Sunday, August 19, 2018

Should Artists Play More of a Role in Fundraising?

Good morning.
"And the beat goes on.................."

Decades ago, the person hired to serve as the Development Director became nearly as important as the Executive Director. Experienced and successful fundraisers saw their salary base quickly rise in recognition that the very life of arts organizations increasingly relied on sophisticated and successful fundraising.

For a long time, in the arts, EDs confined their fundraising activity to servicing their biggest donors.  They left most of the fundraising to their "development" department, and why not, that's what they were hired to do.  Larger organizations had the luxury of having more than one person employed to do development.  Smaller organizations might not have even one person, and the work fell to the ED and perhaps a willing Board. In the past 20 years though, Executive Directors have increasingly had to spend more and more of their time in that role as well; greater competition for ever scarcer dollars demanded the attention.   Today it may be the primary job for EDs.

Maybe it's time to call development - a euphemism if there ever was one - by its' real name -- fundraising.  Calling it development is like putting lipstick on the pig.  It sounds like it will make it more attractive, but it doesn't change anything.  The pig is still a pig.

Today fundraising, by necessity,  involves more and more of the organization. Arguably, that means the whole of the organization. The ED and, if there is one, the Development person or persons for sure, but the rest of the staff and the Board too - though many Boards are hardly active in the process despite that being one of their principal duties.  Today everybody in the organization needs to be involved in identifying sources of income, soliciting support, spreading the word about the organization's value, making connections in the community, and promoting the organization to the media.  Smart organizations will develop specific activities and ways the whole staff can contribute to the "development" goals, and train people in the skills involved.

Training is necessary as nobody likes to ask other people for money.  It's just not a comfortable position to be in. But the reality is that we are all in that position. That's essentially what fundraising in the arts is all about.  We must ask virtually anyone and everyone for help. Of course that has to be done in a way that doesn't ultimately deplete the real and potential reservoir of donations and donors / funders.  Asking for help is now part art form, part scientific approach.  The new reality is that it is no longer the exclusive province of specialized experts we hire to take on the role nobody wants.  We simply can't afford that posturing anymore.  Everybody has to be part of the process in support of the development effort.

So what about artists?

In many organizations, artists have always been tapped for, at least, minimal involvement in fundraising.  Large cultural organizations have, for a long time, developed opportunities for their artists - be it in dance, music, theater or other areas - to interface with at least their big donors - current and potential. But Artists have generally been excused from doing anything other than lending their presence at events, hobnobbing with the money people.  Their role has traditionally been passive at most.

Artists and their work are ostensibly at the core of why people donate to the arts.  And Artists have a certain authenticity and cachet that makes them effective ambassadors - whether or not they directly participate in the "ask" for donations and support. Most, of course, do not.  They play a "meet and greet" function, but don't sully themselves or the organization with having to be directly involved in any "ask", even if most arts organizations never really directly ask for money at in person events, but relegate that kind of approach to solicitation letters et. al.  The "ask" has been thought to be something, if not offensive, then off-putting, and we've developed a culture to isolate the practice within our structures, almost so we can hide it away like an embarrassment.   But the ask is how we finance what we do.

Should we now encourage, if not outright expect, artists to take a more active and ongoing role in the fundraising business?  If they indeed occupy a position that might increase their chances of succeeding at, or contributing to, the success of fundraising, shouldn't, in the current landscape of the difficulty in fundraising, they be part of the process?  Indeed, their benefiting from the success of the organization would, arguably, justify the imposition of such an additional job description requirement.   Yes, it would signify a fundamental change, but look around, things have changed.  I'm not suggesting artists spend hours doing "cold calls", but that organizations figure out how artists can be effectively integrated into the fundraising mechanism, because it's no longer enough to simply hire  a development person and expect that person to do it all alone.

Some critics of such a proposal would likely decry the loss of artistic independence and distance by even encouraging, let alone requiring, artists to become active in what might be seen by many as a demeaning endeavor.  And others would likely raise the issue of scarce time availability of artists given the demands of the art itself.  And while those might well be legitimate concerns, and while there might be other objections, the possibility that there might be ways to address those concerns and allow / require artists to actively help the organization succeed in raising more money might justify moving the paradigm to include them as active participants in the process.  The answer to the position:  "It's not my job.  is:  "If you want the organization to be healthy, then yes, it IS your job.  It's everybody's job now." 

If government and private financial support were to lessen or become further problematic, and were changes in tax considerations, coupled with increased competition for ever scarcer donor dollars, result in fewer contributions, added to the costs of doing business for arts organizations continuing to increase, we are going to need to pull every arrow out of our small quivers to just survive, let along thrive.

It might be time for everyone in the organization, including artists, to more actively and universally join the fundraising army - whether as volunteers, or by imposition of a draft.

Something to think about.

Have a good week.

Don't Quit