Community-Centric Fundraising: Action Steps
Community-centric fundraising will not manifest overnight. So how do you get started? The following list, long and incomplete, offers a variety of ideas and approaches — ranging from line edits in your thank-you notes to redefining board member expectations.
Not every action will make sense for your company. Some companies may be ready to jump in and make swift changes. Others may find it more prudent to start from a point of examination: E.g., does this event make us appear elitist? Should we accept this gift from a donor who doesn’t agree with us?
The action items in this list are focused on fundraising. That does not ignore the important organizational work that should precede this activity: anti-bias, anti-racism, diversity, and equity training; establishment of organizational values; revising mission statements; defining key community participants; charting strategic goals for equity, diversity, and inclusion; and more. That work lays the foundation and establishes buy-in for community-centric fundraising. It provides a roadmap for fundraisers to contribute to the changes our companies wish to see.
- Establish the values of your development department and the possible circumstances in which the department’s values may conflict with a donor’s. Discuss what could be done in these scenarios and how to navigate through them.
- Create a statement of values to accompany your gift acceptance policy and use that as a guide when accepting or declining gifts that conflict with company priorities.
- Define what donor behaviors your company deems incompatible with your organizational values.
- Develop departmental talking points that can be used to respond to common skepticism around community-centric fundraising and your company’s commitment to social and economic justice.
- Define the four groups of participants for your
community. Discuss how much of your time and resources are spent cultivating each group and what would happen if that shifted more evenly.
- Provide your fundraisers with anti-racism training.
- Give your fundraisers permission to raise the question internally, “Should we accept this gift?”
- Encourage your colleagues and team members to report back to you when they encounter donors who don’t understand or push back against your company’s commitments.
- Conduct quarterly check-ins with your development staff to establish goals and assess progress toward inclusive and equitable practices.
- Establish an internal trigger that any staff member can pull in conversation when donors are given disproportionate weight, attention, or influence (e.g., “I call TMD! Too much donor!”).
- Teach the principles of donor stewardship to others at your organization so that everyone aligns in how they treat and interact with company participants.
- Encourage your colleagues and team members to participate in OPERA America programs, especially those exploring topics of equity and inclusivity.
- Divest your company’s endowment from stocks that conflict with your institutional values.
- Share company statements about local or national incidents of racial injustice with your donors.
- Ask donors what questions they have about the company’s pledges to anti-racism and diversity when meeting one-on-one.
- Ask donors their advice on how to convey these concepts to others.
- Invite your donors to talk about and reflect on the concepts and goals of community-centric fundraising in one-on-one or small group settings.
- Gain the buy-in of two or three longtime, high-level traditional donors to help you advocate for community-centric fundraising.
- Stop thinking that you are not in the business of changing the minds of your donors and how they use their money. You are and you should.
- Program an inspiring donor talk or gala speaker who may encourage donors to think differently.
- Open a conversation with a donor about how they came to have their resources and what they hope to improve about their community through philanthropy. Talk about how they might have that impact more broadly, not just at the opera.
- Emphasize the importance of inclusivity to the next generation of audiences and philanthropists when speaking with your current donors. Talk about how incorporating justice and equity will help you achieve diversity and sustainability.
- Be honest with donors that overhead is just as important to your company as the productions you mount. Donors are supporting a way of life for artists and staff, and that includes the overhead to do their jobs.
- Separate in your thinking the responsibilities of board member (governance) and major donor (giving): A valuable trustee may not be a significant contributor of money.
- Start by sharing the concepts and goals of community-centric fundraising with the Development Committee of your Board of Directors.
- Employ appreciative inquiry to help board members and donors understand what they want for the organization and the changes that might be necessary to get there.
- Recruit new members of your Development Committee, whether board members or non-board members, to create a more diverse group with deeper and wider roots in the community.
- Recruit new board members in cohorts so they can bring united force to changes on your board.
- Limit the time spent on reporting fundraising at board meetings to ensure board members have sufficient time to talk about the company’s relationship with the community,
- Engage board members in discussion of their board expectations, beyond just board giving.
- Eliminate blanket minimum giving requirements for board members. Instead meet with each board member, each year, to create personalized giving and service plans that optimize their impact and contributions.
- Highlight and thank board members at the beginning of every meeting for their contributions other than money.
- Invite and pay members of your audience and desired audience to have a panel discussion at a board meeting about the barriers they face and/or perceive.
- Host a roundtable of your fundraisers and other staff, especially those of color, to allow them to share their experience working at the company: How have donors made them feel? Where do they feel vulnerable or uncomfortable?
- With every public communication or event, ask yourself and your team: “Does this make our company appear more elitist or less?”
- Deemphasize the aspects of your fundraising that may be perceived as elitist, including black-tie events.
- Emphasize in all communications what you do to be inclusive of your community.
- Stop using words like “gala” that come with built-in connotations of privilege and elitism.
- Avoid assigning greater value or importance to mainstage productions over community programs.
- When you share stories of artists, students, or staff, use their voices and words with their permission.
- Be sure to compensate them for the experiences they are allowing you to use.
- Don’t use the artistic creations or collective traumas of your community for fundraising purposes that only benefit your company without consent.
- When presenting your company’s mission to donors and funders, emphasize your company’s commitment to its community, even if the exact mission statement doesn’t convey all of it.
- Don’t promote donor saviorism in acknowledgments and thank-yous by hyperbolically telling donors they are single-handedly changing the world. Recognize donors sensibly and authentically; e.g., for “joining a group that supports XYZ.”
- Be conscious of when “you” in a solicitation promotes donor saviorism, and use “we” instead to promote collective action.
- Shift language in your donor communications to be more community- and mission-focused.
- Invite a board member or donor to deliver a land acknowledgment at an event to establish that it’s not just staff who care about it.
- Invite willing board members and donors to attend performances in casual clothing to relax expectations and normalize a welcoming environment.
- If you allow food in your theater, give a small food item (e.g., chocolates) to all donors, subscribers, and volunteers when entering the house to normalize eating during performances.
- Include clear statements on all pledge forms, gift acceptance policies, and other forms of gift notification that all funds, even those given to specific productions or projects, contribute to your company’s goals of social and economic justice.
- Use language that helps donors see their contributions as part of the entire company operation.
- Ensure your company offers meaningful, equitably resourced events throughout the year for all members of your audience, even if some of them may be intended as fundraising events for donors. Not all events have to be for everyone, but there should be equitable event opportunities.
- Leverage virtual opportunities to welcome guests to events at low or no cost.
- When you do large-dollar fundraising events, make them about creating something that can be shared with others who can’t participate in the event, rather than just about a lavish event.
- Consider changes to your special events (e.g., removing seated meals, changing venues) so that ticket prices can be reduced and made more accessible.
- Pay artists for the ways they contribute to your fundraising. For example, if they attend your fundraising event, pay them an honorarium for their time and effort in engaging your guests.
- Bring together donors with other types of participants at events and look for common interests that forge bonds between them. Consider an ice-breaker prompt at tables of people who don’t know each other.
- Reevaluate your donor benefits: What benefits further perceptions of elitism and othering? What benefits are actually effective? Are your benefits necessary or supportive of your values?
- Rethink your donor listings: Consider listing alphabetically; by number of years of subscribing; by number of years of donating; etc. Consider whether your donor listings should continue to be in your program book — or whether they should only appear in your annual report to donors.
- Cultivate a culture of philanthropy that doesn’t rely on a transactional benefits structure.
- Avoid promoting tax-deductibility of donations as a primary reason for giving.
- Don’t treat your artists as purchasable goods by attaching price tags that value some more than others when soliciting underwriting from donors.
- Don’t glorify donors proportionally to the size of their gift (e.g., in size of photo in the program).
- Find ways to personally steward donors of all sizes, not just those at the top end.
- Express gratitude whether a person buys a ticket, brings a friend, makes a gift, raves about you on social media, or contributes to your work in any number of ways.
- Define equivalencies between the contributions of extensive volunteers, long-term subscribers, and donors as new ways of determining eligibility for invitations to special celebrations and benefits.
- When rolling out priority access for ticketed events, rethink who you prioritize and why.
- Create new pre-and post-show experiences that are inclusive of all audience members.
- Encourage donors and board members to serve as greeters before/after performances and at intermissions, rather than squirreling them away in lounges.
- Challenge yourself and company leaders to speak to at least five new people at every performance.
- Organize an appreciation event or day for volunteers, subscribers, or other participant groups beyond donors.
- Build stewardship plans for all participant groups.
- Thank all participants in impact reports, including staff, volunteers, audience members, and community partners.
- Ask board members and donors to send thank-you notes to staff, volunteers, and artists.
- Rethink the ways you publicly thank people (e.g., supertitle recognition, sponsor credits, etc.) to include other participant groups.
- Create a tracking system for time, talent, and connections.
- Dedicate space in your newsletter, especially your donor newsletter, to highlighting the work of your community partners.
- Include your company’s community partners in your storytelling about your organization. Help donors understand how your company relates to both the arts and local community ecosystem.
- Talk to your company’s community partners to coordinate fundraising and event schedules so that you can cross-promote and support one another.
- Leverage #GivingTuesday or other opportunities during the year to highlight your community partners and uplift their fundraising messages, rather than your own.
- Organize monthly/quarterly meetups with other development professionals in your community.
- Share grant opportunities or inside knowledge with community partners and emerging arts groups in your community. Make introductions to funders.
- Mentor fundraisers from smaller, less-resourced organizations. Offer grantwriting assistance or coaching.
- Ask your donors what other organizations they support. Ask them to support your partners.
- Invite your donors to attend events at your community partners.
- If you’re partnering with a community service organization, invite donors to be part of your community service day.
- Encourage fundraisers to participate in community organizations as volunteers or members as part of their professional development. Consider paying for their membership.