Stern Grove Festival: the challenges of organising an admission free festival

Steven Haines is the executive director of Stern Grove Festival in San Francisco. I sat down with him and asked him about the challenges of organising an admission free festival.

Can you tell us a little bit more about the festival?

Stern Grove Festival was founded in 1938 but the history goes back several years prior to that when, our founder, Rosalie Stern purchased the property and then gifted it to the citizens and city of San Francisco, with the caveat that the property be used for recreation, arts, and culture.

In 1938 the festival came along with its fantastic mission of presenting the worlds greatest artists and performers. But it had to be completely admission free. After all these years were still running the festival consecutively and organising these great concerts.

How important is fundraising for Stern Grove Festival?

Fundraising for us is vital. It is our lifeblood. Because of our admission free mission, basically 100% of our budget is derived from contributions. Fundraising is quite a process though. It is not just about ‘hello, please write a cheque to my organisation’.

Fundraising is relationships. It is communication. It is engagement on so many different levels and it takes so many steps to get from A to Z. Z being the fundraising and everything prior to that is the relationship building. And that’s what fundraising is all about.

The end result has to be that someone is buying into what you are saying in a positive way. You want them to support you and your mission. They need to be on board of what you are doing before they will tell you that they will financially support you. 

Why should an event organisation work with objectives?

Any non-profit that is raising money must have clear objectives. It is about that emotional connection. We quite often joke that if your non-profit organisation is about animals or children you’ve got it made! Because in that case you have got very clear objectives, roles and outcomes: save a child or save a puppy. That is heart warming and emotional.

If you than start looking at arts, culture and other types of non-profits you have to be even more clear. What is that mission that you support and how do you find that emotional connection with your own organisation?

You want to be able to transfer that connection to your audience and your patrons. They need to feel that connections and therefore your message needs to be clear. In our case our mission is that we are still giving to these concerts and bring it to you admission free but we can’t do it alone so we need your support.

Stern Grove Festival is also about helping the entire community. It is about accessibility in general. It is not just about being admission free but also about providing access to the arts.

Where do you start when planning an event?

If I would say ‘this is your first step and this is your second step’ I would be lying, as it is not that clear cut. Many times when you are starting out, whether it is something new or it is something existing and you’re doing a new campaign, you are throwing 20 things against the wall to see what sticks.

You’ve got to figure out what your sticky factor is. Where does the message hit and where does it ring? If you are creating a new event or a new festival you have to think about your community and your audience. Do they need this and do they want it? If there isn’t the need or the want than nothing is going to be.

Sometimes you need to lead the audience and you can do that by creating a buzz about your event. In that case you take the approach that you will convince your audience that they need this and that they want this. But I think most of the times it is about finding that balance.

Identify the needs and the wants first. After that you need to do some research. Are you the only one in town or are you one of 27 events? In that case you are really talking about competition and not just for audience. It’s competition for time, capacity, sponsorship etc. So, my advice is to define your audience first and are they interested in your event concept.

What is grant writing?

Grant writing for us is very important. We have a grant-writer within the organisation. It’s important for us as there is such a different ‘speak’ to it. My role and responsibilities, when it comes to grant writing, is shaping the message, painting the picture, creating the vision, coming up with new concepts, making new contacts, etc.

The grant-writer is than able to grasp that. She will change and tweak it and suggest things. She’s the packager of the message. Our grant-writer has the ability to package the message, put it in a beautiful box, put a ribbon on it and send it out.

You are changing your message though depending on who your audience is. Are you writing for general support or are you writing for a tech grant or an education outreach grant. Grant writing for our organisation is incredibly important, as our budget depends on it.

What goes into a grant-writing request?

Define who you are. This is our organisation and this is our mission. This is information that does not change.

Define the issue. What are you looking for? Which element of the programme area are you looking at to be funded?

Make the case. Why do you need funding?

Make the ask.

Why is networking so important for event planners?

Networking is key! When I first started out in the business I didn’t know much about the management side of cultural arts. But I learned quickly, from great people who took me under their wing, that networking is key.

Always look for non-traditional ways of networking. Any cities that I have ever moved to I have always gone where I don’t know people. Look for government connections and tourism connections. Always look at the tourism bureaus and travel associations in your city. These are people that are completely in tune with what’s happening in your area. From restaurants to hotels to other cultural organisations, those relationships are absolutely key!

I make sure that every week I’m talking to the tourism people, the chambers of commerce. I’m walking the halls of City Hall as I’m taking an almost lobbying approach on all government levels. I want to make sure that those politicians see me on a regular basis so that they know Stern Grove Festival.

What are the issues with being an admission free festival?

We have an amazing mission and it sounds really nice. It is a fantastic mission. But admission free needs to be put very clearly and succinctly: it means that this organisation does not have revenue.

That is a big deal. It is probably the worst business model you can imagine. We have a great product, we give it away for free and we expect nothing in return. It’s a beautiful thing but it also means that we do not have ticket earned revenue.

One of the biggest concerns for me is that we don’t really know who our audience is. If your event has a paid model you know your audience. You buy a ticket, the event has your credit card and they know everything about you: your name, your address, your phone number, and your email address. With that information they can communicate with the audience. In addition they can also communicate with their audience with regards to contributions. These events have incredibly captive audiences.

With our model we don’t have that. We have over 100,000 visitors each year and technically I don’t have any tracking of that audience. Our marketing approach is very electronic but even than it is difficult to track our audience. We have one of the biggest audiences in the Bay Area but yet the complete inability to track who they are. Which means that I don’t have a deeper and more meaningful communication with them. That is challenging.

Can you tell us about the team behind the festival?

Having a great team is essential to any type of organisation. You are only as good as the team that you bring in. For 3 – 4 months of the year you are running non stop. You are talking about fatigue factors as well. These are people that you are spending a lot of hours with, not just in the office but offside as well.

The communication between the team, the way you build the team, is essential in making it all happen. But what is really important goes back to the mission of the organisation. Everybody has to buy into what this festival is all about. If not, it is not going to work. We all believe in our mission and we all believe that what we are doing is so much more than just presenting concerts that are admission free.

Once your team believes in the mission it makes the hours and the headaches and the stress all worth it.

What makes a great event planner?

The ability to multi task is essential for any event planner. Being able to prepare for any eventuality. And…keep calm.

You cannot get rattled in this business. You must have the ability to process whatever the situation is. Some situations can be good, some can be bad and some can be ugly. Process it and process it quickly.

Be prepared for any scenarios and come up with backup plans. There are always multiple scenarios and some are absolutely crazy. It sounds cliché but multi tasking and the ability to process calmly and collect your thoughts in an incredibly quick way is absolutely essential in running a great event.

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