13 June 2017
"Who here likes to ask for money?" Rob Irving, a pitch and performance coach, stared around the meeting room on the 17th floor of the tower overlooking Sydney Harbour, while letting his question sink in. The six people gathered around the table shuffled in their seats. It was clear they didn't like asking for money, not in the least.
And who does, really? Asking someone for money is about as enjoyable as preparing a tax return, or stepping on a puppy. But cash-strapped arts organisations can't help but have their hand out for donors. Increasing competition for government funding means many non-profits need to find new ways to win support.
The Funding Network participants Will Small, Margo Ward and John Kirkman, before their live crowdfunding pitches. Photo: Nick Moir
So on a recent Thursday morning, I watched three grassroots groups learn the art of asking for money. Teaching them how to win friends and influence people was the Funding Network, a philanthropic organisation that has helped raise $5.3 million for more than 140 charities, largely via live crowdfunding events.
Its novel approach empowers small, socially-focused groups to attract big donations. As part of the Vivid Ideas festival, which finishes on June 17, the network was tasked with helping three non-profits raise at least $15,000 each.
The Funding Network co-founder and chief executive Lisa Cotton. Photo: Jesse Marlow
The participants, who were chosen by a panel, gathered in the high-rise offices of PricewaterhouseCoopers, to be trained in making a successful six-minute pitch for funds from a room of strangers.
Around the table were: KidsXpress, which offers expressive therapy for traumatised children; Musicians Making A Difference (MMAD), which uses music and dance to assist disadvantaged young people; and Information & Cultural Exchange (ICE), which provides music programs for disadvantaged communities in Western Sydney.
"I'm going to encourage you to enjoy asking for money," Irving told them. People don't buy what you do, they buy what you believe in, he said. So what is your why?
He trained them to sharpen their story and analyse their audience. His advice included various tricks of the trade.
The power of silence: "What's the best thing you can do at the beginning of a pitch? Absolutely nothing."
The power of emotion: "Stories, vulnerability, belief – that's what drives feeling. Tears do, too."
The power of body language: "It's not the words but the body that drives everything."
The power of acronyms: QPA (Question. Pause. Answer.); LBM (Look. Breathe. Move.); KIS (Keep. It. Simple.).
An audience will remember only a handful of words from a six-minute pitch. "Power words," he called them. Love. Truth. Authenticity. "Those words have got to sing out," he said. "You are looking for spikes in the electrocardiogram of my mind."
The participants took notes. "Refining our skills so we can fundraise more efficiently is something we really need to do," said Margo Ward, of KidsXpress. "It's really tough out there. In Sydney, we are up against all the big ones, the Smith Family, the Starlights. It's become very difficult to get a voice."
Learning the secrets of selling yourself to prospective donors was a little like the reality TV show Shark Tank, only nicer, she said.
The Funding Network's chief executive Lisa Cotton said grassroots groups needed to get better at articulating what they do, why they do it and the impact they are having. "When government funding dries up, they really struggle to get out into the market and find other contributors. Some of them say, 'I am a creative and I don't do corporate speak'. But if they want to do better, they have got to learn to adapt."
Three weeks after the workshop, the participants delivered their six-minute pitch to about 150 business people, with money to give. A small stage was set in the conference room at PwC. "It's a theatrical performance we are doing, whether we like it or not," said ICE's John Kirkman.
Irving had coached them well. There were plenty of power words and extended pauses. Ward brought along a hand puppet. Will Small, of MMAD, introduced on stage Dylan, 18, a former substance abuser who was helping record the songs of other young people in need.
The three pitchers then left the room, while host James Valentine, of ABC Radio Sydney, called for pledges of $100 or more. Donations were matched by Creative Partnerships Australia and PwC. The Funding Network retains 10 per cent to contribute to its operations.
The tally board went upwards by the hundreds and thousands. The audience applauded each pledge. The total raised was $103,200 – more than enough for MMAD to fund a songwriting and recording course for young people; for KidsXpress to engage children with music, art, drama and dance; for ICE to run an orchestra for young people with autism.
It was enough to give cheer to any cash-strapped arts charity. "We are an incredibly wealthy country, there is a lot of good will out there," Cotton said.
Read the full article in the Sydney Morning Herald here.