Finding the Sweet Spot When Asking for Donations

When the athletics box office and Performing Arts Center box office at Cal Poly consolidated into a single location, Ryan Gruss was faced with an interesting opportunity.

His work on the performing arts side saw Ryan bring in donations at an average of $50, thanks mostly to a pop-up that asked buyers if they wanted to support the youth arts program. As a result of people knowing where their donations were going, Ryan was able to secure roughly $10,000 in fundraising that year. But when he looked at the way the Athletics donations were set up at Cal Poly, Ryan noticed that this department didn’t have the same sort of success.

“When we took over athletics they had the recommended donation set at $50,” says Ryan, “which I felt was a little high for a regular ticket buyer that didn’t have a personal history with the Athletics program.” Ryan changed set the donation pop-up ask at $10, which he learned people were much more receptive to. But by looking at the data the Athletics department had been collecting, Ryan noticed that there was some potential extra revenue to be earned.

“I thought that the soccer program we were running could ask for a slightly higher rate since it’s targeting alumni. We changed the recommended donation to $50 since those participants are not only alumni, but they’re more likely to donate because they’ve gone through the soccer program. They’re part of it, and they feel ownership of it in some way.”

Ryan figured out how to ask for donations in a way that appeals to people’s interests instead of applying a blanket technique. By adjusting your fundraising pop-up messages to reflect your audience, you’re better equipped to catch them in stride at the right time of their life stage. Students may not be flush enough with cash to relinquish $50, but they might be if they know that the money is going to a youth arts program. Similarly, alumni who feel a sense of ownership towards a program might feel an obligation to give back.


  • With multiple personas there’s no such thing as a singular solution
  • Cater to specific audiences by appealing to their values
  • Recognize when something isn’t working and pivot
  • Look within and across industries to see what works

Ryan’s experience in the performing arts box office allowed him to get a wider perspective on donations, but the ways you can use the data you get along with the donation can be just as useful as the money. Scot Allan at Gateway Playhouse noted that his performing arts center didn’t have much success when asking buyers for a $25 donation, but things changed instantly when he started a campaign with a $1 pop up.

That campaign saw hundreds of donors making small offerings, which identified them for follow-ups from Scot. “That flags them as people who will take a second to contribute, and when we hit them up later they make a larger donation,” explained Scot. “We’re able to recognize them as being slightly more bleeding heart.”

How Valuable is the Cradle-to-Grave Profile of your Clients?

With school out for the summer, my wife is faced with the challenge of keeping our kids busy to keep her from going insane. We’ve been scouring our local community to find events and camps that our kids can enjoy and learn from too.

As I think back to the various sports and day camps I attended as a child, there’s no doubt in my mind that these moments helped shape me into the person I am today. I specifically remember attending one basketball camp where I convinced my mom to buy all the gadgets that would help me with my game.  Dribble goggles, the shooting glove and a giant basketball all came home with me on the final day of camp. I may have looked a bit crazy on our driveway, but I was passionate about improving!

So why am I babbling about what I did as a child and what it means for your organization?

You must find a way to start getting to know consumers when they are young.

Most organizations have programming for young people and/or a percentage of attendees at specific event types are children. Understanding who those kids are and what makes them tick has immense, lifelong value for your organization. Consider these important points:

  • You start to build customer profiles around kids. By tracking and understanding their likes and dislikes, you are growing your database and future-proofing your business.
  • The children of today are your main customers of tomorrow. Going a step further, the children of today are your students of tomorrow. These are the same students who will come to your games or attend rush performances. They are also your future season ticket holders and subscribers.
  • Today’s season ticket holders and subscribers are tomorrow’s major donors. Clearly, there is value in watching and engaging kids as they grow up.

Building Lifelong Loyalty

This cradle-to-grave concept is something every entertainment organization should implement.

The cost of capturing and storing data is nothing if you have the right technology. By including customer relationship management (CRM) in your core organizational strategy, you at least ensure that you’re collecting the right data at the right time, even if you haven’t quite figured out how to use it. It’s never too early to start.

Understanding your younger demographic also brings value because they are a gateway to people who have money to spend today. Parents of children, much like my wife, are always looking for activities and events to attend with kids. It’s a simple equation: find the kids, get the money.

Creating and maintaining a lifelong relationship with people is hard, but it’s also essential. Plant your seeds, grow your roots and cultivate those relationships for as long as possible. You’ll be thrilled with the results.