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When Nice Isn’t Enough: How Arts Fundraising Can Evolve

Are you tired? I’m tired.

Are you energized? I’m energized.

What conflicting feelings these are, the ones of “coming-out-of-the-pandemic-ness.” We’re not quite out of the woods yet, but we are continuing to rebuild and recover: rehearsals have resumed at theatres across the country, subscription packages have hit mailboxes, and fundraising efforts continue to thank and retain donors who have stepped up to support the arts over the past eighteen months of the COVID pandemic.

What the past eighteen months have taught about the arts and culture sector is that, above all, the arts are all about people. It takes a village to run an arts organization in America. It takes people to support the company through tickets and donations, and it takes people to return to the theatre, excited and inspired to experience their favorite art form after eighteen months of isolation.

How do we take the lessons of empathy, understanding, communication, and equity that we reflected on during a time of crisis and hold them close in our fundraising moving forward?

Fundraisers have noted that during the pandemic, donors gave on top of their annual donation; many organizations doubled (even tripled) the size of their donor base through new donations; and major givers provided leadership gifts that allowed staff to remain employed and insured. All of this in support of the mission and the long-term sustainability of organizations. We found the opportunity to humanize the arts in a direct way to our donors during the pandemic.

How do we take the lessons of empathy, understanding, communication, and equity that we reflected on during a time of crisis and hold them close in our fundraising moving forward? It would be counterintuitive for our sector, one based on community and access for all, to lose momentum at a pivotal time such as this. We must also hold true our commitment to creating equitable space for all communities and turn intention into action when it comes to Inclusion, Equity, Diversity, and Accessibility (IDEA) efforts.

The landscape of fundraising is evolving with IDEA efforts in mind. The pandemic proved that communities who support the arts and culture sector have tremendous capability to give, and it is our responsibility to retain and steward those gifts accordingly while ensuring that our messaging welcomes new givers at all levels. As fundraisers, we must hold ourselves accountable to that responsibility over the next eighteen months. So where do we start?

Money and relationships.

In fundraising, money can feel like the bandage by which problems are solved. Budget shortfalls can be resolved by asking Joe Donor to write a check for the difference. A show loses money? We will just get a bit more aggressive in the next fundraising campaign. However, these are temporary solutions and can be detrimental for long-term sustainability of relationships with donors and your base. Fundraisers often hear about “donor fatigue,” a practice in which an organization or fundraiser keeps going back to “reliable” donors (read: “rich”) to help make up losses with additional gifts. The pandemic found donors of all giving levels giving to multiple causes to support them during the pandemic, but the givers are as tired of the pandemic as the fundraisers are.

A team of fundraising staff must begin to reckon with their social positionality within the fundraising ecosystem.

Our first priority should be gratitude for the community’s support of the organization. Find creative ways to thank the community. Tell the story of how the organization sustained itself through the pandemic. Speak about the uncertainty of the future, but with a hopeful tone, as donors are eager to get back and be a part of this exciting arts audience renaissance we will witness over the next five to seven years.

A Black man standing in front of a mountain.

Abaton, Adetola. Imagination (16 x 20in, 2021, mixed media on canvas panel).

Internally, a team of fundraising staff must begin to reckon with their social positionality within the fundraising ecosystem. Conversations around IDEA work can not just stay conversations; we must take action. To better understand what action steps we can take to center community rather than the wealthy few, we must recognize that our relationship with wealth and money often holds weight that reflects our biases towards added value to an institution. Therefore, if we do not attempt to decouple money from value, we risk giving power to the few and able rather than the community at large.

Here are some ways you and your fundraising team to begin the process of reflecting on your social positionality:

  • Fundraising teams should identify their own social identity within the context of the fundraising ecosystem. One tool I often share is the University of Michigan’s Social Identity Wheel. Take five minutes out of your next staff meeting to fill it out, then reflect on what you noticed. How difficult was it? Lean into the discomfort and nuance of having to name your own personal identity.
  • Next, take some time to reflect on your organization's mission then find two or three other missions of similarly sized arts organizations. How are they different/similar? And then, set your phone time for five minutes and write your personal mission statement.
  • Refrain from reflection as your move to the next exercise: writing your values statement. Using “I will” statements, write down three to five principles you hold to be true about fundraising and the arts. For example, I might write “I will truthfully and ethically serve the donor to the best of my ability.” Allow these to be pledges of ideas and principles you will revisit throughout the course of your next year or so. Write them in pencil and then share out with your group either verbally or on a shared document. Try not to identify names with the principles; anonymity in this exercise allows you to see where the whole group’s values lie. Once again, find what you connect with, and lean into what makes you feel uncomfortable. What holds tension? What challenges? Do not create arguments from this, but allow dialogue. Consensus does not need to be reached, as this is a sharing out of individual ideas and a reflection of a group’s own positionality and values.
  • To take it a step further, begin a meeting by spending three to five minutes writing down your answer for these questions: “What is my relationship to wealth/money? What happens to me when I have it? What happens when I lose it?” Your group should keep these answers privately. Throughout the year, check in on this exercise and reflect on how it has maybe changed or evolved.
  • Finally, a colleague once suggested that we always end meetings with this question: “How is equity showing up in our work?” It’s a very straightforward question, yet it allows individuals to discuss how they are seeing racial equity work functioning in fundraising operations and practices, as well as in team culture. While it is preferable for the team lead to prompt the group with this question, a team member who feels comfortable asking the question all can, too. This exercise encourages conversations within teams that allow different perspectives, inspire curiosity, and invite in collaboration to creating new ways to build community together. Encouraging thoughtful and honest conversations is a key to advancing this work with your teams.

Of course, this article is merely a starting point. By no means is the work finished, and we do not all have the answers. We must, though, lead with intention. Leading with intention, holding the past, and looking toward the future—while ensuring that we do the work to create equitable spaces for communities to experience the arts and view arts philanthropy as a tool for healing—will have an impact. It won’t happen overnight; it is clear that recovery of our sector will be a long haul. Healing will require members of teams in organizations to hold one another accountable, reflect often, and move the work forward by turning intention into action. First and foremost, however, we must share a vocabulary in talking about equity work. It starts with ourselves and recognizing our own positionality within society and the structures we are existing within. From there, we can work to decolonize fundraising and create a community-centered model for a more just future of giving in the arts.

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