Fundraising For The Arts

If You Can't Give Me Everything, Don't You Give Me Nothin' At All
Image by Graham Hellewell

And now a post for creative and arts nonprofits, some of whom go dark over the summer–the local theater groups, the non-professional choirs, the small groups that offer cutting edge arts programs on a lean budget.

This post is especially for them, especially in my DC-region neighborhood, because they sometimes struggle with fundraising more than the rest of the non-profit sector. And for obvious reasons.

But I can’t imagine a world without the arts, particularly the kind that isn’t a budget buster, and doesn’t require me to plan a commute. Which is why (full disclaimer) I happen to be heavily involved in two local choirs, and lead fundraising for one—the Vienna Choral Society, that has just wrapped up an “Opera(tic) Fundraiser.”

Here are the lessons I’ve learned in the last year:

1. Clean (Financial) House

This may seem obvious, but nonprofits across the board need to clean their financial house before the summer approaches. Because proper record keeping, and an organized financial house allows you to distinguish between butts-in-chairs and ticket sales on show night, and the difference that makes between revenue and profit. Because, as more than one treasurer will tell you, all the revenue in the world will not help you function properly if it doesn’t translate into profit after the bills have been paid.

2. Start Early

Too many nonprofits, artistic or otherwise, wait to ask. They wait until the end of the season, when the holes need to be plugged, when box office receipts turned out to be a disappointing surprise. To which, I will say—don’t wait. People nearly always respond to an emergency, hence the uphill task of fundraising for artistic endeavors in a crowded world of far greater and grave causes.

But who wants to continue being involved or supporting something that’s always reaching out in a state of urgency? That gets wearying—not just for an organization’s community, but the staff as well, who need to make payroll, and pay bills. And now you know why you get fundraising letters all year. “Always Be Closing” isn’t just for sales.

3. Manage Expectations

There are a lot of ways to raise money today—limited fundraisers a la NPR-style pledge drives, year-long or multi-year-long sustained giving campaigns, restaurant benefit nights, branded merchandise, CFC campaigns. With the wealth of options and the ease of the Internet, it would almost seem like fundraising should be easy. Right?

Wrong. Because fundraising is, first and foremost, about cultivating relationships. And it’s about getting your community to take that step of giving. Which is why it’s not unusual that your 10 percent benefit day at the local smoothie shop, or “give to us through Amazon,” or CafePress t-shirt sales netted . . . not a lot. I remember a colleague once remarking, “Really, we made $32? Is this worth it?” Well, yes . . .

4. Respect Every Dollar

Everyone goes after the bigger donors. Obviously, you should! But, as my fellow blogger here, John Haydon has said, there’s a lot to be said for small donors. And I would argue that this is especially true for small organizations that do not yet have the ability to hire a full time development professional with the networks, time, and demonstrated ability to successfully cultivate big donors. Because a large group of small donors are where your future community, audiences, and big donors lie. And several cumulative profits of $32 can add up. You gotta give it a shot.

5. Be Honest.

No one likes to say they’re broke. But more than fundraising, nonprofits run on trust. Be honest with your community. If you’re truly facing curtains, tell them. As Mary Posatko, independent filmmaker and producer of the film on Levon Helm, “Ain’t In It For My Health” says, “We’ve been very open with funders that our coffers are empty and that this last piece of money will keep the lights on.” It sounds terrifying, but let the chips fall where they may. Chances are people will step up. That said, if absolutely no one steps up, then you’ve a bigger problem. Either people aren’t getting the message, or worse, they do not care. A whole other post.

What about you? What lessons have you learned about fundraising for the arts? Tell us!