07/30/2012 08:12 am ET | Updated Sep 29, 2012

Unrealistic Expectations

Many arts managers complain their board members are not engaged enough in fundraising for the organization. And for many organizations this is true and problematic. If board members are not helping to raise money from their friends and associates, they are not performing one of the central responsibilities of board membership. But for many arts organizations, there is a relatively quick fix to this problem.

One of the reasons many board members do not participate in fundraising is that the perceived need for huge contributions demotivates them. They are asking themselves: Why should I ask my friend for $500 when we need $100,000 to plug a budget gap? Will I be embarrassed by raising such a small amount from my friend? Aren't there other board members who will be raising bigger contributions than I can?

This was the case when I arrived at the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in 1991. We were in desperate straits and the common refrain I heard when I arrived was that we should ask Bill Cosby for $1 million! This was an absurd amount given that our average board gift was under $5,000 per year. But it was repeated so often that my board members, I am sure, were asking themselves: How can I participate in fundraising if all I can realistically ask my friends for is $500 or $1,000 and everyone thinks we should be raising $1 million at a time? As a result, they didn't ask their friends for anything. And our fundraising program had not increased substantially in years.

I realized I needed to try a different approach. I eliminated the discussion of Bill Cosby and his one million dollar gift and asked each board member the level of gift they were comfortable requesting from their friends and associates. They were united in finding the $1,000 level acceptable. I knew that while we needed many gifts of $1,000 to make a dent in our deficit, that gifts at that level added up relatively quickly and that if we could build our donor base we had the chance to raise more from some of these donors in subsequent years.

We created a giving program, Ailey Partners, which involved gifts of $1,000, the amount my board members preferred. In six weeks, we had signed up 600 Ailey Partners. My board raised $600,000 in less than two months! For the first time they felt like successful fundraisers and, over time, began to feel comfortable asking for larger gifts from several donors who had the capacity to give more.

The base we built in the early 1990s continued to grow. Smart, disciplined fundraising is about adding one donor at a time, ensuring that donor is so happy they want to give again, and maybe give more, and looking for the next prospect. One doesn't need to raise the entire deficit amount from any one donor -- one needs to chip at the total needed bit by bit, one donor at a time.

Today, Ailey raises an astonishing amount compared to 20 years ago, thanks to a very talented staff and a very engaged board that realized that asking for $1,000 is better than not asking for $1 million.

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