Yeah, Rob, I mean, I think you’re absolutely right. Ensemble Reza is a core of six musicians, and in fact, we’ve been able to provide them with the opportunity of not only taking part in our concerts, but we’ve created education and community work for them to do during the year. But we’ve had some fantastic musicians involved in our series. We’ve all looked through our little address books of all our musician friends that we had to get involved. Last week, I’ve had two musicians [inaudible 00:11:51] English National Opera take part in the series, and they’ve hardly done any performing all year. It’s just really dreadful actually, that so many fantastic musicians, who’ve trained, their whole lives have been about performing and being on stage, are suddenly not doing any performing at all. So to be able to give people, even though it’s a small platform, but an opportunity to perform to our virtual audience has been really valuable. Every week I’m getting comments from people just saying, “Thank you so much.”
For us, as a small charity, it’s just felt really fantastic that we’ve been able to provide that opportunity for our musicians. And for our audience, our audience have really enjoyed the fact that there’s been so much variety, and I think that that’s been another reason that’s helped our audience to continually grow, because each week, no one quite knows, sometimes even I don’t quite know what’s going to be on stage. So it’s been a journey for everybody, yeah.
Yeah. I love the fact that it’s a whole family together, and it’s been in everyone’s interests to be more entrepreneurial, trying these different things.
Hi, it’s Rob, and I wanted to jump into the middle of this episode really quickly to tell you about something I’m so excited about, which is the way that our Bright Spot Members Club has been helping fundraisers to not only survive, but also to do really well, to raise funds so effectively during the pendant. Through the club, our 300 members get access to a whole library of my best training films, as well as regular live coaching sessions to help you handle whatever challenges are coming at you each week. We’ve also found that handling these challenges has not just been about getting the right advice or strategy, it’s also been about morale. And we’ve found that the encouragement and help that our members get from each other has really helped them to stay positive.
If you’re not yet a member, but you’d like to find out more, go to brightspotmembersclub.co.uk/join, that’s brightspotmembersclub.co.uk/join. I would love to welcome you to the club and do my utmost to help you succeed in your fundraising. For now, though, back to the interview, as Hannah and I go on to talk about how they grew their YouTube audience from scratch.
I was going to ask, Hannah, a year ago you had no YouTube channel, what is the size of your YouTube, how many people are subscribing now? And for the listener who’s interested in this particular tactic, are there a couple of lessons you’ve learned along the way about ways to grow in the way that you have done? In addition to what you’ve just said about keeping a high quality and a variety of content.
Yeah, yeah. Yeah, it’s been, wow, a massive, steep learning curve for me this year. I feel very proud to say that I’m a YouTuber now, I think my kids think that’s really cool. But in a year we’ve now got over a thousand subscribers, and I looked this morning, we’ve had over 45,000 views to our channel. So I think it’s been quite a learning curve. Do you know, actually, you then get a little bit addicted to it. Can you get more subscribers? How can you do it? What new trick can we create?
I mean, to begin with, actually, the reason to reach a thousand subscribers was really important because we were really struggling with the tech. We understood that, actually, if we could film our concerts on our phones, or using an iPad, the quality would be better than it would be if we were just doing it on a laptop. So that was our real kind of keen, “Gosh, we’ve got to get to a thousand subscribers.” So that was the message that we were sending out to everybody, “You’ve got to help us reach to a thousand subscribers, because we need to be able to change the way we’re recording our concerts.”
After about the second concert, we actually thought, “We can’t carry on doing it the way we’re doing it. It’s so bad.” So we actually went and did a bit of research and realized that you can use online broadcasting software, and different cameras. In fact, we’ve got it all sussed now, and we didn’t need our thousand subscribers, but we didn’t tell our audience that. So we just kept saying, “You need to help us get to a thousand subscribers. We really need your help.”
I think you get to a little point, we plateaued at about 450 and thought, “Oh gosh, we’re nearly at 500.” So you do yet another social media campaign, “Get us to 500”, then, “Get us to 750.” Once you get to 900, suddenly there was excitement. I think we were at about 900, 950 just before Christmas. I said to my team, “Come on, we’ve got to be able to get to a thousand by Christmas”, which sadly didn’t happen. But in fact, the whole journey of reaching a thousand subscribers became part of a concert, actually. We had these fantastic musicians in from the London Phil, again, it was their first concert in a year, so it was a really special moment for them. They had lots of their London Phil audience watching, and we could see the number of subscribers ticking up close to a thousand, and midway through that concert, we reached a thousand subscribers, which was a really special moment. In the chat, everyone was going, “Wow.” And of course, the musicians had no idea this was going on at all, but it seemed a really special moment.
But social media is key, is absolutely key. In the last, probably just the last two months actually, I’ve now got someone regularly helping me with the social media that has made all the difference. Now, in fact, this next week, we’re going to try and stream live not only on YouTube, but also on Facebook simultaneously, which will be very interesting. But it’s, again, it’s just trying to reach different audience groups. We have a good Facebook page so we know that, as soon as the concert goes live there, we’ll be reaching more people. Again, it’s just trying to get people to come back and visit the YouTube channel. But I think it helps that we’ve got a lot of content on our YouTube channel, and I think that really helps to bring in subscribers as well.
We went through the archive, we’ve got lots of archive, and put up some concerts that we’d done in previous festivals, and made a big thing about those, so that people would come and have a look. I do a regular newsletter, so I constantly am putting stuff from the YouTube channel in the newsletter. And it’s all virtual, so people would then go to the YouTube channel and have a look. I’m surprised, considering the demographic… Well, pre-COVID, the demographic of my audience was really predominantly more retired, than… I’d like it to be really widespread, but to be honest, it really was more retired. But considering that, a lot of retired people do still use their computers, amazingly, and of course, we’ve had a fantastic response. I think it has grown and grown, and continues to grow, and that is really exciting, actually. So, yeah.
I’ve got a couple of questions, if I may, Hannah. One is, may I ask how often you send out that newsletter? And secondly, I get a strong sense that you’re not out there making lots of financial asks, you’re out there producing great work that meets the needs of your audience, your supporters, your donors. How can people donate? You’ve grown income, but how has that worked?
Yeah. Our newsletter, actually, a simple answer to that question, is in fact, it became a weekly thing and continues to be a weekly thing. I guess it’s become a bit like a blog actually. I really quite enjoy just sitting there and thinking, at the end of each week, “Gosh, where have we got to this week?” And with the changing rules, COVID rules that seem to be changing all the time, it has a massive impact on arts organizations, actually. Of course, well, everybody. Sometimes I feel it’s quite nice just to be able to sit and say to people, “This week, we thought we were going to be able to come back and do a live concert with you, with an audience, but sadly we can’t.” So I think it’s just really important to have that weekly newsletter going out at the moment, staying in touch with people.
And in answer to your second question, about donating, I think it’s always been part of our… Lunchtime concert ethos was always to not charge people, it was to always make our lunchtime concerts free, and that’s how we wanted to run our midday music series. But we’ve always said to people, “If you’ve enjoyed the concert, then please will you consider supporting our musicians.” So there’s that option to donate. It’s as simple as a donate button that we’ve got on our YouTube channel, that we’ve put [inaudible 00:21:15] paste the link everywhere, so that people can go through to our website. It’s just constantly saying to people, “With your support, we’ve been able to deliver X, Y, and Z”, and, “Please, if you would like to see our programs continue, please consider donating to our series.” It’s as simple as that, really.
Actually, I analyze each week, some concerts create more donations than others, but it always balances out each month and it, at the moment, seems… I’m happy with the way that works.
Mm. Yes. And in terms of not so much the putting on of the music, but in terms of the relationship building, were you and your team doing particular things in other ways to reach out, especially during those first lockdowns in 2020, to build relationships or just reach out to people who had always been your supporters?
Yeah. I think the communication and the reaching out people has been really, really important, and I think it’s about creating that dialogue between us and our audience, has been really important. Every time I get a donation, there’s a thank you letter that goes out, and it’s a personalized thank you. I think that thank yous are so important. It doesn’t matter how small the donation is, or how big the donation is, everyone receives the same type of thank you letter. Sometimes it might even be, just depending on how creative we are and how much time we’ve got, it might even be a thank you from the musicians as well, with a little bit of music. That is very important.
I just think, like I said, creating a dialogue and staying in touch with people has been really important. There’ve been moments when I’ve thought, “We’ve not seen someone who would normally be coming to our series”, they’re usually a regular member of our friends group, so we know these people, but they’re not there. If they’ve not replied to emails, we actually have called a few people just to check up that they’re okay. And I think that, because we’re so rooted in our community, I feel almost that that is a very appropriate thing that we should be doing, is just to check on people and look after people. So that has been a really important thing.
I mean, I just feel that the thanking is one of the most important things that we can do at the moment. Really, without the support from our local community, we wouldn’t be where we are now. It’s by having the lovely feedback that we’ve had from people I’ve been able to say to them, “Look, if you’re happy for me to use this feedback, can I then use it to promote the concerts? Can we use it in our publicity, in our social media campaigns and our marketing, but also in our fundraising campaigns to trusts and foundations?” It’s through the feedback, the feedback, even, and through the stories that we’ve got from people, that has meant that we’ve been able to lever funds from people like the postcode lottery, through the Arts Council, through our local community foundation, through all of those other key funders. Whereas, I think we wouldn’t have been noticed before, it’s those stories that have really made the difference.
I know, Rob, I joined the Bright Spot Members Club probably back in March last year, thinking, “Gosh, I’ve got to join everything. Do every course there is in fundraising, any group that I can join, I’ll do it, because I need all the help and support I can get.” I was listening to one of your podcasts on a dog walk, and it was just about thanking people. It was about picking up the phone and talking to people, it wasn’t about asking for money. I’ve held that idea with me for the whole year, and I think that that’s actually what has made all the difference. It’s made me really measured, it’s made me think that we’re not in a position where we need to be doing a direct ask at the moment. And I think, until we do, I’m not going to do that. I’m just going to say continually to people, “Thank you, and if you really want to support us, then this is how you can do it.”
Hannah, I’d just like to send huge congratulations to you, and everybody in the whole team and on the board involved in making this happen. Seems to me that when things get more normal again, you absolutely will have achieved that ambition of not just surviving this very difficult year, but very definitely growing and being stronger, and having a more vibrant and larger audience than you did a year ago. My goodness, that is not easy in the year we’ve all had, so many congratulations to you and everybody for all your hard work and all your courage and your risk-taking. Thank you ever so much for coming along to share the stories. I hope that it’ll help some of our listeners to hang in there, if nothing else, and be creative and take a few risks inspired by some of the examples you’ve given. I look forward to catching up again soon, Hannah, but for now, thank you so much for joining me on the podcast.
Thank you so much, Rob, and thank you so much for this fantastic opportunity to talk. Thank you.
Well, I hope you enjoyed hearing how Hannah and her team have adapted their approach this year. If you found it helpful, please remember to subscribe to the podcast today so that you never miss an episode. For a full transcript and a summary of this episode go to the podcast section of our website, which is brightspotfundraising.co.uk.
As Hannah mentioned, she’s been a member of our Bright Spot Members Club since the start of the pandemic. So throughout the year, she’s had access to our live weekly problem solving sessions and masterclasses, and all my best learning bundles and our supportive community. If you’d like to find out more about our training and inspiration club for fundraisers, or to dip your toe in and try for just a month, go to brightspotmembersclub.co.uk/join.
Before I go, I’d like to say a huge thank you to everyone who’s left us a kind review on iTunes or on Spotify, and to everyone who’s been spreading the word about this show to colleagues and on social media, helping us to reach this milestone of 20,000 listens so far. Hannah and I would love to hear what you think about this episode, so if you’d like to share it or get in touch, we’re both on LinkedIn, and on Twitter I am @woods_rob.
Finally, thank you for listening today, best of luck with your fundraising, and I look forward to sharing more Bright Spot examples and ideas with you soon.