From the Archives: The Art of Fundraising

As the year comes to a close and my inbox fills with last minute e-solicitations, I’ve found myself reflecting on things I’ve learned over my 25+ years in the cultural sector, especially relating to fundraising and philanthropy. This sent me to my archives, where I found a post from 2012 that I thought was worth re-sharing. I hope you find some valuable nuggets here about The Art of Fundraising. I wish you all the best for a successful year-end that sets the stage for an inspired 2016. —AB

I’ve spent a good portion of the past two-plus decades engaged in building resources for the arts, especially through fundraising. I’d like to think that I’ve learned a few things, and shared what I’ve learned with others. Along the way, I’ve developed some maxims that reflect my experiences and philosophy about this work. Things like:

a. There is an art and a science to fundraising – you can learn the theories and techniques, but applying them creatively is where the magic happens. 

b. Fundraising doesn’t occur in a vacuum. It’s a team effort that embraces the full organization and involves everyone, from the intern to the trustee to the volunteer.

c. There’s nothing more important than doing your homework. Success comes from combining your passion and dedication with substantive preparation. 

d. Great fundraisers are great storytellers.

e. At its core, fundraising is community building. It’s about inspiring engagement that leads to investment.

f. The sweet spot of cultural fundraising is the intersection of program (what you offer), brand (who you are) and audience (who you serve).

g. You must be personally committed to this work and the organization you represent because you can’t feign authenticity. 

h. Fundraising is a lot like life: challenging, uplifting, unyielding, transformative. It is what you make it.

"At its core, Fundraising is community building."

Then I re-read Ken Burnett’s Relationship Fundraising and was reminded that wise souls have been sharing their experiences long before I even knew that there was such a profession as fundraising, let alone that I would explore it in the cultural sector.

In his book, Burnett summarizes the lessons he learned under the wing of Harold Sumption, considered the father of 20th-century fundraising in the U.K. Below are Burnett’s Essential Foundations of Fundraising^. (Disclaimer: I've taken some minor license here, converting a bit of Burnett's prose to American English grammar and currency, eliminating a few for redundancy, plus added some commentary of my own, in italics). Here goes:

  1. People give to people. Not to organizations, mission statements or strategies. You’ve heard it before: it’s all about relationships.
  2. Fundraising is not about money. It’s about the necessary work that needs doing. Money is the means to an end.
  3. Fundraisers need to be able to see things through their donors’ eyes. If they are to understand you, you are first to understand them.
  4. It helps if you are a donor yourself. No one should be a fundraiser without first being a donor. If you ask, you gotta give, too.
  5. Friend making comes before fundraising. Fundraising is not selling. Fundraisers and donors are on the same side. To be clear, your job as a fundraiser is to make “friends of the institution.”
  6. Fundraising is about needs, as well as achievements. People will applaud achievement, but will give to meet a need. Need is a subjective term when it comes to cultural fundraising; purpose or impact often carry more weight than need.
  7. Fundraisers need to learn to harness the simple power of emotion. Fundraising has to appeal first to the emotions. Logic can then reinforce the appeal. People respond to meaning, and they remember stories over facts. See AB maxims d and g.
  8. Offer a clear, direct proposition to which people can relate. For example, “Make a blind man see. $15.83.” Expose a child to the arts. Priceless.
  9. First open their hearts and minds. Then you can open their wallets. But if you think of your donors as walking PayPal accounts, go sell shoes.
  10. Don’t just ask people to give. Inspire them to give. Fundraising is the inspiration business. You must find your own inspiration first before you can effectively engage others.
  11. Share with your donors your problems, as well as your successes. Honesty and openness are usually prized more highly than expert opinion and apparent infallibility. Honesty + transparency = trustworthiness.
  12. You don’t get if you don’t ask. Know whom to ask, how much to ask for and when.
  13. Present your organization’s “brand” image clearly and consistently. Your organization will benefit if your donors can readily distinguish your cause from all the others. Good branding – how your patrons see and experience you – communicates who you are and reinforces your values.
  14. Successful fundraising involves storytelling. Fundraisers have great stories to tell and need to tell them with pace and passion to inspire action. See AB maxim d.
  15. Great fundraising is sharing. Share your goals and encourage full involvement. When donors truly become involved in your campaign, great things happen. See AB maxim e.
  16. The trustworthiness of fundraisers and their organizations are the reasons both to start and to continue support. Trust appears to increase in importance as people get older. See #11.
  17. Great fundraising requires imagination. Too much fundraising looks like everything else. See AB maxim a.
  18. Great fundraising is getting great results. If your results are mediocre, your fundraising probably is, too. This work is karmic – what you put out in the world really does return to you, sometimes in the most unexpected ways. 
  19. Always be honest, open and truthful with your donors. Donors will not forgive you if you are less than straight with them. Transparency isn’t a buzzword – it is your word.
  20. Avoid waste. Donors hate waste. And don’t look too slick, either. Most donors don’t want to pay for slick. Polished, yes. Slick, no.
  21. Technique must never be allowed to obscure sincerity. As all actors know, you can’t fake sincerity. See AB maxim g.
  22. Great fundraising means being “15 minutes ahead.” To keep just a little bit ahead, you have to learn to spot opportunities and take (careful) risks.
  23. Fundraisers should learn the lessons of history and experience. Anyone who wants to be an effective fundraiser needs first to do some homework. See AB maxim c.
  24. Always say “thank you,” properly and often. It’s also a good idea to be brilliant at welcoming new donors when they first contact your organization. Stewardship is not about getting the renewal – it's a way of being.
  25. Be modest and unassuming. Because it takes a coordinated effort and many people to bring in a gift. See AB maxim b.

As Burnett relates in the introduction to the second edition of his book, "Fundraising is more than a job...It is a powerful force for change...and should be an inspirational beacon of hope."* These principles have withstood the test of time, and I'm sure you have a few of your own to add. What are your favorite tenets of fundraising?


^ Burnett, Ken. Relationship Fundraising. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2002, p. 28-29.

* Ibid, p. xxvii.

Food and Community: Vignettes

I’ve been reading some memoirs lately about food and cooking as a pathway to self-enrichment. I’m not sure why, really, but I blame it on my Kindle, which recommended a book about a woman with a troubled upbringing, who went to Wesleyan University and later the Culinary Institute of America and now blogs about motherhood and “cooking the world” while living in Tulsa, OK. I don’t know why the algorithm produced this book for me because I don’t have kids and don’t cook, but my sister went to Wesleyan and I have a blog and I visited Tulsa once to write about the Philbrook Museum of Art, which two years ago hosted a communal dinner showcasing ethnic foods from around the world organized by the author. From there, it’s been a slippery slope to reading about Sandra Bullock’s sister and her post-Hollywood career baking in Vermont that she parlayed into a food blog and TV appearances, and a former journalist/corporate VP who enrolled in Le Cordon Bleu to regain her sense of self.

Perhaps because Thanksgiving is around the corner – but more likely because I’ve been traveling and missing my husband’s excellent home cooking – I’ve been musing on the meaning of food and community. 

In the context of our cultural organizations, that translates to the prepared foods we serve in our cafés and bars to fortify audiences for more gallery hopping or the next orchestral movement. The posh food we provide our patrons at lavish gala dinners. The potluck meals we share with our colleagues to celebrate milestones. The celebrity chef gourmet feasts we raffle to the highest bidders. The snacks and caffeinated drinks we offer to volunteer committees to make meetings more palatable. The content rich, intimate salons we enjoy with artists and critics over pasta and red wine. The staples and leftovers we store in our break room kitchens. 

Each of these experiences serves a function, sets a mood, communicates a message and reflects who we are, as persons and as institutions. Above all, each gathering fosters a sense of community, with food at its foundation.

# # # # #

The Community Meal . Photo credit: Andy King © 2014, courtesy of Public Art St. Paul

The Community Meal. Photo credit: Andy King © 2014, courtesy of Public Art St. Paul

I’m drawn to the spirit of community created by the Slow Food Movement, founded over 25 years ago by Italian Carlo Petrini as antidote to today’s pervasive fast food culture in order to reconnect local farmers and food producers with consumers. The emphasis here is on the local, raising fresh foods germane to the local environment and preserving regional culinary traditions. It has spawned the growth of farmers markets, artisanal food purveyors and a new class of chefs and restaurateurs following in the footsteps of Alice Waters, all of whom place a high value on the environment, sustainability and quality of life in their communities.

As defined by Slow Food International, food communities represent a “group of small-scale producers and others united by the production of a particular food and closely linked to a geographic area. Food community members are involved in small-scale and sustainable production of quality products…[reflecting] a new idea of local economy based on food, agriculture, tradition and culture.”* 

This is exactly what food writer Christine Muhlke discovered when she was asked by The New York Times to study the slow food and locavore movement in the US. Wherever she traveled, she found a network “of producers, of customers, of eaters and enthusiasts…[connected by] a shared interest in food.” As Muhlke related, community in this context is “built upon conversations.”^ Isn’t this the kind of engagement we seek for our own organizations – local communities bonded by meaningful exchange and discourse? 

That potential for connection and dialogue inspired artist Seitu Jones last October to stage The Community Meal, a communal dining experience attracting over 2,000 residents of St. Paul, MN. The luncheon meal and dining table, which extended over half a mile on a street in the city’s Frogtown neighborhood, was made possible by Public Art Saint Paul and 500 volunteers. Jones’ work, which purposefully brought together food producers and institutional partners with the public, sparked discussion about local food systems, accessibility and affordability of fresh food, eating habits, gardening and family recipes. Food as community glue. 

# # # # #

I trekked with a friend over to Williamsburg, Brooklyn the other day to visit the newly opened Museum of Food and Drink, aka MOFAD. The inaugural show illuminates the interplay between scent and taste, and the work of industrial food chemists, who seek to recreate or enhance natural flavors in the lab. It’s part science, part children’s museum in feel and experience, a tad heavy on interpretation and wall text for my taste (yes, pun intended), and regrettably, there was no food art to lighten the serious tone (that’s a joke). The space is beautifully designed and lit, with well-crafted modern furniture and display cases, and the friendly gallery attendants are cheerfully attired in denim aprons. There was no food to sample, only tiny pellets dispensed like bubble gum to demonstrate the difference between real flavors and manmade. In hindsight, I'm not sure what I expected – perhaps a working demonstration kitchen producing all sorts of fragrant delights, since MOFAD’s founder is the visionary chef Dave Arnold. Alas, there was no breaking of bread with other guests on the day we visited.

# # # # #

In my formative years, I was a mad baker. Before I was old enough to go out unchaperoned with my friends, my Friday and Saturday nights were spent in the kitchen concocting all manner of cookies, cakes, breads and muffins (I don’t like pie). I progressed to the point where I intuitively knew the ratio of dry ingredients to wet and didn't need to measure, and could tell by touch and feel when the batter or dough was ready. My family happily consumed whatever I made: chocolate chip, molasses and peanut butter cookies; brownies and blondies; devil’s food cake, lemon cake and plum torte; peach cobbler and gingerbread; blueberry and banana muffins; sour cream coffee cake and Irish soda bread; English muffins and pita bread; sour dough rounds and my grandmother’s raisin bread. 

There is nothing like the rich smell of chocolate anything in mid-bake, or the physicality of kneading elastic, living bread dough and witnessing gluten and yeast work their magic overnight. Baking was something restorative I did for myself and something that allowed me to share myself with others. It was a source of pleasure – in the ritual and craft of making, and then in the giving and sharing. Ironically, in my early 30s, I was diagnosed with a gluten allergy and the mysterious ailments that had plagued me for years finally subsided when I eliminated the offending grains from my diet. This markedly changed my baking habits, because no matter how many food chemists work to improve gluten free products, they’re not the same as the real thing, as MOFAD’s exhibition made clear.

Now I only bake for birthdays and holidays as gifts for family, friends and colleagues. So, in the spirit of Thanksgiving, I offer my edible contribution to the genre of food memoirs with a recipe for a gluten free dessert that will make you the hit at any gathering. Here's to breaking bread with your community.

[And I promise next week to post the conclusion to my series on human-centered design.]


* Slow Food International. "Slow Food terminology." Web. 21 Nov 2015. 

^ Muhlke, Christine. "Growing Together." The New York Times Magazine. 8 Oct 2010. Web. 21 Nov 2015.