Arts and Culture Fundraising: the Story to Tell When Nobody Is Dying

The standard formula for a fundraising message goes like this:

Something is not right. It needs to be changed, or somebody might suffer in some terrible way — maybe even die. By making a donation now, you can save a life.

If you craft a message like that with drama, urgency, simplicity, and clarity, you will probably do very well.

All that is true if you are working in one of these sectors:

  • Poverty
  • Social service
  • Health
  • Animal welfare
  • Environment
  • A number of others similar to these.

But there’s a big wrinkle. And if you are raising funds for an arts or culture organization, I can almost see you scratching your head or even rolling your eyes.

Because the standard formula doesn’t really apply to you!

Yes, you read that right.

If you’ve been listening to me (or just about any fundraising expert), you might be struggling with your fundraising because we’ve been leading you astray with the standard formula.

Here’s why the standard formula doesn’t do the job for you: If the show doesn’t go on, nobody dies. Nobody even suffers all that badly.

That doesn’t mean the show is unimportant. It just means you have to approach the whole conversation a little differently.

And that’s how fundraising is different for arts and culture:

Your donors don’t give out of altruistic compassion for the suffering of others. They do it mostly for themselves.

This becomes extremely evident when we note that your donors are also your customers. In fact, they are typically customers first, donors second. They’re already giving you money in the form of their purchases.

Why would they donate at all? There are several reasons they donate:

  • To make sure the art form will continue to be available for them. They understand the economics of the arts. They know that admissions and tickets don’t fully fund their favorite arts.
  • To get benefits. They value access and privileges that enhance their experience of the art.
  • To get recognition among their peers and community.
  • To “pay it forward.” This is the part of their motivation that comes closest to the standard fundraising formula. They value your art for what it has meant in their lives, and they know it’s important to pass that along to others.
  • To boost their community. Most of your donors know how your artform improves the quality of life, the reputation, and the economy of the community. This is rarely a primary giving motivation, though.

But it’s never to “save” someone. The main thing this tells us is that arts fundraising is only slightly about donors helping other people. It’s first about donors enriching their own lives.

So the action you call them to needs to include:

  • Keep the art available.
  • Get donor benefits — be specific about them, including what benefits are available at what giving levels.
  • Be recognized for your contribution. Bake donor recognition into your program, from donor lists in programs to naming opportunities.

(One thing you might think is notably missing from this list: To reach out to children or marginalized communities (i.e. outreach). I’m not saying outreach is unimportant to donors. Only that it’s not a primary reason most of them give. Most arts organizations have outreach as part of their mission, and find that there’s a (small) segment of donors who are extremely devoted to it. If you are an organization that is all (or mostly) about outreach, more (possibly all) of your donors may be motivated by outreach than the reasons above. That means your story will be somewhere between the standard formula and what I’m describing here.

The story to tell for arts fundraising

Since donors give primarily for themselves, the story you tell should be about someone like them. Not a superstar. Not an expert. Not a celebrity (unless the celebrity is clearly a fellow non-expert).

And the story they tell should be “What this artform means to me.” Or more specifically, “What something presented by this organization has meant for me.”

Here’s an example:

Cancer took my dad before his time. There are a lot of details to take care of when someone dies — everything from planning the memorial service to dealing with the estate, to cancelling subscriptions and getting rid of clothing. You’re almost too busy to mourn.

A few weeks after he died, while I was still in the thick of it all, I went to a Symphony concert. On the program was Gustav Mahler’s Symphony #5, a piece I know and love. Dad hated Mahler. We used to argue about it all the time. But he deeply loved that Adagietto (slow movement) of Mahler’s Fifth.

When the orchestra got to the Adagietto, I was taken by surprise at how powerful it was. Every phrase reached straight into my heart and wrung it out. I could almost literally see and hear my father, whom I thought I’d never see or hear again. I wept and shook and squeezed my hands into fists.

The Symphony took me on a difficult journey that night. But I’ll always be thankful for it.

Many of your donors have experiences like this that they can share. Make it a habit to find their stories and tell them in your fundraising and your reporting back. Because each story like this leads naturally to a fundraising ask: If the Symphony is important to you too, donate today to make sure it stays available for all of us!

Another way to tell this story is to describe the artform from that same point of view, but in your own words. Remind them how it feels and what they get from it:

Remember Rigoletto this season when the Duke leaves the love-struck Gilda? Their good-bye is a glorious 15-minute duet. You’ve probably never sung a duet like that with someone you love but you know exactly what they’re feeling! A tidal wave of emotion. We’ve all felt that, and the opera captures it and adds so much beauty and depth.

And that’s the power of opera. It makes your life richer and fuller. It’s a place where we come together and feel deeply. How hollow and sad life would be without that!

This second approach doesn’t require you to find and interview an articulate audience member, but it does mean you have to know the material.

What this approach to the story does most is that it’s about the artform as experienced by the audience. Not the insiders and professionals of your organization. That can make telling these stories a challenge. The audience/donor take on what’s happening is most likely simplistic, even “dumbed down” in the eyes of your insiders.

Finally, here are a few things your arts fundraising should not be about — because few donors care:

  • Because we work so hard, care so much and are so excellent.
  • Because this artform is “important.” Normal non-expert people love your art because it gives them pleasure, not because they “should” love it. That’s a dead-end for fundraising (and for sales) that is unfortunately much too common.
  • Because everyone should “support the arts.”

Related post: You Have No Dramatic Stories to Tell? You’re Looking at it Wrong!

Learn more about how to connect with donors in a meaningful way by taking our most popular online course, Irresistible Communications for Great Nonprofits. It’s available for members of The Fundraisingology Lab. Check it out.

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7 Comments. Leave new

  • Stephanie Pierce
    July 20, 2019 1:00 am

    This is very helpful, thank you!

    Reply
  • Thank you for an arts and culture targeted blog post! After working in the health sector for many years I switched to fundraising for the arts and am incredibly happy, but the story we tell for fundraising is very different. And this article nails what it is that makes our donors give. Private foundations and the corporate sector eagerly support the marginalized youth in the arts (almost to the point that they ignore the operating costs that keep these programs available), but the individual donors give because of how the arts have enriched their own lives. The other bonus is that we have incredibly loyal and engaged donors. Arts and culture is truly an amazing field to be in for a fundraiser!

    Reply
  • Joni Gerking
    July 20, 2019 2:04 am

    Jeff, thank you so much for this post! As a fundraiser for a small private elementary school, this was an important eye-opener. We serve many low income families and donors are a huge part of what helps us continue. As you said, no one is dying and there are other options.
    Thank you for explaining how to better reach the people who would be willing to provide support.

    Reply
  • Sarah McDaniel
    July 20, 2019 2:09 am

    Such a good post! This was a wonderful reminder of the story to tell about the arts. Thank you.

    Reply
  • Thank you Jeff! This hit me like a ton of bricks, that suddenly lifted to give me great relief. I no longer have to feel guilty for asking support for a ministry where “no one will die”.

    Reply
  • Thank you, Jeff! Your timing was perfect. It was just what I needed this morning….inspiration! Does this mean I can put away my “Where’s the Puppy” poster? ;-D

    Reply

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