Community-Centric Fundraising: Why Does It Matter?
“We need to diversify our fill-in-the-blank” is a common refrain at opera companies. For decades it has been a call for younger audience members or more women in leadership roles; in recent years, and long overdue, it has come to include Black, Latinx, Asian, Indigenous, Arab, and other people of color — onstage, backstage, in audiences, in offices, and at board tables. “Opera for all,” shout our marketing departments.
Achieving that, however, requires introspection and intervention. The opera industry is built on systems and practices that are inherently exclusionary and perpetuate social and economic injustice. While some practices are easier to begin to address — such as casting or hiring — others, like fundraising, seem too precarious to touch.
It makes sense: Fundraising pays the bills of every opera company. While ticket sales cover a smaller percentage each year, we lean more heavily on fundraising to fulfill our mission. So how can we risk the effectiveness of this critical function with a new “community-centric fundraising” approach? Why would we reconfigure our fundraising to advance social and economic justice when we just need money?
The first reason is a moral one. Community-centric fundraising makes us better, moral fundraisers. It helps us align our practices with our sincere desires that opera truly is for all. It forces us to review our practices and remove barriers that have historically excluded some in our community. It’s important to note, too, that this is not a political impulse; it’s about being welcoming to all who wish to participate.
When you are more welcoming, you raise more money. In 2020, On Site Opera (New York City) focused their end-of-year campaign less on fundraising and more on friend-raising. They decentered the financial expectation and invited people to give in whatever way was meaningful to them: by following them on social media, by recording a video about the company, or by sending a postcard about the company to a friend, among others. All were valuable ways to “contribute” to the campaign. And in the end, the company received a higher volume of cash donations than normal, in addition to all the new friends they gained.
The second reason is sustainability. The donors that currently support opera will not be around forever, and research shows that new generations of donors are looking to have greater civic impact with their philanthropy. Adapting to the principles of community-centric fundraising may have short-term costs, but there will be long-term benefits. We may have to say goodbye to some donors now, but we will begin to welcome a next class of donors who see their gifts as going to something greater than art on a stage, alone.
Fort Worth Opera began a transition in late 2020 under its newly appointed general director, Afton Battle, toward centering diversity and being representative of its community through its programming and operations. Battle’s vision for transforming the company led to friction with several board members, and three ultimately resigned. For Battle, this was progress: “I saw it as our garden turning itself over and blooming. […] If people don’t want to come along, that’s OK: I invite them to get off at the next stop. I can’t carry the weight of resistance. And newcomers are gravitating to us. We’ve gotten hit after hit — inquiries of folks wanting to be part of the opera revolution, which is about being in the service of your community in the 21st century.”
This turnover and rejuvenation are not just happening in Fort Worth. Small companies like White Snake Projects (Boston) and large companies like Minnesota Opera have seen similar results. They have committed their companies to social and economic justice, espoused principles of community-centric fundraising, and derived new audiences and donors because of it.
Change is never easy, but it’s working. We should have great optimism for what community-centric fundraising will help us achieve in the longer term, both in terms of financial support and inclusivity.
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.