12/15/2014 09:12 am ET Updated Feb 14, 2015

Heroic Donors

I have written a great deal about the various approaches that help troubled arts organizations reestablish financial stability. Developing a turnaround plan that reveals longer-term artistic plans, aggressive institutional marketing campaigns and proposes a restructured board is one key approach that I have found to be useful. Without such a plan, every interested party tries to implement their favorite strategy, often at odds with the strategies of other interested parties, and little good is accomplished. A turnaround requires concerted, focused action.

But I have never written about one important element in most turnarounds: the role of the heroic donor.

I am not talking about a mega-millionaire who gives a life-sustaining gift. If not accompanied by more fundamental changes like the ones mentioned above, a one-time cash infusion may prolong life but not ensure it.

I am referring to those few donors who recognize that after the turnaround plan has been developed, there is a lag time before most of the strategies bear fruit. I believe fervently that those organizations that create and implement strong turnaround plans can be saved -- arts organizations rarely can get terribly sick because no one is willing to lend us very much money! But it takes time for new, exciting programming to be developed, for marketing campaigns to be formulated, for potent new board members to be engaged and for the funding community to trust that these changes will have a substantial impact.

Since most troubled arts institutions are cash-strapped, how can they survive while their new strategies take root? The answer is, of course, that we must rely on a few of our best friends who are so passionate about the organization and who are excited by the future plans and who are willing to contribute when others are reticent.

These are the heroic donors who are so critical to the turnaround. These are the people who must be honored and celebrated for their willingness to give courageously in the face of extreme pessimism from all sides.

While there certainly is an element of luck involved when searching for these heroic few, the organizations that have built a cadre of dedicated supporters almost always have a few who simply cannot imagine the organization going away and are willing to put their resources where their passion resides.

I have benefitted greatly over my career from these heroic donors who have allowed me to pursue the turnaround strategies that seemed most apt for each institution with which I have worked. I know that none of these strategies would have had a chance to blossom had I not received the support from these loyal and generous supporters, each of whom retains a very special place in my heart.

And I would be lying if I did not admit that even when I ran healthy institutions, I was combing the list of donors, deciding which ones would be my "go-to" heroes in case of a sudden downturn in our fortunes. They did not know they were on my target list, but I went out of my way to engage them in our work; they were my insurance policies for a rainy day.