Monday, 23 September 2013

Guest post: "Where there is a will, there will be a well", by Sunil Vishnu (Índia)

Sunil Vishnu is the young man who went after his dream: to make theatre. Together with a friend from university he founded EVAM in 2003 in the city of Chennai, India. As an independent arts organization, EVAM is facing a number of challenges in order to survive, to grow and to maintain the quality of its work. What does this mean exactly for a theatre company in India, where governement funding is extremely low, arts philanthropy almost inexistent and there´s a general lack of interest in the arts? Well, Sunil was surprised to find out that there was a ‘well’ of interest, care and money right there for EVAM. He shares this experience and his learnings with us. mv

The EVAM team

As I started writing this piece and looked for a title I thought this inspired by original proverb line would be perfect because, for me, it describes the state of art makers today in the world. The proverb talks about the human will – the only thing which keeps an artist going, despite all the challenges he faces - and the ‘well’ – the means which enable him to create art and share it with the audience, that is funding and resources. Over the years, the will has remained the same, but the wells have eventually dried up. The latest solution is not to dig deeper in the well or find new ones, but to go to every other person in the village who has water and ask them to share it with you, in return for sharing the ownership of the dream with him. This is what the world calls crowdfunding and it’s in this context that I write this article.

So how do the independent artists and arts organizations survive and grow? Let’s look at my organization, EVAM. EVAM is a thriving arts organization with the mission of making a positive impact in the lives of people using the medium of theatre through live performances, managing artistic events and art education. As we turn 10 this year and have successfully evaded the threat of being closed down, I look at the various sources of funding we have had over the years. We started by investing our own money (2 Lakhs – 3000 USD) back in 2003. Six months later, we got our first sponsor (a private bank HSBC) and thought of adopting the advertising-driven model, where brands would look at EVAM as a means to reach out to their potential customers. Ticketing revenue and sponsorship sustained us until 2004. That year we decided to perform shows for other organizations at a given fee and also co-launched the Hindu MetroPlus Theatre Fest, the managing of live art events/fests becoming the next revenue generator. By 2009 we were into education, doing workshops and adding another source of income. All this without approaching the government - their support for the arts being weak, anyway. This was an option. Call it ego, self-esteem or fool hardiness, we wanted to make it on our own terms, never compromising the artistic output.

Then, we realized.our dreams were getting bigger, but the well was becoming dry. We  looked for different wells, but other fellow artists doing the same. It was around that time that I started my arts management fellowship at the Kennedy Center in Washington. The first big learning was arts philanthropy. India didn’t have a culture or appetite for it. There is a general apathy towards the arts and the educational system itself dubs the arts among the least preferred subjects. Nevertheless, I knew we had a ‘family’ of audiences and important people in the society who would want to contribute financially and to be part of our organization’s journey, not as a full-time investor or sponsor, but more like a ‘special appearance’ actor in a film.

That’s when the learning from the fellowship (dream big - concentrate on great art - share the dream with your family - make them part of it) came to the forefront: my family members could not sponsor a show of mine, but they could give some money as individuals for a specific project if they believed in it. It was at that time, in 2012, that an NGO called Nalandaway launched a new online crowdfunding portal, Orange Street, which offered artists a platform to put up projects related to a cause and seek funding. Initially, I was sceptical about it. Why would an audience member, who currently spends  1000 Rupees (16 USD) a year to watch my plays, give me money to create something if they could give directly to the cause? But we went ahead and made a video explaining what we were doing and why we were seeking funds. Our project was the creation of a play, Shekinah Jacob’s The long way home, which we would perform across India, spreading awareness about child trafficking.

We needed 5 lakhs (8000 USD) to do the project. Within hours from putting it up on the platform, someone invested  5000 Rupees (80 USD) and we were awestruck. Within one day we got 7500 Rupees (120 USD) from people we didn´t even know! At the same time, we started an internal campaign: we started calling, sending e-mails or texting all our stakeholders, people we knew, audience members; we also put an ad on Facebook, Twitter and our website. Slowly and steadily contributions increased, this was actually possible!

But the time came when we had made every possible contact and the well seemed to be drying once again. My staff was busy creating this show and doing many other things and had no more time to run this campaign. The momentum dipped and we thought “OK, maybe this is all we can do”. 

That’s when a music band,  Jersey Rhythms, called us from New Jersey and said: “Hey, we want to contribute, we´ll do a charity show for you!”.  We were stupefied! A group from Jersey who we didn’t know us, was actually following our campaign in India and wanted to contribute! Suddenly, my organization realized that this movement was bigger than just the 9 of us in this office. We picked up once again and made sure this fundraising campaign became part of our daily rigour: we had a bell in the office ringing every time a new donation would come in. In the following 2 months Jersey Rhythms raised more than 75000 Rupees (1200 USD). The long way home was created and performed across India, managing to raise awareness regarding the cause it aimed to support.

We had found a new source of energy, enthusiasm and funds. Our family (namely the audience, partnering organizations, individuals who care for us, sponsors, etc.) was willing to invest in our projects in their own small way, if we were open to sharing our dream with them. A year later, in 2013 and once again through crowdfunding, we were able to send 150 underprivileged children to a summer arts camp. Our aim for 2014 is to launch a crowdfunded film and play which will be purely ‘art for art’s sake and not art for a cause’. This will be a true trust of the theory that maybe crowdfunding is the first big step in the direction of arts philanthropy in India.

In the meanwhile, here are a few of my learnings on this journey:

If you want to create projects based on crowdfunding

a) Create a genuine project – put it on a genuine site, don’t phaff! (people can see right through a fake project);

b) Create a strong ASK – what’s the project, who does it impact and how, why are you doing it and where are funds going to be utilized, and hence why should anyone donate for the project;

c) Always have a limited time frame for the fundraising – depending on the size of the amount to be raised (3 months to 1 year); also, be specific about what you´re asking (egg. “Please invest 500 Ruppess for the project by 15th Jan 2013”);

d) Don’t make this the only source of funding for your project;

e) Use the equity of the platform (the site) to generate more awareness;

f) Note down the names of people who invest and follow up with them, thanking them. Make them part of the project in the way they prefer to (could be as simple as sending e-mail updates to as much as coming and doing backstage for free!);

g) Don’t be ashamed to ask for money – you are asking people to share your dream, it´s an investment they are making; actually they are as good as co-producers of the project;

h) People have a need to feel ‘connected’ and ‘counted’ – make sure you give the people both through this relationship;

i) Create a communications plan and rope in various key game-changers who can endorse your project; celebrities are welcome…;

j) Internally, keep your team motivated, give them incentives to run; reward them, acknowledge them – it’s quite a thankless job otherwise!

People will contribute when:

a) They love you as a person and want to be part of your journey;

b) They love your organization and its mission;

c) They believe in the impact your project will create on people;

d) They can’t do what you do – hence they want to live your life vicariously!

As I said earlier, where there is a will, there is a well.  Go and keep digging wells, but don’t forget the rivers and streams and ponds and seas which are the people around us. Invite your family to be part of your journey, you will be surprised with the love and trust they will shower on you!

Sunil Vishnu K is co-founder, CEO and artistic director of  EVAM, an award-winning theatre entrepreneurship. Founded in 2003 by Sunil and Karthik Kumar, EVAM is today a 10-year-young thriving arts business which performs plays, manages live art events and works in arts education. Sunil receveid the Performing Arts Entrepreneur Award from the British Council in 2010 and completed the Summer Arts Management Fellowship at Devos Institute of Arts Management at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in 2013.

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