10/24/2011 08:07 am ET Updated Dec 24, 2011

Fundraising: The Dilemma of Organizations of Color

The recent study by the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy about arts giving in the United States revealed that white organizations receive a disproportionate share of foundation support. (To be sure, there are important foundations, like the Ford Foundation, that do not reflect this national trend.) This finding was not a big surprise. Large Eurocentric arts organizations have always received more press coverage, sold more tickets and received more and larger donations than arts organizations of color.

As a champion of diverse organizations for more than two decades, I, of course, would like to see a larger portion of foundation funds go to arts organizations of color. These vital groups create great art, educate new audiences, train important artists and provide important elements to the quilt of arts organizations in our country.

But as much as I want to see these groups thrive, I am also concerned that this report not be seen as a call for increasing just foundation funding to these groups.

In fact, as a proportion of their funding, arts organizations receive too much from foundations. These important institutions are overly reliant on foundation and government support. Their bigger weakness is in raising funds from individual donors.

Individual donors are the bedrock of American arts funding, giving more than 60% of the money received by arts organizations. Yet the average African American, Latino, Asian American or Native American arts organization receives less than 10% of its funding from individual donors. Individual donors are so coveted because there are so high in number, their gifts can be very large, they are less likely to cut their giving during a recession, and they are extremely loyal to the groups they support. On the other hand, there are a limited number of foundations that support the arts, their gifts tend to be bounded in size and they rarely support one organization for many years in a row.

As a result, the size of arts organizations of color is bounded and they tend to experience wide swings in funding, especially during bad economic times. Because of this, there are very few large, stable arts organizations of color in our nation. Apart from the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater it is hard to think of any. And Ailey has been remarkably successful building its individual donor base, a testament to the skills of its Executive Director Sharon Luckman. Sharon recognized early on that the key to a strong individual fundraising effort is a strong board and she has worked relentlessly to engage strong board members and other individual donors. This is unusual for arts organizations of color whose boards tend to resemble community service organizations rather than fundraising boards. In fact, the boards of diverse organizations typically include numerous leaders from other not-for-profit institutions (educators, pastors, political groups) for whom raising money for their own organizations is a priority. The Ailey organization, under Sharon's leadership, has successfully broken this mold and has reaped the benefits.

Any leader of a diverse arts organization would do well to study her work with Ailey over the past twenty years.