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Article Published: 10 May 2022

Community-Centric Fundraising: Definitions

What Is Community-Centric Fundraising in Opera?

Community-centric fundraising is a fundraising practice that is grounded in equity. It calls on us to bring principles of social and economic justice into our development strategies.

As nonprofit arts organizations, opera companies rely on philanthropy to fulfill their missions and realize productions, activities, and programs. For years, we have espoused a practice of “donor-centric fundraising”: We bend over backward for the donors who make (or could make) our work possible. We put them in the center of everything, giving them status and power through our communications, our board table, our programming, and our time. Donor-centric fundraising is effective at driving dollars, but it has historically come at the expense of other current and potential participants in our work.

Community-centric fundraising proposes a rebalancing of priorities. While we continue to respect donors and build strong relationships with them, it calls for us to place our community — and its many participants — in the center of our service.
We relinquish exclusionary and harmful “donor-centric” fundraising practices for more welcoming and sustainable ones. In doing so, the positive impact of our work may be shared more broadly and equally.

What Are Social and Economic Justice?

Many opera companies have committed themselves to realizing social and economic justice across all areas of service to their communities. Social justice and economic justice are related, but they are not the same.

  • Social Justice: Social justice calls for a society in which equality across all social groups and races is attained, and where all communities have a place and equal voice at the table. It is the view that everyone deserves equal political and social rights. At our opera companies, we aspire to open the doors of access and opportunity to everyone, particularly those who have historically been unwelcomed and disenfranchised by our organizations.
  • Economic Justice: Economic justice calls for an economy that builds the common good and benefits people rather than being entirely profit-oriented. It recognizes that the racial wealth gap has long perpetuated economic disparities and strives to create opportunities where all can thrive. At opera companies, we aspire to include all portions of our communities in the creation, production, and enjoyment of opera, regardless of their economic status.

Community-centric fundraising applies these concepts to how we raise money. And it is the work of fundraisers to identify, cultivate, solicit, and steward donors who support and respect a company’s commitment to social justice and economic justice. Fundraisers must work as part of the full company to provide meaningful impact for everyone in the community.

Who Is Our Community?

Every opera company should define its community and participants alongside its mission, vision, and values — establishing, in its core charter, its commitment to those it serves, those it wishes to serve, and those it deems part of its service.

The participants of each opera company may differ across geographies, programmatic priorities, and artistic scopes, but they include four main categories:

  1. Recipient Participants: Audience members, students, and beneficiaries of community engagement programming with whom the artistic work of the company is shared [“audiences”].
  2. Practitioner Participants: Performers, creators, directors, designers, and other artists [“artists”]; staff members and paid interns [“administrators”]; volunteers [“volunteers”]; and board members [“trustees”] who commit time and talent to produce the artistic work and realize the mission of the company.
  3. Supporting Participants: Ticket buyers, subscribers, and paid program enrollees [“purchasers”]; and individual donors (including board members), foundations, and other funders [“donors”] who commit money for service or philanthropically toward the artistic work and mission of the company.
  4. Civic Participants: Fellow arts organizations, non- and for-profit organizations serving related communities, government agencies and leaders, and other partners [“partners”] who are invested in what the opera company contributes to the local cultural landscape.

[N.B. Bracketed terms are used as shorthand throughout the "Community-Centric Fundraising for Opera Companies" document.]

It’s important to recognize that these categories are not discrete. For example, a board member is likely an audience member (Recipient), a trustee (Practitioner), a subscriber (Supporting), and a donor (Supporting). An operagoer may be an audience member (Recipient), a ticket-buyer (Supporting), and work at a neighborhood educational center (Civic). The four categories highlight the many ways, financially and other, that our communities are part of what we do. The work of every opera company should be driven by an intersectional awareness of the numerous participants it serves.

This intersectionality is responsible for the unique complexity of raising money in the arts: Those who give generously as donors are, more often than not, also recipients of our work. The frequent overlap of the audience member, trustee, and donor cannot skew our priorities; we must remember our commitment to serve all participants in our community and not favor the contribution of one over another.

Community-centric fundraising acknowledges an opera company’s commitment to equitable treatment across its community. It recognizes that donors, while essential to the operations and finances of an organization, cannot be elevated to the detriment of other participants the company serves and wishes to serve. Rather, they can and must be partners in forging a shared ecosystem that values and actively seeks the input of all community participants.

This article is part of the report, Community-Centric Fundraising for Opera Companies, published by OPERA America. The report builds on the national Community-Centric Fundraising movement and was developed by a working group of fundraisers from the opera field.