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Arts Fundraising Is DIFFERENT – and You Can Do It!

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I may have led you astray.

It was an oversight, and I’m not the only one who has done this particular disservice for my fellow fundraising professionals.

If you are a fundraiser for the arts (or causes similar to the arts) and you’ve sought fundraising training, I (and many others) may have been told things that don’t quite apply to your fundraising.

Like “Fundraising is all about helping other people.”

True for most fundraisers. Maybe not for you.

When you’re fundraising for the arts, there’s a fundamental difference from most other types of fundraising: Donations don’t only help other people. They help the donor. Other people also get something out of it, but donors are generally giving to make their own lives better.  

I’m talking about arts in the broadest possible sense: performing arts, museums, cultural and conservation organizations, literary organizations, film organizations, venues, and festivals. But also “arts adjacent” organizations, including public broadcasting, zoos, aquariums, gardens, and many types of alumni fundraising. Houses of worship are often in this category too.

If you are in the arts or related fields, here are the things that motivate donors to give. They are approximately in order of importance, though that order varies from one organization to the next.

Why they donate #1: To enhance their experience

Most arts donors are consumers of the art they support. They buy tickets, admissions, memberships, etc. Most would be just as happy to do so whether the art they enjoy was presented by a nonprofit or a for-profit.

This mainly means Donor Benefits. Things that enhance their experience. They can be practical things like parking, early access to high-demand tickets, access to lounges, or discounts in the gift shop. They can also be more aesthetic benefits, like tickets to dress rehearsals, meet-the-artist events, backstage passes, and more.

They are essentially “improving” their ticket purchase. You could argue that this isn’t the same thing as a donation.

But it’s very important. Make sure you have donor benefits and work to make them as interesting and relevant as possible.

Some arts organizations, recognizing the importance of this motivation, make a mistake: they make their fundraising entirely about the benefits. That almost turns the whole idea of giving into a commercial transaction and can block the possibility of extraordinary giving.

Why they donate #2: To keep it available for themselves

Arts donors know the deal: It costs a lot more to put on the show than you can get in ticket revenue. Just look at the price of tickets to for-profit Broadway shows. Donations voluntarily cover the gap.

They love the arts, and can’t imagine a world without it. So they voluntarily cover the gap. To them, it’s an honor and a joy to do so.

You’re telling would-be donors, “Without your extra support, you could lose this amazing thing you value!”

There are a few ways to invoke this deal. You can remind them how amazing the art is:

Remember the last scene of Fidelio, when the prisoners are set free? Florestan, whose wife has just saved his life, sings, “Oh unspeakable happiness” — and he means his joy at being with her again. The prisoners echo, “Oh unspeakable happiness!” — and they mean their freedom. Together they all sing about love, freedom, and the triumph of the human spirit — in all its meanings, bringing all together in a powerful chorus. Only opera can do that!

Or you can remind them how the art makes them feel:

You remember that spark you felt when a symphonic work surprised you, resulting in perked ears and wider eyes. Sometimes it’s a piece you already knew, performed in a new way. Other times a new work takes you by storm. The impact is tangible. It changes your life. You have a source of joy and wonder from that day forward!

Why they donate #3: For recognition

More so than with most fundraising, donors to the arts like to be seen as donors to the arts. This is why so many things, from whole buildings to individual seats and even tiles on the floor have donors’ names on them.

It’s a way donors establish their legacy, or show they are part of an exclusive group. It even gives some a type of “bragging rights.”

Here are some ways to feed the need for recognition:

  • List donor names in the program or other printed materials.
  • Put donor names on more permanent things, like bricks, rooms, equipment, etc.
  • Create endowed chairs.

These first three motivations are relatively “selfish” – they are more about the donor than about other people. In a sense, they are more like purchases than donations. The rest of the motivations are more like typical fundraising – outward-looking and at least partly other-centered.

Why they donate #4: Community Pride

Think of the community boosters you know. They care about the reputation of the community. They feel “we deserve” this art form for the “tone” it gives us. 

They also know that the arts boost the quality of life and economy of the area.

To activate this motivation, speak directly to them about the community:

You’ll keep one of the world’s great orchestras strong and growing right here in Cleveland. You know how important the Orchestra is for us as a community. You know the pride you feel when our Orchestra stands out on the world’s stage. Your support today will help sustain The Cleveland Orchestra now and for the future.

Why they donate #5: To keep it available for everyone

This is closely related to #2 above, but it’s more about other people. It’s very much like typical fundraising. This is where most of the fundraising training works for arts fundraising.

You are saying to donors, “You know it’s important for all of us to keep this artform going. Donate to keep it strong and available.”

Who are the other people? It’s often young people, or future generations, often reached by outreach programs in schools or special events for schools. It can also be underserved people and communities. 

A good expression of this is, “Pay it forward…” Like this:

You love the Symphony because, at some point in your life, someone — your parents, a teacher, a friend — gave you the gift of knowing and feeling the power of the music. Now you can “pay it forward” so someone just like you can receive the gift that has meant so much to you….

One way arts fundraising is just like all other kinds of fundraising is this: Arts fundraising should be mainly about donors, not about the organization.

Let me show you a real-life bad example (revised to make sure you can’t tell who wrote it), where the arts fundraiser assumed their job was to brag about their awesomeness:

One of the great privileges of my job is to observe the joy the artistic excellence of [Organization] brings to our audiences of all ages night after night. Your gift allows us to reach more than 500,000 people each year — including more than 45,000 students, teachers, and their families – through performances here in town and in communities around the U.S. and the world, and millions more through our radio broadcasts and video streams. Your gift supports our ongoing pursuit of artistic excellence and helps us continue bringing the best artists in the world to our stage.

Instead, put the donor in the picture:

When our musicians go out on stage, they never forget that in a sense – you are up there with them! Your support makes the music possible. Your giving makes it available to people of all ages across the whole community. You are keeping live classical music alive and vital!

Not all arts organizations are alike. Nor are their donors. There are some that would put the motivators in different orders, or omit a couple of them. 

Members of The Fundraisingology Lab have exclusive access to Jeff Brooks’ workshop: Fundraising for Arts and Culture. Find out more about the workshops, courses and our special members-only community here.

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  • Jeff Brooks

    Jeff Brooks is a Fundraisingologist at Moceanic. He has more than 30 years of experience in fundraising, and has worked as a writer and creative director on behalf of top nonprofits around the world, including CARE, St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, Feeding America, and many others.

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