Odds are, there are families at your studio who are struggling financially. And if dance training ends up on their budget chopping block, doing what you can to keep students dancing doesn’t just benefit them and their family, but your retention as a studio owner.
But how do you offer financial support without breaking your own bank? According to these owners, who have maintained sizable scholarship programs at their studios for decades, the key is setting clearly defined parameters for scholarship families and thinking creatively when it comes to funding.
How to make your scholarship program run smoothly
Require an application
Bri Nelson, who owns Motions Dance Studio in Meridian, Idaho, recommends having any family who would like to be considered for a scholarship fill out an application. Hers asks both parents and students to write a short essay on how much financial assistance they’ll need—a partial, half or full tuition waiver? Costume fees or performance fees?—and what their dance goals are. Nelson doesn’t require any financial documentation for a family to prove its need, and every family that applies for a scholarship is awarded one.
Make it service-oriented
Including a give-back component in the scholarship program tends to ensure commitment, says Nelson. For instance, some of her scholarship families help keep the studio clean or sew costumes, saving her the cost of hiring a professional cleaning company or a seamstress. Scholarship recipients at Dana Richardson’s eponymous studio, Dana’s Dance, in Woodland Park, Colorado, have similar responsibilities.
Hire someone to oversee the program
At Nelson’s studio, where about 5 percent of her 400 students are on scholarship, a staff member is in charge of all things scholarship-related. “At first, I wasn’t tracking the program very well,” admits Nelson. “If we had too many students on scholarship, it would cut into revenue. So I hired someone to handle all of the elements that go along with it—the fundraising, making sure the parents have a way to give back.”
How to fund your studio scholarship
Bri Nelson includes a give-back component in her scholarship program. Photo courtesy Nelson.
Partner with a community organization
Melissa Dobbs, founder of the nonprofit Metropolitan School of the Arts (MSA) in Alexandria, Virginia, recommends initially raising money via outside sources, like corporate sponsors or local businesses, rather than approaching parents as your first asks. (You’ll need a nonprofit arm, or to be a nonprofit studio, in order for gifts to be tax-deductible.)
Upholding the organization’s mission is important when cultivating these relationships, says Dobbs. “You’re marketing self-confidence, self-worth, maximizing a child’s potential. When studio owners are trying to attract donors, they need to speak in those terms, not just in terms of dance,” she says.
Consider offering sponsors visibility at studio performances, on your website, and as a part of any media appearances, in exchange for their patronage. By partnering with community organizations, you’ll build lasting business relationships and promote your studio’s visibility at the same time.
To raise money for her scholarship program, Nelson has relied on everything from flower, cookie and hot cocoa sales at performances; silent actions; and studio nights at local restaurants, where the restaurant agrees to donate a percentage of sales. Richardson holds bake sales at her studio’s recitals, and has a program that allows dance families to donate gently used dancewear to the studio, which other studio families can purchase at highly reduced rates. All proceeds from that program go directly to scholarship funds.
“I’m not a big fan of asking people for money,” says Nelson. “But because of COVID, we have so many more kids on scholarships, so I’ve been more blunt: ‘This fundraiser is for scholarships. These flowers are for scholarships.'” The response, she says, has been overwhelmingly positive—parents with the ability to donate are more willing to give if they know their gift allows other students to continue dancing. “One family donated their whole stimulus check to our scholarship fund!” she says.
“Round up” program
MSA parents will soon be able to choose to round up their tuition fees each month to the nearest dollar, and the difference will directly fund scholarship programs. “Be very transparent with your current constituents that some of their immediate peers may be having a difficult time,” says Dobbs. “Rounding up their tuition dollars can help someone who can’t afford it.”
In addition to scholarships, there are other ways to give families a financial break. Since MSA’s inception, Dobbs has offered a work/study teacher-assistant program for students ages 12 to 18. “Participants earn an hourly rate per class they assist,” she says. “They’re required to go through a teacher training program that’s led by our director of education.” MSA’s work/study has also doubled as a faculty feeder program: Dobbs estimates that 16 percent of MSA’s current faculty are alumni who went through the teaching assistant training.
Or, consider altering payment schedules to suit parents. Offer parents the option to break monthly tuition payments into smaller chunks over a longer period of time, or allow them to pay for multiple months in one go when their financial burdens are lighter.