Four Big Donor Lessons from the Big Apple Circus

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“Big Apple Circus (at Boston City Hall)” By NewtonCourt (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons

February 14, 2017, N.Y. Daily News

NPQ reported last November that the intimately scaled, single-ring-style Big Apple Circus voluntarily petitioned for Chapter 11 relief. It was announced this past Tuesday that the United States Bankruptcy Court for the Southern District of New York approved a decision by the circus’s board to accept a $1.3 million bid at the court-ordered auction on February 7th. Big Top Works, an affiliate of Compass Partners LLC, a Sarasota-based merchant banking and advisory firm, is the new owner of the Big Apple Circus. The asset auction sale was for Big Apple Circus’s name, other intellectual property and most of the circus equipment. The law firm Debevoise & Plimpton provided pro bono service for the circus’s bankruptcy case.

Founded in 1977 by Paul Binder and Michael Christensen, Big Apple Circus hopes to begin its 40th season by returning to its longtime home at Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts this fall. Big Top Works happily accepted the requirement that the winning bidder maintain the circus’s mission and vision in New York City and on tour, particularly its commitment to producing special performances for children with autism or disabilities and for low-income families. Neil Kahanovitz, a partner at Big Top Works, is a former circus performer.

Writing for the N.Y. Daily News, Denis Slattery writes that the circus’s big red tent was a welcome sight each holiday season amid Lincoln Center’s grand buildings housing the New York Philharmonic, the Metropolitan Opera, and the New York City Ballet. Slattery quotes Kahanovitz as describing the Big Apple Circus as “a cultural gem” and saying, “We couldn’t let this beloved American pastime just disappear.”

The Big Apple Circus is not alone in its struggles to stay alive. Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus is the U.S. traveling circus billed as “The Greatest Show on Earth.” Citing changing public tastes in entertainment, declining attendance, and high operating costs, the circus company announced its intent to close in May 2017 after 146 years of performances. Years of protest from animal-rights groups compelled the company to discontinue featuring elephants in 2016, and that was the beginning of their end.

The Big Apple Circus, an animal-friendly nonprofit, attempted to meet their budget shortfall with a “Save the Circus” crowdfunding appeal for $2 million. They fell short of their goal by $1.1 million, and that began their journey into bankruptcy protection. Their story, thankfully, has a happy ending. For many other nonprofit organizations, there are lessons to be learned from their experience:

  • Unless your cause is meeting a need that is breaking news, like an earthquake, most people, especially major donors, give to successful organizations offering philanthropic opportunity, not need. This is one reason why, something NPQ follows closely, mega-gifts consistently go to educational institutions and to people’s own foundations.
  • A particular weakness of crowdfunding is that your donors will likely give what appears to be a standard gift to the cause, not a donation in proportion to their individual giving capacity.
  • Emergency fundraising appeals are only about the money, not your vision. Crisis appeals signal even more than need; they can indicate to donors, rightly or wrongly, poor long-term management and a lack of support from others, including peers.
  • The “ask” needs to come at the very end of a long and deliberate process of engaging friends and donors in your cause. These conversations encourage trust, they educate, and they show respect for your donors. Giving needs to be about helping your donors achieve their personal fulfillment by giving to your cause.

Nevertheless, the Big Apple Circus figured it out, and the one-ring wonder is returning beneath the big top! Here is a 13-minute PBS documentary on the Big Apple Circus that takes you behind the scenes of their 2010 production, “DANCE ON!” One can only hope that they will be able to continue to bring their special joy to so many, especially vulnerable children. The geniuses behind this “cultural gem” now know what to do, now that their financial crisis has been resolved, and for this, there is reason for celebration.—James Schaffer