Dublin Theatre Festival – DeVos Programme Learning
Dublin Theatre Festival’s Willie White and Sarah O’Dea talk to us about their involvement with the DeVos Programme and how they have learned to better utilise and focus the resources at their finger tips during the past year. | Interview by Margarita Vásquez Cárdenas
Since 1957 the Dublin Theatre Festival annually brings together artists, theatre-makers and audiences from Ireland and around the globe for 18 days to experience the best in theatre. It presents not only classical and contemporary works in venues across the city, but complements its programming with artists talks, public discussions and artist development programmes throughout the festival.
As a distinct learning from the DeVos Programme, Artistic Director and Chief Executive Willie White comments that stretching their planning to 18 months has given them not only a way of projecting the interests of the festival, but also changing their relationship with fundraising. “Now when talking to potential investors we don’t go in pitching our track record but rather, talk about what is in the works for next year.” This ultimately generates excitement around programming and fosters points of connection and conversation with their community.
Similarly, Development Manager, Sarah O’Dea, points out, “rather than approaching people to just attach themselves to the festival as a whole, it’s looking for connecting themes and strands and finding a match-up point with them”. By giving them a menu of options that will hook individuals and businesses in, DTF is allowing for a greater number of exchanges to occur.
In conversation with DeVos’ Brett Egan they took a closer look at their Friends Scheme. DTF are currently working on refining and recalibrating this scheme to clearly mark the differences in contribution levels as a way of bringing about the right proportion of benefits for their Family, while keeping the incentive cost neutral for the organisation. Willie comments on this process, “it is about how can we induct new members and manage our existing relationships within the resource envelope that we have”.
Another area where DTF is implementing the DeVos Programme and its suggestions, is through board engagement. Currently they have brought on a new member from the business sector, skilled in event management. Eithne Harley is working closely with Sarah and bringing more energy and enthusiasm to the Board by collaborating on a specific fundraising project for DTF. “We are looking for areas of interest from the festival that will play to our Board members’ motivations, strengths and interests”, says Sarah. This ultimately has proven to be a beneficial tool in getting the Board further engaged with the organisation, its needs, development and continued success.
Willie and Sarah found that their participation in the programme was a benchmark for good practice that helped reinforce their confidence in the Festival’s programming and activities. They also found Michael Kaiser’s experience and knowledge inspirational and the learnings from The Cycle to be easily sharable and communicable within the organisation.
While participating in its last year, Sarah has found that one of the strengths of the DeVos Programme has been its role as a catalyst in generating a network of organisations. In certain aspects, participating organisations can be disparate nonetheless it was beneficial to experience “everyone in the same room singing off the same hymn sheet”. During the group meetings and seminars it was of interest to see and hear shared and relatable comments, questions and concerns from other organisations. It was equally of value for DTF to be able to critically join in the conversation and avail of its knowledge and exchange.
While we do not have the same foundation of wealth than in North America, with the lessons and models learned from DeVos we are fortified; there is a culture of change that we need to effect here. Willie White
As an organisation nearing its 60th anniversary, they have had their fair share of sponsors throughout the years. Their last title sponsorship with Ulster Bank ran its natural course after 5 years and coincided with a quite challenging economic environment. Willie finds that “title sponsorship is just about where a business is at a particular moment. Regardless, there is a perception amongst supporters that a title sponsorship is the only way of getting involved. This is not the case; there are many ways to get involved.” Willie also notes that this perception can be related to the nature of sponsorship within the Irish context. “There are more conventions for having conversations on fundraising and philanthropy in the US than in Ireland.” In the end, they mention, it is about balancing out the organisation and diversifying your income revenue while creating exciting programming and building your Family without shying away from this fundamental conversation.