The most common problem I observe in arts organizations today is a stagnant fundraising effort. So many organizations have not experienced fundraising growth in five or even ten years. Given the level of inflation we experience in the arts, this causes major cash challenges and often encourages boards to insist on budget cuts that, at best, reduce the organization's ability to achieve its mission and, at worst, cause lasting damage to the sustainability of the organization.
So what to do?
I have become increasingly convinced that special, targeted fundraising campaigns can be effective ways to galvanize board and staff and to ratchet up the level of fundraising.
Specifically, I mean picking a target gift size and a target number of these gifts and working in a concentrated fashion to reach these targets.
The key is to pick a target gift per donor that is realistic yet meaningful.
For example, for one mid-sized client organization, we have set a target of receiving 50 contributions of $5,000 over the next year. If successful, we will have raised $250,000 of new money -- an historic increase for this organization.
The hope is that these gifts become annual gifts -- although even a one-time infusion of a quarter of a million dollars would make a mammoth difference to this organization. But I am convinced that, with proper stewardship of these donors, we can hold on to the majority of them and truly change the nature of fundraising for this organization.
The $5,000 level is appropriate for this organization. For others the number might be smaller (when I was at Alvin Ailey we were able to get 600 people to give us $1,000 -- the realistic level for Ailey at that time) or larger (one organization I know is attempting to get 40 donors to give $50,000).
Why these campaigns work is that they are limited in scope and duration. We are not asking our board members to fundraise forever -- just until this target is reached. And we are so specific about what we are looking for that it is easier to discern whether someone is a prospect for this effort or not.
A challenge grant can make it easier to succeed at this special campaign.
If one donor, or a consortium of donors, is willing to match all or part of these gifts, it is easier to motivate board members to ask and to get prospects to agree to give.
Please note that these campaigns may be attached to a specific project, but that is not essential. At a time when obtaining undesignated operating funds is increasingly challenging, this type of special campaign can be a godsend.
What is essential is that a meaningful way of recognizing these special donors is created -- by staging a donor recognition event, publicizing the list of donors, mounting a special plaque in the theater lobby, etc. -- and that the organization's institutional marketing effort is in full gear before and during the campaign.
It is also helpful to celebrate as each group of ten donations is received. As in all fundraising efforts, when people see that the campaign is likely to be successful, they are more anxious to give and to get.