I’ve spent the better part of my career at arts organizations. My love of theater brought me into the nonprofit world.
So let me tell you a little story. One day I was talking with people at a social service organization. They complained that they had it so much harder when it came to fundraising. An arts organization has all these wealthy donors! And they love giving to something they can enjoy themselves!
I just laughed. Because in all my years in the arts I usually heard just the opposite. “It’s hard to raise money for the arts! It’s not like we feed hungry children!”
So let’s begin by saying that often the grass is greener – and more bare – on both sides of the fence. It’s all about your perspective.
The basics are still the basics. Fundraising is about building relationships. It’s about connections between donors and your mission. That’s true whether you’re housing people, curing disease, or making art possible.
But the arts have some unique challenges and advantages.
The case for support
You look at a world of hurt. And have a difficult time “justifying” a request to support art. “How can I ask for money for theater when people are hungry?”
It’s not wise to ignore this question. It’s a good question. But the answer is to be found in your audience. And this is where it’s important for a fundraiser to understand the art form.
If you don’t believe art matters – if you don’t feel it has an important role in people’s lives and in our culture – then you might reconsider working for an arts organization. It will be hard for you to raise money.
If, however, you’re a true believer – if you think art has the power to change lives, even change the course of history… well, then you share something with your audience.
(Working in a smaller community, I can also tell you that people who support theater and symphony and museums are often the same people who support shelters and food banks and literacy organizations. Donors donate – and have no obligation to be consistent to make our lives easier!)
So before you begin, you need to answer the question: why does our art matter? Unsure how to explain it? Go to the experts: current donors. Ask them why it matters. Learn their stories. Dig into their emotional attachment to your organization.
That’s where you’ll find the most compelling answer.
This is a related challenge. Let’s face it – no one is going to die if the show or new exhibit doesn’t open.
On the other hand, the show must go on – so you do have some built-in deadlines to work with. At the theater, we had a performance season that ran September through June. So I found I had a few calendar-based deadlines I could use. The end of the calendar year was one. The end of the season another (though the weakest). The last was a few months from the start of the new season. That’s when we were making final decisions about what we could offer. And those decisions revolved around what we had to spend.
Donors or patrons?
One of the consistent problems I faced as a fundraiser was an inside problem. Who owns the list, marketing or fundraising? What’s the priority, signing on new subscribers or finding new donors? Can you raise money from someone who is not a subscriber yet?
Of course, this is a leadership issue. And a philosophical one.
Leaders should never allow a tug of war between the two income-generating departments. And philosophically, the answer is so simple – though too rarely understood. Quit looking at it from the organization’s point of view and start looking at it like a patron/donor.
When you can get past this challenge, the two departments can work dynamically together. And then both are more successful. When donors and patrons are treated like individuals, they’re more likely to be loyal.
When they get a steady, consistent stream of communications, not some from here and some from there, they won’t be confused.
So get the systems together. Stop fighting over territory. Start working together.
Unless yours is a particularly staid art form, you may find your donations vary based on the public’s reactions to your organization’s work. If yours takes on challenging topics, you know you risk losing donors – sometimes large ones.
The best antidotes for this are education and relationships. If those donors are caught off guard, or feel like the last to know, you might have problems. Bring them close, though, and that’s less likely. You may have to push to be sure you’re able to do this. But push. It’s worth it.
You rarely work 9-5 if you work in the performing arts area. Get ready to put full days in at the office and then stay through to meet donors.
If you’re in a leadership position, it’s important to take this into consideration. Offer your staff flexibility. Some days will need to be long – others can be short. If you’re a staff person, carve out that space. Take your lunch away from the office. Make some flexibility demands when you’re hired or during reviews.
It can be demanding. On the other hand, you’ll see a lot of good theater, dance, or music performed!
Performances and openings and more
Arts organizations’ biggest advantage is art. They have tremendous opportunities to bring people directly to their mission. They can offer educational and social opportunities other types of nonprofits can’t.
Don’t waste those chances.
Donors love those opportunities, too. Many years ago, I reworked my organization’s donor benefits. We had been doing the old tote bag/t-shirt thing. Instead, we began offering open rehearsals, backstage tours, and dinners with artists. The chance to see behind the scenes and meet artists was much more appealing than a coffee mug!
And every time donors came to the theater, we had the chance to build on their love for it. And we had a chance to meet donors personally.
A common language
Chances are your donors share something important with you: you speak the same language.
Use it to help donors feel like the insiders they are. Just be sure it’s inclusive, not exclusive. The arts don’t need to be snotty.
You’ve shared experiences, too. Audience members know the quiet thrill of a curtain rising or that moment’s pause before applause washes over the room.
Feed their passion. Use these commonalities to build stronger relationships with supporters.
Arts lovers love art. So supporting their favorite art form provides something they can enjoy themselves.
They’re also often keenly interested in sharing their passion. So education programs for new audiences are terrific funding opportunities.
The bottom line
For those who love them, the arts are not frivolous. They’re not extras or nice-to-have. They’re what gives life depth and meaning. They’re how people come together – to wrestle with big questions, to understand the human condition, to expand their worldview.
To be effective as a fundraiser in the arts, you need to connect to your own love. Understand your art form. (Being an English/Drama major meant I could discuss plays with well-educated patrons and artists. That was important!) Wear your passion on your sleeve.
And remember: You don’t need to excuse your cause. Your organization won’t be for everyone. So find your people – they’re already in your audience or building.
Meet them, listen to what they say – then use the information to talk to other donors and possible donors.
It’s rewarding work. I will never stop missing it, myself. And the people I bonded with years ago over our shared love for theater are still some of my favorite people.
It’s an exciting privilege to work for an organization creating great art. Enjoy every second you can!