Fundraising for the Arts: What’s Broken, How We Fix It

Who is likely to make a significant impact? Let's give them a first-class experience.

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How can arts fundraising be more efficient?

A few days after my mom’s cancer returned for an encore performance, I asked her a simple question: “Mom, is there anywhere you want to go? Anything you want to do?”

Her eyes lit up and twinkled. She glowed. The life that would soon leave her became effervescent as she answered without missing a beat, “I want to see Jersey Boys!”

That made sense. She grew up in NYC and raised me in New Jersey. On weekends we’d take the train into the city to see Broadway shows like A Chorus Line, Cats, Grease, Chicago, Annie, Evita, Pippin, The Wiz, Hair and Dancin’. Our living room walls were adorned with framed show posters. In the corner, beside her mother’s hand-me-down piano, she filled an old wicker basket with playbills. She’d sing and play show tunes for hours with the windows open so the neighbors could hear her outside.

I bought the tickets and sometime later, after her chemotherapy began, we went to see Jersey Boys. She cried tears of joy and so did I.

I’ll never forget that experience or the ones that came before it. That’s why I give to the arts — to remember and honor my mother.

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Other supporters of arts and culture are just like me. Each one has a story — a life experience — that motivates them to give. Each one yearns for an opportunity to share their story with others. Each one longs to help keep arts and culture alive in our society, with access for all.

But what’s this got to do with fundraising? What’s broken?

The problems facing the arts are easy to find in every mailbox, computer, smart phone or tablet. There you’ll discover fundraising appeals and communications from arts and culture organizations that are sprayed one-to-many instead of personalized — one-to-one. These dispatches are misaligned; they fail to recognize each supporter’s life story and how that life story entwines with an organization’s mission. They tend to deliver very little value for donors. They interrupt, brag and beg.

What supporters hear sounds a lot like this:

“Hey you! We’re great! Can you spare some cash?”

Such outreach simply won’t work in a hyper-individualized age when all of us carry a smart phone wrapped in unique, custom protective skins. All of us want to be ourselves and we want the causes we support to recognize our distinctiveness.

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The organizations and institutions that have embraced and acquiesced to this reality are winning major game-changing donations. Those that haven’t are struggling with declining membership and lapsed donations.

If only arts and culture fundraisers had the time to engage supporters properly based on each one’s story, the reasons why they care, and their interests, money would flow more freely. But how can overworked and underpaid fundraisers capture the information they need so they can use it to deliver value to donors in line with their hearts? The answer lies in leveraging technology to conduct surveys that help well-meaning donors and supporters lean-in and tell their stories.

Surveys are magical. They enable supporters to divulge their interests in specific programs, how they’d like to give cash or other assets, and when.

Don’t doubt their efficacy. Fundraising professionals have used them for decades. In fact, there’s an old saying among the best development professionals: If you want advice, ask for money; but if you want money, ask for advice. Plus, donors — especially wealthy ones — love to take surveys to provide feedback to the causes they love in a low-pressure environment. It makes them feel valued in ways that inevitably lead to high-impact giving.

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Using data gleaned from surveys, fundraisers can prioritize their marketing outreach to become more discriminating and less interruptive. This is crucial in at atmosphere in which marketing budgets — operating budgets overall — are limited. Reaching out to everyone by spraying-and-praying costs money and it tends to annoy most supporters.

Plus, according to benchmarks collected by the Fundraising Report Card, 2.9% of arts, culture and humanities supporters make up 71.3% of donation dollars. So why shower everyone with mass marketing, when only about 3% of givers are likely to fund an organization’s operations? Why not concentrate more effectively on those who are likely to make a significant impact? Why not give them a first-class experience based on the information they willingly provide?

Focus yields results. Spending time engaging with the most passionate and wealthy supporters with highly personalized, highly relevant, exceptionally valuable, one-to-one communications is a solid strategy for success at comparatively low cost. Let’s fix what’s broken in fundraising for the arts so people with capacity feel empowered to give more and finally-challenged organizations spend less.