Working for a Commission: It’s Not What You Think

Your Ingenious Nonprofit
September 2013

Every neck pivoted when Sasha Janes, assistant artistic director with the North Carolina Dance Theatre, announced that the man who had commissioned the dance At First Site was in the audience. Several years before, the patron, Michael Tarwater, had approached the theatre about commissioning a dance for his wife, Ann. The dance he commissioned celebrated the moment he first saw the woman who would become his wife. It was his gift to her and to audiences who share it.

When I heard the story behind At First Site, it made me wonder: could nonprofits use the concept today? I decided yes. Let’s take a fresh look at how commissions can work, even for nonprofits outside the arts.

How a Commission Works

  • A patron has an idea for an experience or piece of work. Tarwater sought a dance. Your patron might have an idea for an event, service, lecture, or experience.
  • The patron wants to give a gift, in this case, a dance to his wife. Your patron might want to make a gift to an individual, family, group (such as giving all third grade children the gift of swimming lessons), or the community.
  • The nonprofit and the patron form an agreement to create the experience or work. The North Carolina Dance Theatre was the platform that connected the artist, patron, dancers, choreography, and audience. As part of the agreement, the patron pays for the piece.
  • The experience offers ongoing value. The evening I saw the dance was the sixth time it was performed. Each performance lists the patron’s name. Each repetition creates value for the artist, the patron, the nonprofit, and audiences.

How to Use The Commission Idea

Commissioned pieces are a natural tool patrons use to create dances, plays, art, and music, etc. Can your nonprofit earn commission income, even if you are not in the arts? In general, yes. At colleges and universities, commissions are behind endowed chairs, named lectures, and lecture series. For other nonprofits, commissions are at work in requests for proposals and in grant projects designed specifically to meet the goals of foundations.

If you think about it, individual donations—especially large ones—are essentially commissions. To use the commission concept to grow your income in a general way, consider all of the gifts you receive to be commissions. Fulfill the goals of people giving your nonprofit money. If the work is ongoing, continue to honor the donor.

How, specifically, can your nonprofit tap commission income? First, identify experiences patrons might desire. What might you create? How about a behind-the-scenes tour for families during the winter holidays? A lecture or lecture series? A class for preschoolers designed around the patron’s special interests? Art or other objects? At the same time, identify price ranges.

Then, determine people who might commission these experiences or works. Who are your potential partners? Consider individuals, government, corporations, and foundations. Who would value something created just for them? Approach them with your ideas.

Finally, communicate with them and others that your nonprofit seeks commissions. In the pre-event presentation, the dance theatre staff made it clear they welcomed more commissions.

Commissions are an old technique that can still create something new. Seek them to meet your patron needs, expand your repertoire, and provide income to your nonprofit.