12/01/2014 08:45 am ET Updated Jan 31, 2015

Young Patrons Groups

There is one suggestion I have heard very frequently from board members that is sure to elicit groans from the development department of an arts organization: Form a young donors group so that there will be a strong donor base in the future.

The rationale of the board members is clear and smart: We (who form the core of current donors) will not be around forever, and the organization would do well to prepare for that day. If we start cultivating a younger group of up-and-coming people who will have the capacity to give and get funds, we will ensure the future of the organization we all love so much.

The reason for the groans is equally clear and smart: We (who are charged with raising a lot of money each year for this organization) know that young donors take a great deal of time and energy away from the other fund-raising activities, and they tend to give very little if anything. In fact, since they typically want us to mount numerous social activities for their friends, the cost of servicing them often outweighs the gifts they make. And if they are not completely satisfied, they go elsewhere and end up with a bad feeling about our organization.

So how to reconcile these two equally correct points of view?

By acknowledging that while engaging young, potential donors is a smart and important thing to do, treating them as donors today and asking our development team to manage this activity is not optimal.

Arts organizations must work tirelessly to engage more and more people, to entice them to attend performances and exhibitions, to make it fun and interesting to become donors and volunteers, and to interest them in a long-term relationship with the organization.

But engaging those without the resources, or inclination, to be donors of any magnitude today is the work of the marketing department not the development department.

I know of no development department with time to spare from raising the funds needed to balance this year's budget and to lay the groundwork for underwriting of projects in the next year or two. To suggest that this department should also cultivate those who may give 10 or even 20 years from now is unrealistic. And investing time and money to do this cultivation is very hard to justify.

The marketing department, however, can and should be mounting the events and campaigns necessary to bring younger people into the organization as ticket buyers and, perhaps, as contributors of modest amounts. The breadth of these efforts increases the odds that some of those enticed will become donors of the future (or even the present). And the economies of scale of these efforts mean that not that much will be spent on any one person.

When a young donor shows an inclination to give larger amounts, they can and must be passed directly to the development department for cultivation. And I can assure you, the development officers will great the new patron with open arms rather than groans.