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7 Social Rules for Arts Fundraisers

(Or, Why You Need to Stop Being Sorry)

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7 Social Rules for Arts Fundraisers

When it comes to fundraising, you've got to step out from the wings and onto center stage. Donors and arts patrons respond to strength, confidence, and enthusiasm. It's your time to shine!

Image courtesy of Flickr user Chris Hays Photography
Updated June 12, 2011

I’ve written before about the art and balance of fundraising. But there’s one big mental shift that is always a challenge for many. In other words? You’ve got to get rid of the mindset that usually goes, “I’m sorry to ask you for money.”

Don’t be sorry. To paraphrase the famous line from Love Story, fundraising is never having to say you're sorry.

You work in the arts, and donations are your organization’s lifeblood. So it’s time to rethink the way you put yourself forward, and it’s definitely time to hold your head high. There are several tried-and-true approaches to fundraising in the performing arts, and some of those are directly related to a mental shift that will equalize the social equation of fundraising – empowering you without lessening the value of what your donors and patrons provide.

It’s unfair but true – donors can smell weakness or uncertainty, apathy or apology. If, deep down, you act like your organization’s not worth contributing to? They’ll sense that. And they’ll either choose not to give – or they’ll give less.

So instead, following are just a few suggestions for improving how you come across to potential donors:

1. First and foremost, don’t be sorry.

You know what I mean. Don’t be apologetic because you want people to donate. That’s how things work. Yet too many people approach fundraising as a slightly embarrassed semi-annual foray into begging for money – don’t be one of them. You’re not a beggar. You’re in the business of the arts, and that business depends upon its patrons.

2. Be strong, cheerful, and absolutely convinced of your organization’s worthiness to receive support.

If you feel weak and slightly sheepish when asking for money, then people are certainly not going to feel like you’re convinced it’s the right thing for them to do. Peoplep respond to confidence and smiles, not doubt and frowns. You’re an artist – so if you’re worried, don’t show it, and as the song says, "Put on a Happy Face."

3. Be proud of your work.

And most of all, be proud to offer patrons a chance to take part in it. Try looking at donations and fundraising as an exciting purchase opportunity you’re offering others – as a way for members of the community to become a part of your business, your fight to bring the arts to kids and community, as a way to enrich lives.

4. Be prepared to talk like a businessperson.

Too often, those in the arts are regarded as these sorts of sweet magical beings painting rainbows and not worrying about the bottom line. That’s ludicrous, of course. You’re running an organization but that organization depends on ticket sales, attendance, on butts in seats. Certain patrons – and you’ll know them almost instantly – respond to a matter-of-fact and informed business approach. In those scenarios, emphasize that you are providing your community with a rich and valuable service, and those who support your group or organization are willing to pay for that service to continue.

This also means that you should go into any fundraising scenario prepared to talk intelligently about your organization’s direction, philosophy and performance. What have you got planned for next season? What do you feel sets you apart as a group? What are your attendance numbers like this year versus previous years? You need to be able to discuss these things at the drop of a hat.

5. Get to know your patrons.

It’s networking 101, but there’s a reason it’s so important: Get to know your patrons. Make it a practice to note down who you spoke with at each event, and what you talked about. It’s incredibly flattering for anyone to be remembered. Use flash cards for names if you have to, and keep notes on who you spoke to, and what you talked about – kids? Europe? Surviving a recent illness? Then bring it up the next time you see them. However, one word of caution on this – you can’t fake it. People can sense insincerity a mile away. Use these memory tricks and moments as ways to connect to your audiences and donors, and to show real appreciation when they’re supportive.

6. Listen to your audiences.

True listening is an art form, and it takes some serious practice to master. But it’s vital in fundraising. Provide your patrons and prospective donors with the option to interact and share their opinions with you and your organization – then show them you’re listening, and that you respect their feedback.

For instance, at a fundraising event, when Jim talks about the economy, you might ask Jim about whether he has kids, and if so, talk about what your organization is doing in support of local schools (or better yet, his child’s own school). Or find out if he has a favorite artist or playwright.

While plenty of well-meaning suggestions may not be so practical, you may find a sizeable contingent asking for specific items that can help your organization succeed.

Once you find out what your audiences are passionate about and what they’d like to see, the funds will follow – they’ll want to help you achieve those things. So listen to your audiences. Use your website as well as inexpensive printed postcards, questionnaires, and other fun items as additional ways to get feedback from audiences, and to get to know your most loyal attendees a little better.

7. Walk the line.

Johnny Cash knew what he was singing about, and this is a song you need to learn, and learn well: walk the line. There’s a fine line you have to walk in fundraising scenarios. You’ve got to be confident, but not arrogant. Be enthusiastic, not “sales-y”

Instead, you’re looking to give the impression that you’re enthusiastic, not desperate, and committed, not pushy. You’ll know when you’ve got it right.

Ultimately, a little confidence, a reminder of the importance of what you’re doing, may empower you to feel like you’re working on a more level playing field when it comes to fundraising.

It’s a delicate balance that will arrive with practice. So be proud of what you do, informed as to what you need to keep going, and understanding when people want to give yet can’t. Always, of course, be grateful for what you receive.

Just never be sorry you asked.

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