Bright Star

Palo Alto Players Strut All the Right Stuff

This past weekend, my wife Jan and I enjoyed a once-in-a-decade experience, a magical evening of theatre in Palo Alto, California. We were on a mini-vacation in advance of my attendance at the First Tee National Board of Directors meeting. Jan had managed to snare tickets to the Palo Alto Players’ uplifting musical, Bright Star.

We were thrilled by the sheer talent and authenticity of each performer in a production created by Academy Award-winning actor Steve Martin. But what elevated this experience into the superlative category was the joy emanating—not only from everyone on stage—but from the volunteers, each of whom offered warmth and hospitality as they handed out playbills, squired us to our seats and worked the concessions. 

As a top-performance fundraising coach and former college president of 22 years, what impressed me most was watching everyone involved with the production firing on all cylinders. Everything we teach at BrightDot (our nonprofit consultancy bearing no connection to Bright Star), I saw illustrated from beginning to end of our experience.

The care and consideration began with an email before the event, informing us that road construction would make parking difficult and suggesting that we uber over or arrive early to find a parking spot. Signage was abundant and easy to follow. The volunteers all wore smiles–remember, a community theatre lives and dies on its volunteers—and went out of their way to be helpful, thanking us more than once for attending.

As we entered the playhouse, we were greeted by an assortment of 8 1/2 x 10 color pictures showcasing the performers—also all volunteers whose “payment” is being given the chance to do what they love along with the recognition garnered on stage. The concession stand offered wine, homemade cookies and candies with a sign that proceeds are earmarked for the actors. At the conclusion of a remarkable evening of theatre, the players took the stage, quieted the standing-room ovation and made an earnest pitch on behalf of needy local students for scholarship money.

“Will you join with us and donate as much as you can?” one asked.

These actors were asking not for themselves, or for the theatre (which doubtless could use support), but for young people in the community who were pursuing higher education. Their spirit touched our hearts, and Jan and I made a donation.

But there was much more. The playbill was filled with touching messages, including the managing director’s story about how watching movies, reading books and going to plays when she was growing up in a small Mississippi town fueled her desire to bring joy and meaning to others through the arts. This statement demonstrated that she had uncovered her “Why,” which aligned with the organization’s “Why.” After her message, theatre-goers were invited to share their stories about how the arts had impacted their life. The query made clear they were not soliciting compliments about the Palo Alto Players but rather comments about profound arts experiences from across the board. This query demonstrated that the managing director was widening the lens of impact beyond just her organization! 

Wanting to know more this acting company, I went to their website, clicked on “about” and it all became clear to me. The principals running the organization display high emotional intelligence. They are clear and specific in their messaging about vision, outcomes and expectations of their board, volunteers and anyone else who chooses to join them.    

The rest of us can learn from their example:

  1. Attitude matters. The spirit of your volunteers, cleaning crew, and even the person on the street speaks volumes about your efficacy and inclusiveness. Work overtime to bring everyone on board.
  2. Share the “Why” of your principals, including staff, board, custodial help, online and in printed materials. This demonstrates a cohesive and mission-aligned team.
  3. Welcome your “patrons” by putting yourself in their shoes–whether it involves parking, comfort or any other matter. It’s a matter of stewardship. They will keep coming back and will support your cause.
  4. Show your heart by raising money for an organization other than your own. This one can be hard for budget-strapped groups, but the strategy pays off in the long-run by showing you care about others, and that it’s not all about you.
  5. Contribute to your community. No nonprofit or educational organization is or should be an island. Cultivate relationships and partnerships with your neighbors. If a Rotary club meets down the street, join it. If there’s a nearby nursery, buy your flowers there and introduce you and your work. Such interactions are sure to pay dividends in unexpected ways.

I only wish I had visited the Palo Alto Players before completing my latest book, Start with Heart: The Secret Power of Emotions to Catalyze Fundraising Results in Individuals, Teams and Organizations—which will be released in November—as they would have been profiled. One thing’s for sure, though, I plan to mention them and our remarkable experience in my upcoming webinar with DonorSearch on November 7th. What a joy it was to be in the presence of excellence!

Bill Crouch is Managing Partner and CEO of BrightDot.

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