New York City Opera shows difficulties of nonprofits on Kickstarter

The New York City Opera has launched a Kickstarter campaign to fund the majority of its 2013-14 season.

The campaign has a goal of $1 million and ends September 30. On top of Kickstarter donations, City Opera needs to raise another $6 million by the end of the month to continue its season, and it needs an additional $13 million by the end of the year to produce the shows for its 2014-15 season.

The 2013-14 season’s first production is Anna Nicole, a 2010 opera based on the life of Anna Nicole Smith, which runs from Sept. 17 to Sept. 28. It is planning three more productions for this season.

"Anna Nicole" is currently being performed. "Endimione," "Bluebeard's Castle" and "The Marriage of Figaro" will be performed in 2014 if the Opera raises the funds it needs. Image from New York City Opera.
The New York City Opera is currently performing “Anna Nicole.” The Opera will perform “Endimione,” “Bluebeard’s Castle” and “The Marriage of Figaro” in 2014 if it raises the funds it needs. Image from New York City Opera.

City Opera is nicknamed “the people’s opera,” as it serves as a lower-cost alternative to the larger-scale productions of the New York’s famous Metropolitan Opera. The company has experienced a number financial woes in recent years and had to leave its long-running home, the Lincoln Center, in favor of traveling to different theaters in the city.

At the time of this writing, the Kickstarter campaign has received $90,000 in pledges, likely due to a variety of factors.

$1 million is a big goal by any project standard, though the opera should be applauded for setting its goal at what it really needs and not underestimating to make it easier to gain some funding.

While the campaign’s rewards are appealing to opera fans and reasonable for the amount of money pledged, many are limited to the New York City area, so the higher-dollar rewards have limited appeal to those who would care about supporting the arts but do not live in or around the city.

The campaign might have limited visibility as well. Kickstarter is not well known as a successful platform for nonprofits (all of its “famous” campaigns have been business ventures), so people may not find out about the campaign until after it has started (even media outlets did not report on the campaign until it had been running for a week or more).

Kickstarter’s guidelines prohibit raising money for causes, and while City Opera’s campaign is within the guidelines (it is a project with a final product of three operas), its similarity to a cause might be a hard sell for backers.

A final issue is that the controversy surrounding the opera’s financial instability in recent years could deter patrons from donating to it. The Wall Street Journal columnist Terry Teachout wrote that City Opera has faced “imminent collapse” for most of the last decade and had run its course, as it had become removed from its original identity since leaving the Lincoln Center.

Despite these challenges, Kickstarter is still the best option for nonprofits wanting to use crowdfunding for specific goals on a moderate-to-large scale. It is the biggest crowdfunding platform and has more site traffic than the second-biggest platform, Indiegogo. 44 percent of projects on Kickstarter get fully funded, compared to only 10 percent on Indiegogo.

Indiegogo allows flexible funding, which allows project creators to keep the funds pledged even though a campaign does not meets its goal (with a larger percentage going to Indiegogo), but for an organization as large as City Opera, flexible funding is risky. The opera might upset backers if it got to keep pledges but received too little money to use to fund its productions.

Another benefit of Kickstarter that is not often discussed is the ability to use it for free audience research.

“A broad-based audience has been central to the artistic mission of the company since it was founded,” said George Steel, general manager and artistic director of City Opera. “I think if we can demonstrate that we have broad-based support, it would be attractive to the kind of donors who could save the company.”

Though the research would have certain limitations (for example, there might be a sizable number of people who are interested in an organization but do not know what Kickstarter is), crowdfunding platforms still provide a way to measure interest in a campaign.

If a campaign is successful, creators know they have a sufficient audience for their future works. If a campaign is unsuccessful, creators get an idea of how to work within the size of audience it has. Either way, creators get valuable information that would not be so readily available in traditional means of production.


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