Meet Denise Winter of Key City Public Theatre

The following interview is part of Philanthropy Roundtable’s “Free to Give” series highlighting the impact philanthropy can have when Americans have the right to give freely to the causes and communities they care about most. Learn more here.

“Key City Public Theatre began as a community theater and I joined as the first paid staff member in 2005. We’ve been evolving pretty rapidly since then. I think the biggest part of our evolution was expanding the mission.”

“The theater was doing a great job at serving a small group of people who had an interest in doing theater, and did that well for 50 years. Just before I came on board, they were starting to have a little more vision about the quality of productions, and with my arrival I added an emphasis on serving more people and getting more people involved.”

“We went from a $25,000 a year budget to what is now just a little over a $400,000 a year budget in a 15-year span. Of course, that budget is looking a little bit different right now because of COVID, but that was the trajectory that took us into 2020.”

“I came into the executive artistic director position as an artist with a business background as well, not as a development director. I didn’t know anything about donor-advised funds. The very first time we got one it created all kinds of confusion, ‘How do we record this donation? Is this a charitable trust? Is that who we’re thanking?’”

“So there was all of that initial ‘What is this?’ In those days, to me a donor-advised fund meant a depth of commitment from individuals to our community and helped me to be aware of that commitment I otherwise may not have recognized. Then, as I came to understand it better, I began to think about what it really meant. It helped me create structure around development and individual giving. I learned that these individuals who had donor-advised funds were also very approachable in general.”

“One of the things I noticed over time was the patrons who transitioned to sustaining donors, our monthly donors, were those who had donor-advised funds. In my early years with KCPT, they were some of the first monthly sustaining gifts we received, and helped us build a specific campaign for monthly giving. It really started from the lead that patrons with donor-advised funds put forward. I might not have thought about it as clearly if they hadn’t set that tone. So, that was already in play before the pandemic and most of those initial sustaining donors have remained with us.”

“Then, as the pandemic hit, again the patrons with donor-advised funds took the lead for us. What I quickly discovered was they were the source of some of the first gifts we received in the shutdown. My interpretation of that was those people had designated dollars for nonprofit purposes – they saw immediate needs and could respond flexibly and quickly. For our theater company, those initial checks coming in before we could even think about an ask, they came from donor-advised funds. Definitely, it was the donor-advised funds that contributed greatly to staff retention in the early part of the pandemic because these patrons stepped up immediately. That was a clear and specific recent impact of donor-advised funds – staff retention.”

“The events of the past 18 months showed me, in times of heightened need, here were people who thought ‘OK, we have funds set aside and now we have the ability to step up.’ In doing so, they helped assure me there was support for us in the community, there was ability, there was desire to do that. It gave me confidence to reach out more broadly with a specific ‘ask,’ and to do it knowing I could say other patrons also wanted to and were already helping us.”

“I’ve always recognized we were beloved by the community, but as our company was put at risk during the pandemic, conversations really opened up with people about our value. Just yesterday, someone said to me ‘You’re one of the places … our other places. We have our home and the places we go to.’ The playhouse is one of those spaces for a lot of people on the Olympic Peninsula.”

“I think we have a tendency to institutionalize things. We see a check, it comes from an institution, and we feel a distance from it. That’s definitely what happened to me the first time we got a DAF check. We saw a charitable trust name, and it felt like a check coming from a bank. We thought ‘Why are we getting this? Well, if this person wanted to give us money, it’s weird that they did it that way, somewhat anonymously.’ I think that has to do with our own perceptions of the idea of institutions and the distance they put between two individuals.”

“What I’ve learned is it’s actually the opposite. It’s the complete opposite of that. People who have gone to the trouble to create a donor-advised fund are all about the personal connection to the things they value and want to see sustained and blossom. That’s why they’ve done it. So, if you can look at that check and recognize the individual behind the institutional name, you can see there’s so much more put into that than just ‘I had an idea one day and I wrote a check to the theater.’”

“Another significant impact that donor-advised funds have on our organization comes through our county’s community foundation. Because many of our donor-advised funds are set up through the Jefferson County Community Foundation, these fund holders have led us into a two-way conversation that has had a multiplier effect. Our community foundation was established fairly recently and within my tenure at Key City Public Theatre. This means all of their donor-advised funds were established in that 16-year time frame.”

“Residents who create donor-advised funds often begin by having a dialogue with the community foundation about their funding interests. With the foundation’s executive leadership new to Jefferson County, it was imperative that we establish a relationship with them and their board, and having nurtured that relationship, the community foundation could effectively advocate on our behalf. Putting prospective donors together with our needs has become a huge boon to us. It has even translated into grant awards from the community foundation itself because, when they see individuals create a donor-advised fund with Key City Public Theatre as one of their main benefactors, it causes the foundation to pay even more attention to us. 

“Now when we submit a grant proposal, they’re more informed, in many ways, because of their donors. And then the flip side of the conversation happens. With more knowledge about us, their own investment in us and their awareness of their donor-advised funds invested in us, they are more proactive talking with people setting up their DAF inquiring, ‘Do you know about Key City Public Theatre?’ That two-way conversation has been really beneficial to our ability to more quickly build relationships. In a small city like ours, it provided us with the essential foundation for community-based fundraising.”

“The ease of being able to give through donor-advised funds has become obvious to me. Our company doesn’t operate or fundraise on the million-dollar level. Our gift sizes from donor-advised funds range from $20 to $12,000. For us, the regularity of giving tends to be more consistent with folks who have donor-advised funds. So, the $20 gift is great because it’s predictable. It’s coming. It’s set up. For me, first and foremost, it’s the consistency of the giving that is really important with a donor-advised fund. The personal relationship and the level of giving are what grow naturally from there.”

-Denise Winter, executive artistic director of Key City Public Theatre in Port Townsend, Washington.

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