top of page

What Can Stage Combat Teach Us About Fundraising?

With homage to the movie Goodfellas: “As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a swashbuckler.”

What kid doesn’t want to find the sword in the stone? Do acrobatics in a kung-fu battle? Study all things ninja? For my 26th birthday, I treated myself to my first private fencing lesson. I’d like to learn how to smith a sword. And of course, I’m fascinated by any sort of stage combat (with swords or without). 

One of the members of my insights list is my friend Kit Wilder.

Kit, in my mind, is “Mr. Stage Combat.” He teaches courses on it at Shenandoah University, and has choreographed the best stage fights I’ve seen. Like so many of you do, he shared his thoughts in reply to one of my recent insights emails, and we got in a conversation. On a whim, I asked him:

“What are the most vital things I need to know to effectively present realistic and emotional stage combat?”

I share his response below. Enter Kit:

Good question!  And my answer is always evolving.  But there are a couple of constants; here’s what I tell my students: What you are after in “good” or “proficient” stage combat is 1) SAFETY, and 2) effective storytelling (in other words, the choreography and acting, combined, tell an audience about character, moment, story, etc.).

One cannot have safety (which is ALWAYS our number one concern) without TECHNIQUE.  Technique must be flawless, to minimize the chance of someone getting hurt.  BUT, technique alone doesn’t do anything for an audience; the audience wants to be in the story, and that requires the combatants to be fully “in the moment,” or “acting.”  HOWEVER, if the acting takes over, then technique will be compromised, and danger can result — and, ultimately, a lack of clarity, which affects believability and overall effectiveness.  And when there’s too much technique, things may be safe, but they’re not believable in the moment.  SO, if you imagine a “laugh-o-meter” kind of scale, with “technique” on the right and “acting” on the left, the arrow will be pegged, straight up between the two, if a fight is done well.  You don’t want the arrow to lean either to the left or the right; if it doesn’t something is missing, which will result in either danger, or a lack of believability — or, worse, both!

All of this depends, of course, upon that magic word “communication”: partners are PARTNERS, and not combatants, and they must be communicating both explicitly and implicitly throughout the process of rehearsal and performance.  Eye contact, gestural cues, sometimes words are all necessary throughout the process if both partners (or more, if it’s some kind of “melee”) are going to be on the same page and perform a fight well.

Lastly, what stage combat really is, of course, is a magic act.  We are asking the audience to believe that something is happening that, quite frankly, is not.  Because good stage combat is more of a dance than anything else — and the LAST thing it is, is a fight.  (And just like any effective magic act, we never make anything up on the spot; it’s all intricately planned, down to the last punch, kick, thrust and parry!)

That’s a fascinating explanation of the process. And I’m thankful to you for sharing it with me, Kit. 

It immediately got me thinking about what we all go through when we are fundraising for our nonprofits. Donors aren’t combatants. The “ask” is a dance. It should be choreographed. Many people get training in technique on how to ask people to donate. But if you have technique without in-the-moment understanding of your partner, it might as well be a robot making the ask. On the other side of the “laugh-o-meter,” a fundraising ask without technique is just a great conversation that never even gets to the ask. You’re just hanging out.

In short, a fabulous fundraiser must have practiced technique to manage the conversation, while at the same time, must keep a constant “read on the room” so you can react in real time. To put that into some tactical advice:

1. Know your donor. Don’t walk in cold. Do your research. What have they written about? What do they post about? What have they said to you in past conversations? What specific things do they care about (and not what they say they care about, but what their actions show you they care about.)

2. Appeal to their specific interests. You shouldn’t be asking an individual donor for a general operating check. What financial problem is this specific donor uniquely suited to fix?

3. Practice before you perform. Just as you wouldn’t walk on stage without rehearsal (many actors have that nightmare) you shouldn’t walk into a donor conversation cold. I always suggest role play, so you get comfortable in your role. 

4. Understand that this is an emotional performance. Imagine watching a play that didn’t make you feel anything. Would you stay for the second act? Don’t walk in with logical information. Walk in with emotional stories, and ask the donor to be a part of that story, with you. 

Your time to implement: It's Ron's Monday Mission™

It’s likely that you’re going to have a conversation with a potential donor soon. After researching your donor, find a partner to role play with you. What are the questions your donor is most likely to ask? What are your responses to them? What are the stories you will have on hand to share? Then set up the meeting.

Have a great week.



Get posts like the above sent right to your inbox. Subscribe to Ron's Monday Mission™

I'm Ron Evans. I dramatically improve individual and organizational performance. If you found today's topic intriguing and want to apply it to your situation, I'll brainstorm with you. The few who follow through and take me up on my offer will benefit greatly. Strike while the iron is hot! 


bottom of page