Are There Problems With NY City Opera’s Kickstarter Campaign?

Is the New York City Opera (NYCO) muddying the waters for nonprofit performing arts groups with their current Kickstarter campaign? Ever since the NYCO announced its Kickstarter campaign to raise $1 million to “produce a 2013–2014 season” a number of colleagues have contacted me expressing concerns that the broad all or nothing fundraising campaign violates Kickstarter’s fundraising guidelines.

ADAPTISTRATION-GUY-070According to Kickstarter’s funding platform for creative projects, a project is defined as the following:

A project is something with a clear end, like making an album, a film, or a new game. A project will eventually be completed, and something will be produced as a result.

Kickstarter also includes additional guidelines for nonprofits.

As with all projects it’s important to look at the project guidelines before getting started. Nonprofits and charitable organizations should note that Kickstarter isn’t for direct charity or cause funding, so your project should focus on what you’re creating.

When you mix the already complex, and arguably contentious, discussions surrounding how and why orchestras and operas qualify for nonprofit status it becomes very unclear whether the expenses related to an entire season’s worth of productions overlaps with Kickstarter’s charity or cause related restrictions.

Then there’s the 9/12/2013 post at Schleppy Nabucco’s Opera Gonzo (there’s a name you won’t forget) by Elizabeth Frayer and Shawn E Milnes that rails against the NYCO for everything from misleading fundraising benefits for 2013/14 season donations to a general sense of disingenuous intent wrapped up in what the author’s define as a “desperate and déclassé” approach (emphasis added).

The [NYCO’s Kickstarter] page was started on 9/8, 9 days before the thrilling 2013-14 season begins. Again is this not terribly disingenuous? How is it NYCO did not know they were in such dire financial straits months ago? Thank goodness I did not buy a 3 or 4 opera subscription as I would truly be livid at now being asked to donate to Kickstarter just to be able to see the shows I bought tickets for 3 months ago. It feels tasteless, creepy and weird.

What do you think, does the NYCO Kickstarter campaign make other nonprofit performing arts organizations look bad?

About Drew McManus

"I hear that every time you show up to work with an orchestra, people get fired." Those were the first words out of an executive's mouth after her board chair introduced us. That executive is now a dear colleague and friend but the day that consulting contract began with her orchestra, she was convinced I was a hatchet-man brought in by the board to clean house.

I understand where the trepidation comes from as a great deal of my consulting and technology provider work for arts organizations involves due diligence, separating fact from fiction, interpreting spin, as well as performance review and oversight. So yes, sometimes that work results in one or two individuals "aggressively embracing career change" but far more often than not, it reinforces and clarifies exactly what works and why.

In short, it doesn't matter if you know where all the bodies are buried if you can't keep your own clients out of the ground, and I'm fortunate enough to say that for more than 15 years, I've done exactly that for groups of all budget size from Qatar to Kathmandu.

For fun, I write a daily blog about the orchestra business, provide a platform for arts insiders to speak their mind, keep track of what people in this business get paid, help write a satirical cartoon about orchestra life, hack the arts, and love a good coffee drink.

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8 thoughts on “Are There Problems With NY City Opera’s Kickstarter Campaign?”

  1. While agreed that the NYCO Kickstarter campaign poses significant questions from the “project” perspective, I can’t see why any actions of the NYCO negatively impacts the non-profit field as a whole on the private philanthropy side of the ledger. Such donations are not usually applied in a broad brush manner.

    Whether it ties up governmental funding is another question entirely. Public funding administrators have vigorous “CYA” genes in play, responsive to an electorate that increasingly believes government spending is out of control. Year, after year, after year of obscene budget deficits and the call for increased taxes that follow, every expensive scientific study of some frivolous notion that finds its way into the media spotlight (we can all name serveral) feeds the public’s frustration with ALL “non-essential” expentitures. In this public funding environment it is the non-controversial grant application most likely to succeed.

    • What I hear from colleagues is very much what was running through my mind when I heard the news about the KS campaign in that NYCO toeing the line with the legitimacy of the project only adds to the guilty by association problem that already exists with the nonprofit performing arts orgs.

      Granted, it isn’t a deserving stereotype but it exists all the same and translates into everything from “nonprofit managers aren’t as good as for profit manager” attitudes to the government funding and nonprofit legitimacy questions. In short, one group playing fast and loose making the entire field look bad is too high of a risk for the field as a whole.

  2. My usual complaint about nonprofits and Kickstarter is that the organization does a direct port of their usual fundraising campaign and then when the campaign inevitably fails their response is “see, new things don’t work” and they go back to raising money in traditional ways.

    I’m pleased to see that isn’t the case here. The opera seems to have really embraced the spirit of Kickstarter by making backers an integral part of making the “project” possible, and offering rewards that are actually rewards. So to answer your final question, I don’t think this campaign (unlike some others I’ve seen) makes the industry look bad.

    That having been said, raising $1 million dollars via Kickstarter for something as ephemeral as an opera season–and accepting that approximately 10% of the funds raised will be lost in fees seems like a stretch.

    I’ll be interested to see how it plays out.

    • Interesting thoughts Maureen; as far as the rewards go, did you read the full post from Elizabeth Frayer and Shawn E Milnes and their experience with NYCO donation rewards? I’m also curious to know what you think about the notion of funding an entire season as a project and if that fits within the intent of Kickstarter’s guidelines?

      With such a broad project description and the lack of any indication that the funds aren’t going right into the general coffer, how can the money raised not end up going to areas of activity that don’t violate Kickstarter’s guidelines?

      Lastly, there’s no mention of the potential for the entire season plus the 2014/15 season to go dark in the “Risks and challenges” section which runs the risk of coming across as a very disingenuous project sine the related NYCO PR material outside of Kickstarter focuses more on the last ditch effort general fundraising angle.

      • Having read the post you referenced now, I have a better sense of where you are coming from. Because I have seen many Kickstarter campaigns that were much, much worse, and because I desperately want to see performing arts organizations break out of old paradigms, I was willing to give them the benefit of the doubt.

        Perhaps it was unwarranted.

        I also wonder what they will do if they raise the $1 million on Kickstarter but not the rest of the 8 million they need. At that point they will be obligated to their Kickstarter backers to produce shows they may very well be unable to perform.

        If that happens, they may very well poison the well for future performing arts organizations who want to include crowd-funding in their strategy.

      • And by all means, yes; I wholeheartedly agree that many nonprofit performing arts org KS campaigns do not rise to the level they should. I see where we’re talking from two different perspectives now and yes, the nuts and bolts of any respective KS campaign is worth an entire series of articles.

    • Setting aside that Kickstarter’s definition of “project” has been very loosely interpreted, I think NYCO will have a bigger problem if its KS campaign DOES succeed. How do they follow this act? Few (any?) entities have ever raised that sum of money twice on KS (not to mention that budgets/goals invariably grow each year). So what’s next? Indiegogo? Rockethub? LuckyAnt? Can crowdfunding sites keep up? For an organization that always cries poor, NYCO has a wonderful website with an easy interface, particularly where giving is involved. At what point will NYCO realize that the mechanism to conduct such an ambitious campaign existed all along? Besides, if they raised the $100K through their own devices, at least they’d get to keep that.

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