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.

Lessons from a Turnaround Artist

The recently announced $150M gift to Yale University from Blackstone Group CEO Steven Schwarzman to build a new performing arts center on campus sent school administrators to seek the counsel of Michael Kaiser. Former director of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, DC, Kaiser currently chairs the Devos Institute of Arts Management at the University of Maryland, providing consulting and training services to arts administrators and trustees.

This news sent me back to my bookshelves to dust off Kaiser’s 2008 book, The Art of the Turnaround. I thought I might glean some insights about building and programming a new cultural facility from scratch while avoiding the need for turnaround strategies that Kaiser has employed throughout his impressive career. 

In rereading his practical, born-of-experience philosophy, I was put off again by the fact that Kaiser writes in lots of “I” statements throughout the book, which can leave the impression he single-handedly orchestrated the transformations of the five performing arts organizations he profiles (all organizations he led): Kansas City Ballet, Alvin Ailey American Dance TheaterAmerican Ballet Theatre, Royal Opera House, and the Kennedy Center. (For the record, he does make a disclaimer in the short acknowledgements section of the book, citing various individuals who assisted his efforts.) Certainly, inspired leadership, imagination, strategic focus and hard work like that demonstrated by Kaiser are crucial to any cultural organization, but no one goes it alone. Leaders are important, but so are followers.

Superman Turnaround  by  Mark Hossain . Superman is a trademark of DC Comics. 

Superman Turnaround by Mark Hossain. Superman is a trademark of DC Comics. 

In spite of this, Kaiser offers some truly useful advice. Here’s my summary of his Ten Rules of the Turnaround*, with my own thoughts thrown in:

  1. Choose a leader with vision, courage, and keen communication and negotiation skills, someone who works incredibly hard and earns widespread respect from all stakeholders. Such a leader must simultaneously be catalyst, guide, facilitator, consensus builder and doer
  2. Lead with a plan that outlines a strategic vision for the future within the context of institutional mission and goals, one that considers the competitive environment, as well as organizational assets and ailments. The plan must be actionable, both operationally and financially, and based on a very simple premise, according to Kaiser: “Good art, well marketed.” (See #s 5 and 6, below.)
  3. Prioritize increasing revenue over decreasing costs. A fan of the adage, “You can’t cut your way to growth,” Kaiser believes that most arts organizations don’t have much fat to trim. Instead, he recommends investing in strategies that boost contributed and earned income. Both of these rely on stellar programs to engage patrons and audiences alike, as well as operational efficiency. 
  4. Let go of the past and focus on what’s ahead. Recognizing that finding fault and casting blame does nothing to move forward from whatever stressful situation an organization finds itself, Kaiser recommends not looking back. (While I agree that a no-fault approach has merit, I would advise that objectively examining what transpired can be useful in distilling lessons learned and instilling accountability.) He urges addressing immediate issues (like deficits) and then laser focusing on “artistic programming, board development, donor and press cultivation, and other activities” that will support a sustainable future. 
  5. Plan ahead, far ahead. Kaiser believes in the bold gesture and mapping a programming schedule five years out. This allows sufficient time for artists to create new work and for organizations to raise money, negotiate partnerships with other institutions and cultivate advance press, all of which help to garner audiences and needed resources while building (or rebuilding) institutional profile.
  6. Don’t cut the marketing budget! Although it’s often the knee jerk reaction in times of financial distress, Kaiser admonishes resisting this impulse and doing the exact opposite. Invest substantially and strategically in promoting upcoming artistic and educational programs, and develop brand by marketing the institution. All of this is best orchestrated via a well-crafted marketing and communications plan.
  7. Designate one spokesperson to control external messaging, and focus only on positive, mission-oriented, good news storytelling. Indeed, this is critical in a turnaround situation where working to shift public opinion is essential, but a healthy organization can and should support multiple spokespeople to reflect the diverse talents of the leadership team, both staff and board members. Kaiser makes a good point, though, that these messages should be coordinated and managed, ideally by experts in PR and marketing.
  8. Fundraise for gifts large enough to make a difference. Kaiser has learned from experience that funds to fuel institutional transformations primary come through raised revenue, not admissions or the box office. (The same is true for startups or capital expansions.) So focusing attention on major gifts fundraising is imperative. Like me, Kaiser believes in pursuing “right-sized” contributions that are consistent with operational budgets and giving thresholds, and within reach of a sufficient number of donor prospects to make goal. It's worth reiterating the importance of doing your homework to find the strategic intersections between donor capacity and passion and institutional vision and needs. 
  9. Restructure the board. Show me a struggling cultural nonprofit and I’ll show you a weak board inadequately supporting organizational well-being. Frail boards usually equate to anemic fundraising results, which only keep organizations in a constant state of crisis. Kaiser maintains that arts leaders must objectively evaluate their current trustee rosters, rotate off those who can’t make the needed financial commitment, and recruit new members who can and will. I’d also advocate for identifying the qualities and expertise needed for optimal board service, including philanthropic capacity, then assess where there are gaps and seek new candidates to fill those gaps. And then prioritize board engagement – Kaiser asserts that each trustee should receive meaningful, personalized communication from senior staff at least six times annually.
  10. Be disciplined about following the plan. Driving a successful organizational transformation requires “balancing competing needs,” as Kaiser notes, and staying focused on priorities and immediate goals. Crisis creates urgency and that can be used as an effective rallying cry to collectively work the plan, focus on solutions and produce what leadership and change agent guru John Kotter calls “short-term wins” to keep the momentum going.

Ironically, Kaiser’s most recent book, Curtains?: The Future of the Arts in America, doesn’t paint a rosy picture for cultural organizations, especially those that advance more traditional art forms, such as opera, ballet, classical music and theater. Studies by the National Endowment for the Arts released in January 2015 underscore Kaiser’s pessimism and confirm the decline of in-person arts participation (i.e., going to the theater or symphony) over the past two decades, while digital participation (for example, accessing culture via the Internet) has grown.   

But various reports are contradictory. There’s still a big appetite for art making, as evidenced by the increase in student enrollment and graduation in fine arts disciplines, and for arts engagement, such as the out-sized crowds jamming this Carolina Beach street art festival or the record attendance at Broadway theaters this past year. Such is the bet that Yale is making, and presumably Kaiser will offer similar counsel to the school as he did in a recent WQXR radio interview with Naomi Lewin:

  • Focus on the new. Foster exciting, innovative programming. Don’t play it safe. Produce large projects, like festivals, that excite and invite participation.
  • Enhance community-wide standards for arts education.
  • Make it fun, engaging and accessible to be a donor, at all levels. 

And I would add take the time to articulate organizational vision and the “why” behind investing in creativity and cultural resources to provide perspective over the long-term. For further insights on institutional transformations in the museum sector, check out the book I co-authored with Beth Tuttle, Magnetic: The Art and Science of Engagement.

* Kaiser, Michael M. The Art of the Turnaround: Creating and Maintaining Healthy Arts Organizations. Lebanon, NH: University Press of New England, 2008, pps. 1-14.

Gratitude: An Art Form

I remember reading a New Yorker article by Jane Mayer from late summer 2012 describing President Obama’s seeming discomfort spending time with his campaign donors. His first social secretary, the stylish Desirée Rogers, was criticized for not doing enough to make patrons feel special. Mayer quoted a major Democratic donor complaining, “There’s been no thanks for anyone!...I don’t think they have a clue who I am. I don’t think they even know how much I gave.”

Unfortunately, presidential campaign donors aren’t the only ones who feel unacknowledged by the people and organizations they support. I hear this too often when I talk with philanthropists. As Laura Bush’s chief of staff, Anita McBride, told Mayer, “Donors are called on to do a lot. It doesn’t take a lot to say thank you.”

Actually, to say thank you well and with meaning does and should take a lot. Most all of, it takes intentionality, sincerity and true gratitude. In the world of fundraising, political, cultural or otherwise, stewardship (expressing appreciation) is as critical as solicitation (making the ask). If stewardship is handled in a ham-fisted way, or viewed and thus communicated to donors as a distasteful obligation, then you’ll end up like Desirée, needing to find another line of work. 

Writing a note of thanks takes only a few minutes out of your day. Just do it.

Writing a note of thanks takes only a few minutes out of your day. Just do it.

There’s an interesting upside to saying thanks, according to Robert Emmons, professor of psychology at the University of California, Davis and the author of Thanks: How the New Science of Gratitude Can Make You Happier. People who mindfully adopt what he calls an “attitude of gratitude” are happier, healthier, have stronger, more resilient relationships, accomplish more, and feel more satisfied. I believe the same is true for organizations that show genuine appreciation for their people, including their supporters. (I wrote about giving recognition to staff in an earlier post.)

So how can you thank donors and make it really mean something? Here’s a quick list of eight ways to recognize the generosity of your benefactors infused with some heart:

  1. Acknowledgement letters – Even though these are required by the IRS for gifts of $250 or more, they don’t have to be perfunctory and boring. Keep your letters fresh and current, and use them to share information about upcoming activities or milestones achieved, plus send them within a few days after receiving a gift. Timeliness matters, and so does customization. I once encountered an organization that hadn’t changed its standard acknowledgement letter in a decade. That couldn’t have been terribly meaningful to the donors who gave annually over those 10 years…
  2. Thank you calls – You won’t believe how much donors are pleasantly surprised by simple phone calls to say thank you. Ask your senior team or a small, rotating cadre of trustees to make calls on a monthly basis to your top patrons, or to those who recently renewed or increased their giving. It’s a modest investment of time and goodwill that pays off in donor loyalty.
  3. Activity reports – These are primarily produced by grant officers who must regularly report to institutional funders on the use and impact of grant monies. The same approach can be adopted for trustees, individual donors and even lower level members, each of whom can be sent a personalized, year-end “this is what you helped to make possible” letter. Although there are varying schools of thought, to be truly in stewardship mode, you should never include a follow up ask with your thanks.
  4. Donor rosters – Whether via signage installed in your building or roll calls published in annual reports or quarterly e-news, listing your patrons (and spelling their names correctly) is another advantageous way to provide public recognition for their giving. It also communicates the vital role of philanthropy in your organization.
  5. Invitations to (free) exclusive programs and social events – Obama’s disgruntled donors were upset, according to Mayer’s sources, because he had been “reluctant to pose with them for photographs” at White House parties. Social gatherings – like receptions, private dinners, behind-the-scene tours or special performances – are some of the best ways to give extra care to your donors and get to know then in a more relaxed setting and festive environment. Don’t overlook the growing enthusiasm for candid selfies on social media, which benefit your donors and your organization.
  6. Occasional notes, emails, calls and birthday cards – Once a gift has been received and acknowledged, don’t make the mistake of only being in touch with your patrons when you need further assistance. Take the time to send them a handwritten note (on beautiful notecards) or an email with photos and an update about a program they supported, or call to share some news or ask an opinion – the same impulse you have reaching out to a friend. And sure, birthday greetings can feel a bit clichéd, but at least send them to your trustees!
  7. Appreciation events – Gathering for the sole purpose to say thanks can be as simple as breakfast and a talk or as elaborate as dinner and a performance. At the Guggenheim Museum, my staff and I launched an annual appreciation breakfast for funders. We assembled a PowerPoint presentation set to music with images of the various things that they had supported over the past year – basically everything at the museum. It was both eye opening and gratifying for the funders to see how much they had contributed to the lifeblood of the institution.
  8. Thank you videos – Truth be told, I think most of these are either pedestrian or kinda corny, but if you want to create and e-circulate an artful video for your donors, here’s some advice from fundraiser Adrian Allen.

Expressing gratitude should be a natural, heartfelt response to any donor who makes an investment in your organization. Inculcate stewardship into your DNA and you might just be the happier for it. Certainly, your donors will be. Honestly, there’s no magic to any of this. Be intentional. Be timely. Be creative. Make it relevant. Make it personal.