Login failed. Please try again.

Article Published: 18 Oct 2021

Community First

“We don’t talk enough about social justice in fundraising,” says Erika Chen, a consultant specializing in racial equity in nonprofit organizations. Chen is a founding leader of Community-Centric Fundraising (CCF), an emerging movement, founded by fundraisers of color, that seeks to realign fundraising philosophy, shifting it away from the longstanding “donor-centric” paradigm. The founders have established a website that includes 10 core principles, defining CCF’s commitment to equity and social justice, and placing the community at large, rather than an organization’s individual mission, at the center of fundraising goals.

“Is dollars raised going to be the only thing we look at when measuring performance?” Chen asks. “Or should we have strong values and communicate them, and have the funding align with those values? It’s a much different way of looking at success.”

“The thing that inspires me about community-centric fundraising is the idea of embracing and acknowledging everyone in our midst,” says Piper Gunnarson, executive director of On Site Opera.

“Donor-centric fundraising definitely makes sense,” says Carlos García León, individual giving manager at Cincinnati Opera. “The idea is ‘If you provide money, we give you something.’ But with community-centric fundraising, we’re saying, ‘Thanks to the money you have given, we are able to serve the community — which includes you. Your money is making an impact outside of your personal experience.’”

“Fundraisers have been guilty in the past of leaning into the elitism — using parties and access to artists as a way to make donors feel like they’re part of a club,” says Yvette Guigueno, Pacific Opera Victoria’s development director. “I tell our board committee, ‘The parties aren’t going to stop. We still love our champagne and our celebrations. But let’s find a way to make them inclusive. We have a framework now where we look at our initiatives and events and ask, ‘Is this going to lead us backward, or forward toward equity and diversity?’”

The movement has definite implications for the age-old practice of offering tiered benefits — parties, rehearsal passes, ticket priority — on the basis of levels of donation. “I think the industry’s history of doling out benefits based on donor levels is very exclusionary,” says Gunnarson. “It separates people into categories, when we really should be bringing them all together because they have this shared love of the organization.”

One idea inspired by the CCF movement is a revamping of donor listings, shifting from the established practice in reports and playbills of citing contributors according to the level of the donations and moving toward a strictly alphabetical approach. Cincinnati Opera’s annual report this year will list donors in alphabetical order, and a number of other companies are eying the practice. “You’re either giving money because you love the art form or you’re giving money because you like power,” says García León. “If you really just want to express your love of the art form through your giving, then this will make sense to you.”

Given the longstanding primacy of the donor-centric approach, the move to CCF inevitably raises questions about the danger of alienating longtime benefactors, who may well be accustomed to traditional perks and forms of recognition. “That’s a risk, but there has also been the long-term risk that we have been losing dollars by not being more inclusive,” says Guigueno. “There’s a lot more to be gained by including more people, and not assuming that people don’t have the ability to invest in and care about opera.”

“If someone contributes ten or twenty thousand to make a performance possible, you really want to make sure they have a seat at that performance,” says Linda Schulte, director of development at Opera Theatre of Saint Louis. “But we try to create an open and accessible environment for everyone who’s coming in.”

For García León, CCF is a deeply personal matter. “This is about my safety as a non-binary brown person,” they say. “Community-centric fundraising speaks to me.”

This article was published in the Fall 2021 issue of Opera America Magazine.