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Creating a culture of individual giving in the Arts

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In this blog =mc Fundraising Consultant David Burgess offers practical ways that Arts & Cultural organisations can introduce a culture of individual giving rather than relying on large (and increasingly fewer) grants, and why it’s necessary to adapt in the current climate.

Creating a culture of individual giving in the Arts

David Burgess

Sunday 26 April was a busy day for fundraisers with an interest in Individual Giving. The publication of the annual Sunday Times Rich List gave us a valuable insight to the astonishing amount of money in the UK for those raising funds from High Net Worth Individuals*, whilst the London Marathon highlighted the power of lots of
people being motivated by a cause and donating smaller amounts.

*(Of course, being wealthy isn’t the same thing as being philanthropic. And you don’t have to be on the Rich List to give transformational sums. One
beautiful example is Richard Ross, who managed to “donate himself off the Rich List”).

As the sector looks to respond to continuing Arts Council and local authority cuts, more and more arts and culture organisations are turning to Individual
Giving as part of their fundraising strategy. A lot of this focus is on the techniques and technology needed (such as how organisations can use
crowd-funding, or what role social media plays). However, I believe that arts and culture organisations need to make changes at a more fundamental

Whether your focus is on securing major gifts or lots of smaller donations, here are 4 Cultures your organisation needs to have to secure support from
Individual Donors.

1. A Culture of Asking

How many times have you donated to a charity without being asked? Or how many times have you donated to a charity without actually knowing if they
need your money? In both cases I suspect the answer is “almost never”. So it always surprises me that arts and culture organisations are often
nervous about talking about their need to raise money, with many hiding their fundraising message at the back of their programmes, in a dark corner
of their gallery or hidden away in a remote part of their website. If potential donors don’t know that you need their support you can’t be surprised
when they don’t donate. Make sure your fundraising messages are integrated with your other communication – so if you are telling people about an
upcoming show or exhibition also tell them how they can help.

This nervousness often links to not wanting to ask people to donate if they have already paid for a ticket. We have also heard from organisations that
don’t want to ask as they see it as being in conflict with an aim to keep entry free. Your audiences, visitors and volunteers are the people who
care most about your organisation and your work – they wouldn’t be there if they didn’t. They are the most likely to support your organisation.
By ignoring them you are turning away some of your best prospects whilst also denying them the opportunity to get closer to your organisation.

And, while you might not consider your audience to be wealthy you might be missing out on more money than you think – donors who are already engaged
with your work and your mission are likely to have a greater Lifetime Value as they are more likely to move from initial gift to longer-term commitment.

Culture of AskingA major
cultural shift is often to get the whole organisation involved with fundraising. The sad fact is that, charming as we are, donors don’t want to
talk to fundraisers. CEO’s, board members, artists, curators and production staff are much more interesting. Engaging these members of staff with
your fundraising will help you engage prospects and supporters. As fundraisers we need to recognise when we are not the right person to make the
ask, and support our colleagues to secure a gift.

2. A Culture of Thanking

Culture of ThankingIf you suggest
to any fundraiser that there are charities who don’t say thank you they will look shocked. But the lack of a Thank You is one of the most common
complaints from donors. So either charities aren’t thanking as much as they pretend, or their Thank You’s aren’t memorable enough. Before you
start asking people for money you need to make sure you have plans in place for thanking donors.

To make sure your Thank You is memorable it needs to be prompt, personal, passionate and plural:

  • Prompt – your Thank You should be received within a week of a donation being made, and ideally even sooner than that. If the
    donation is made online, you might want to consider sending a Thank You in the post in addition to the automatic receipt they receive (receipts
    and Thank You’s are not the same thing!)
  • Personal – your Thank You should name the donor and be specific about their gift. It should also reference the donor’s relationship
    with the organisation – have they donated before? Do they also volunteer? Is there a specific cause they are interested in or reason for
    their gift? You also need to make sure the Thank You comes from the most appropriate person.
  • Passionate – your Thank You should make it clear what the gift will enable you to do. It should inspire the donor and tell
    a story. The strongest Thank You’s show how that gift will make a tangible difference.
  • Plural – don’t just thank once! As well as thanking donors when they make their gift, look for other opportunities to thank
    them and to tell them how their gift has helped.

In thanking donors, arts organisations have a chance to utilise one of their greatest strengths – being creative. The more creative your Thank
You, the more likely the donor is to show it off to their friends and colleagues, helping your organisation reach a new group of potential
supporters. Be imaginative – and never underestimate the power of a handwritten Thank You!

The need to be creative doesn’t just apply to the Thank You that goes to the donor. You need to think about other ways you can celebrate your supporters
and what they have enabled you to achieve.

3. A Culture of Engaging

=mc Donor Triangle

A lot of organisations focus the majority of their time and resource on recruiting new donors and don’t think enough about retaining the supporters
they have. However, it has often been proven that retaining donors is far more cost effective than recruiting donors.

In addition to the cost saving, the amount of money donated is also likely to be higher. A 2001 study found that a 10% improvement in retention
rates can lead to a 200% increase in projected income, as donors increase the size of their gift, support your work in a number of ways, leave
a legacy and encourage their friends and family to also support.

Having secured a first gift, you need to think about how you are going to continue to engage your donor. There are a number of ways you can do

  • Invitations to exclusive events – working in the arts day in, day out we can often lose sight of the magic of what we do.
    But the rehearsals, production meetings and the creative departments behind-the-scenes that we take for granted are often hugely exciting
    for our supporters. Welcoming donors into the family in this way is a great way of building longer-term relationships.
  • Raise Awareness of other ways they can support – This might be letting them know about other projects that they might be interested
    in, or promoting other methods for supporting, such as legacy giving, in-kind support or opportunities to engage their company, trust,
    friends and family.
  • Present them with a problem they can help you solve – donors often respond better to problems than to solution, as it enables
    them to get more involved. Arts and culture organisations have a tendency to keep their artistic plans a secret from everybody (often including
    staff!) with the faint hope of generating a huge amount of press interest. As well as not giving you much time to secure funding this also
    removes any opportunity for your donors to help solve a problem.

4. A Culture of Philanthropy

Culture of PhilanthropyI mentioned at the start of this blog that being wealthy is not the same as being philanthropic. One of the best ways to understand individual
donors is to become a philanthropist yourself.

Giving gifts to your own organisation gives you the right to ask others for money, while giving gifts to other organisations offers you the chance
to really see how you like to be asked and thanked. Both provide a great way to see what works and what doesn’t work, and enable you to improve
your own processes.

More broadly, many arts and culture organisations focus their fundraising on a “transactional ask”– i.e. a donation of £25 will get you a limited
edition print. This transactional approach is particularly common in crowd-funding campaigns. Providing benefits is a great way of thanking
donors but leading with this as the main motivator for donating that makes it very difficult to engage donors with the important work you are
doing. Will you be able to turn to these donors at time of crisis if they see you as a shop rather than a charity?

Taking a more philanthropic approach creates a greater understanding of your organisation as a charity and will help progress your supporters up
the donor pyramid.

Have a think about your organisation. Which cultures do you have in place? Which cultures do you need to build? Are there any other cultures that you think are important?

If you would like to talk to me about our =mc can help you transform your Individual Giving, email me (,
phone +44 (0)20 7978 1516, or tweet @davidburgessmc.

If you would like to find out more about the National Arts Fundraising School, visit

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