08/04/2014 08:21 am ET Updated Oct 04, 2014

The Mid-Sized Gift

Working with so many arts organizations that are facing financial challenges, I often hear board and staff discussion about the need for a mega-gift. "If only we had an angel" is a common refrain in the boardrooms of troubled institutions. The angels of other arts institutions are mentioned as candidates as are the richest people in town. But this line of discussion rarely results in any action.

In truth, very few arts organizations have angels who can pay a substantial portion of the annual budget and those who do often live to see the day when the angel leaves the family and the institution has great difficulty filling the hole left by the mega-donor.

The healthiest institutions are those which build a large pool of mid-level donors, those whose gifts make a difference but do not constitute a large percentage of the total budget. In other words, one cares when a mid-level donor no longer gives but one does not panic.

For organizations looking to ratchet up their fundraising revenue, attracting a group of mid-level donors is almost always more realistic and faster than looking for that one angel whose first gift to the institution will change history. Board members and staff are far more likely to know people who can give a reasonable gift and to feel comfortable asking for one.

Organizing a clear mid-level gift campaign with an ambitious but achievable target can truly change the course of the institution. Like any campaign, there must be clear targets, prospect lists, cultivation activities, solicitation strategies and reporting and follow-up. When every board meeting includes a report on the status of the campaign, when board leaders are involved in encouraging solicitations, when there is strong follow-up to cultivation events, the campaign can be an uplifting and worthwhile activity for the entire organization.

How much is a mid-level gift? That depends on the institution. When I ran the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater over twenty years ago, $1,000 was the mid-level gift that we sought. We mounted a mid-level gift campaign and found 600 new $1,000 donors in a few months! This effort was central to our turnaround. Today, I am certain the organization considers a far larger gift in the mid-sized range and would aim for a far higher amount from each donor.

But for a mid-sized institution for which an extra $100,000 would be a godsend, aiming to find fifty $2,000 gifts is probably far more realistic than finding that magic $100,000 donor. And $2,000 donors are far more likely to repeat their gift annually - their gifts are like annuities while the $100,000 may come and go.

Over time, with proper stewardship, mid-level donors can grow into substantial donors, even angels. Some of those $2,000 donors might just become $5,000 or $10,000 donors or even mega-donors. But this only happens, when these donors enjoy their participation and their relationships with artists, board members and staff, when the programming of the institution remains exciting and when they see others participating as well.