Case Study: Highland Arts Theatre Fundraising Campaign

The pandemic prompts a fundraising campaign and an “all access” approach for this community theatre.

Sustaining a performance venue and professional theatre is a daunting and complex task in normal times, but the pandemic has made it exponentially more challenging.

With the decline or total loss of ticket sales, Canada’s theatres, big and small, have suffered substantially.

Thanks to a bold move by the leaders behind the Highland Arts Theatre, in Sydney, NS., during the pandemic, the future is bright for this beloved local landmark.

Case Study

About this place

When St. Andrew’s Church in Sydney, NS was decommissioned in 2013, it came as another blow to the downtown core, which has faced many challenges in the decades-long decline of Cape Breton’s steel and coal mining industries. But within a year the renovated building re-opened its doors as the Highland Arts Theatre – or The HAT as it is locally known – and before long the historic 1911 building had become an important cultural hub for the region’s performing arts.

The Hat employs local playwrights and performers with a special emphasis on Cape Breton’s songs and stories.

The Challenge

Like many theatre directors and operators across the country, Wesley J. Colford, the Artistic Director of the HAT had to cancel all performances and lay off staff at the outset of the pandemic.

“We were faced with an impossible challenge and the threat of imminent bankruptcy,” said Colford.

The Approach

The HAT team had been mulling over a subscription model (the concept of charging a recurring fee) for some time. “But we didn’t want to work four times as hard for something that could only be a meager shadow of the model that only mostly worked before the pandemic. So instead, we threw out all the rules.”

HAT Campaign

Fundamentally re-thinking their business model, the HAT launched its #radicalaccess fundraising campaign in the summer of 2020, asking community members to pledge monthly donations – effectively ensuring an operational budget for the theatre. In turn, the HAT committed to offering free public access to all 12 of its main stage performances, a new play or musical commissioned from a Black or Indigenous theatre artist, new radio plays, and more.

The HAT team used videos, social media, and email to galvanize the support of their network and the broader community. They also set a series of campaign goals. When each goal (or level) was reached, the community unlocked greater community benefits, like scholarships and summer employment opportunities for Sydney students. These goals served to motivate donors and maintain momentum of the campaign.


The #radicalaccess campaign required a bold vision and risk-taking, but their unique story garnered national and international attention.

“The original version of the plan was to stay shut down and try to raise $100,000. Instead, by offering a full season of productions free, we were able to raise $600,000 and attract supporters from all across North America.” Explains Colford.

The HAT now benefits from a steady stream of donation income and a community of supporters. Time will tell, but they have the opportunity to build loyalty with these new donors, who could support the theatre for years to come.

What is more, by offering free entry, Colford and the HAT team have taken steps to democratize theatre access. “Theatre doesn’t have to be an elitist treat”, Colford explains, with the bonus that they are now seeing new people through the door.

In achieving its goal, the HAT has become Canada’s first professional community-funded theatre, ensuring that this Sydney landmark has a bright future.

What does the HAT case example teach us?

01. Donors respond to a clear and compelling vision.

The HAT team motivated donors with a series of fundraising goals. They painted a clear picture of the community benefits unlocked at each level and they maintained momentum by celebrating success along the way.

02. Fundraising appeals are powerful when the messages are sincere and delivered from the heart.

Using various communication channels, the HAT team spoke candidly about the impact of the pandemic on the theatre and they made a compelling case for their need.

03. Don’t be afraid to ask!

Fundraising can be daunting, but if we don’t ask, we don’t receive. Yes, there are always other worthy community causes, but as the HAT campaign demonstrates, we can make a powerful case for the community benefit of a historic place.


To learn more about the Highland Arts Theatre and their #radicalaccess campaign visit

Written by Alison Faulknor, Director of Philanthropy and Partnerships, National Trust for Canada