Sydney Film Festival: Starting a bequest program with slim resources

Georgia Shepherd, Philanthropy Manager at Sydney Film Festival discusses the organisation’s philanthropy program and strategy, and how they used a well-known film genre to promote their campaign.

From its grass roots beginnings in 1954, Sydney Film Festival (SFF) has had a long and distinguished history and continues to attract an impressively loyal following whilst staying relevant to new generations of film lovers. In its 67 years, it has provided a window on the world for Australian audiences and nurtured and supported the development of Australia’s film industry and film culture.

SFF’s philanthropy program is relatively new though. It started with the help of a Creative Partnerships Plus1 funding grant in 2015. In mid-2017, newly into the role of Philanthropy Manager, I had the opportunity to design its next phase. At that time the program was centred almost entirely on its Patron Program. It was a successful model, but its growth was heavily reliant on referrals from Board members, and that was reaching the limits of its potential.

In planning the future of the program, it was clear we needed to develop a broader base of donors from which to build a pipeline. It also seemed important that opportunities to get involved should be inclusive, drawing on the engagement of the Festival’s strong community base. We had to find a way to build a culture of giving and explore untapped potential donors within the Festival’s audience base. In particular I felt we had a lot to gain from deepening connections with SFF’s loyal subscribers, regular Flexipass buyers, and its alumni of past-Committee members and volunteers; some of whom, now well into retirement, had been attending the Festival for most of their adult life.

Research into bequest data in Australia had shown me that loyal and committed supporters who may not be able to afford to support the organisations they love during their lifetime, were exactly the demographic who would consider leaving a bequest – as a way of expressing their passion and passing it on to future generations.

Launching a bequest program was ambitious with only one person concentrating on philanthropy. Our new strategy started with raising public awareness about how important donations were to the future of the Festival. Without talking about bequests as one way to support, we were potentially leaving some of our most ardent supporters out and potentially missing valuable opportunities. I imagined that many of the subscribers and volunteers I’d met at my first Festival would want to know what they could do to ensure the Festival would be there for their grandchildren and beyond.

Approach & Strategies

Here’s what we did to make a start:

  • We included the bequest program officially in our philanthropy strategy, gaining Board approval and buy in.
  • One of our Board Members became our first confirmed Bequestor and we published her story on our website.
  • We talked to the whole SFF team about bequests to allay discomfort about the subject and the messaging we were about to start disseminating.
  • We enlisted the subscriptions team and Festival interns to gather as many names as we could of past and current subscribers and volunteers, and past committee and board members, to create an alumni list. (SFF doesn’t have a CRM or access to ticketing information from more than 10 years ago, so this was a largely manual task with lots of phone calls, emails and research, and a great first step in building those relationships).
  • We planned two new annual events to build on those conversations.
  • We created a bequest brochure to send out with subscription materials, in response to enquiries, and to hand out at events.
  • We began to offer prompts in post-Festival surveys and in eNews communications enabling audiences to request information about donations or bequests.

With all of these steps in place we decided to incorporate the message into our on-screen fundraising campaign which was shown on cinema screens across SFF in 2018.

To create the campaign, we enlisted the help and creativity of advertising agency, M&C Saatchi. Our objectives were to build awareness of the Festival’s need for donations and let audiences know the ways they could support SFF. In our briefing sessions, the team at M&CS were captivated by a comment our CEO had made about bequests: “you don’t have to be rich to make a bequest, you just have to be dead”.

This inspired SFF’s first fundraising ad, Keep Our Festival Alive, which used a much-loved (though niche) movie trope to tell the story – the zombie. It was a lot of fun to produce, shot in the alley beside the State Theatre where SFF screens each year, with amazing support from both the agency and a network of wonderful film industry friends. In the ad, with body parts failing and limbs disintegrating, our Zombie listed the ways you could donate to SFF, with the final option “….or you could make a bequest,….. which means…. you can even donate when you’re dead”, which was subtitled because as he uttered the words, his whole jaw dislodged and fell off.

It was macabre, but hilarious and it approached the topic in a fresh, funny and light-hearted way. True to SFF’s values – it was bold and courageous. It was also risky, which we anticipated would generate very mixed reactions, given the very broad audience demographic.

Some loved and still remember it fondly, especially younger and middle-aged audience members, some of whom were hearing about bequests for the first time, others of whom enjoyed the humour. Most of the complaints came from SFF subscribers and long-term attendees who just didn’t like the zombie genre. Interestingly though, they were mostly incredulous about why SFF was seeking donations. They thought they were already supporting SFF by buying their subscription each year.

The provocation and the responses of those who didn’t like it, led to some great conversations and helped inform the next step in our narrative around fundraising and bequests. Thanks to those exchanges, we were able to articulate more clearly to this group that total income from ticket sales covered only 28% of the costs to produce the Festival, and income from subscriptions was only 6% of that.

That information changed their understanding of how the Festival’s financial model had shifted dramatically since the days when subscribers alone paid for the whole Festival. Internally, we thanked our zombie who had helped us identify just how we needed to convey this message. And in hindsight, we’re convinced that a more gentle, innocuous campaign would not have started these frank conversations which established the urgency and importance of philanthropy to SFF’s future.


Without the resources to do much more than the campaign above, we’ve been surprised at the response we have receive since we started talking about bequests at both Sydney Film Festival and also to our Travelling Film Festival (TFF) audiences across regional Australia.

The biggest surprise has been from regional audiences; an indicator of how important cultural events are to these communities. In only two years, we’ve had one bequest confirmed from an audience member from Alice Springs, and requests for information and conversations with 27 other regional audience members associated with the TFF. At SFF we now have three confirmed bequestors and nine other firm prospects we are stewarding.

We started our bequest program with few resources and no expectation of an imminent financial benefit. The excellent research I found that Giving Australia had done into bequests in Australia was a great motivator to get started. Using the data they gathered in their 2016 surveys, showing that the average bequest amount is $75,000, indicates that if only 10% of SFF and TFF initial enquiries crystalise into modest bequests, they represent a potential of $285,000 additional income to SFF over the next 20-30 years.

SFF’s Philanthropy Team has grown this year to a staff of two, thanks to the generous support of an individual donor. This means we are now well-placed to expand our stewardship and create meaningful engagement activities for this important group of donor prospects.

Key Lessons Learned in Establishing SFF’s Bequest Program:

  • Taking the time to develop a strategy and setting KPI’s helped guide our bequest program and measure our results.
  • Making sure the whole organisation understood the approach and felt comfortable about the messaging has been helpful.
  • Getting to know our audience well has been essential to the planning of events and communications.
  • Responding to enquiries personally and promptly has been a challenge, given the limits of time and staff, but is essential to building those relationships.
  • Be creative. We took a calculated risk with our Zombie and used the response to learn and refine our strategy.