09/06/2011 08:28 am ET | Updated Nov 06, 2011

Fundraising Is Not About Being Charming to Rich People

Even though private fundraising has been central to the funding of arts in America for decades, it is still an arcane subject for most people.

Many board members, especially, think of a fundraiser as an alchemist, turning nice lunches into gold.

While this lack of understanding provides job security for the fundraiser, both skilled and unskilled, it is terribly dangerous for our field.

Too often, the most charming, best connected candidate is selected to run the development operation of an arts organization; if she or he fails to produce substantially more money in a matter of months it is assumed the wrong person was selected. Often, the development executive is fired and another search process begins, typically with the same result. After a few iterations, the general consensus is that 'fundraising is not possible for this organization or in this town.'

The truth is that fundraising is not about happy, enthusiastic staff members taking rich people to lunch.

And fundraising cannot be turned on and off like a faucet when the need for funds increases suddenly.

Good fundraising is a long-term project. It requires the development (hence the term "development") of relationships with people who become excited about the work of the organization and the way they benefit from engagement.

Successful development efforts require the entire organization to participate. Programmers must be able to develop their projects early enough to attract new donors. Marketers must be aware of the need for institutional marketing. And top officials must keep the organization exciting so that new people want to become involved and existing donors want to become more engaged.

And everyone in the organization must appreciate that they are building a family of interested supportive people who care about the work of the organization. When the family is growing in size and dedication to the institution, fundraising revenue almost always increases, in good economic times and bad.

And one builds a family by being welcoming and approachable, not mysterious or stand-offish. Institutions that do not make it easy for people to engage with them rarely have successful fundraising efforts. Yet it is amazing the number of arts organizations that are very difficult to approach.

I recently talked with the board member of an organization with large revenue needs but a relatively modest individual fundraising effort. He suggested that 'all we need is a campaign.' He was confident that they could raise all the money they needed if only they announced a campaign.

He went on to suggest that a planned giving effort should also be implemented as soon as possible since, "planned giving campaigns always generate millions of dollars."

The problem is that this organization has no one it can ask for money! And certainly no involved donors who would be willing to include the organization in their estate planning. It has not engaged people. Its membership program is moribund. Its major gifts program is remarkably small.

This organization has recently hired a new fundraising executive.

I worry for her!