06/19/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Our Annual Symposium for Arts Organizations of Color

Every March, a group of executives from 30 arts organizations of color gather at the Kennedy Center for an annual symposium. We created this group because I am particularly concerned that our diverse organizations are not strong enough, primarily because they do not raise enough money from individual donors. While the average white organization will raise some 60% of its donations from individuals, African American, Latino and Asian American organizations typically raise less than 10% from individuals. As a result, their budgets are limited to what can be raised from foundations and government agencies and a few corporations. Because their institutional donors are limited in number, and are more cyclical than individual donors, arts organizations of color tend to be small and suffer disproportionately in a recession. Healthy arts organizations of color are needed if we are going to have the diversity of work, artists and training grounds needed to keep our artistic heritage the jewel it is. But these organizations are threatened by their small size and cyclical funding pattern. The Alvin Ailey organization is the only performing arts organization of color that has a budget exceeding $10 million a year.

This gathering is a family reunion of sorts. We have been working with these groups for eight years and I have mentored several of them for up to 20 years.

For this reason, when we meet, we can get right to the point; there is no need to present pictures of the organizations that are overly rosy; I know their problems, personalities and predilections.

This year, we focused on ways to strengthen our boards. If building the number of individual donors is crucial for arts organizations of color, strengthening boards is a first step. Board members can play a central role in introducing their friends and associates to the organization. They can invite others to performances, exhibitions and galas. They can serve as ambassadors for the organization in the community, building excitement and interest in its work. An active, involved board is the foundation for the individual fundraising efforts of many arts organizations.

But too many arts organizations of color have boards that do not expect to play a major role in fundraising. They were formed as community boards and played a crucial role in the development of many diverse arts organizations. But as these organizations have grown, they need a different kind of board member, those with access to people of means who can broaden the sources of support.

So our seminar this year focused on why boards do not raise money and how to encourage them to do so. We examined how many board members are embarrassed about their organizations. They may love the mission of the group but are embarrassed by the financial condition, others on the board, typos in thank you letters, etc. We discussed ways to make board members unembarrassed, especially through creative programming and institutional marketing efforts.

Once again, the groups surprised me with their creativity and determination. Many have already begun the process of building robust individual donor programs. Others are excited about beginning the process.

As always, at the conclusion of our annual meeting, I was left inspired, energized and a bit sad to see my friends go back to their home cities.

They are a remarkable group of arts leaders.