Building relationships to raise funds
by Suzanne Fetscher
July 30, 2013
I am a really slow learner. I have been working in the cultural nonprofit sector for a long time. It is only now that I feel that I am comfortable in philanthropy work. What took so long?
When I consider my experiences in fundraising over the last twenty-three years, I recall how terrified I was when faced with the duty of fundraising as a newly appointed Executive Director. I felt paralyzed by the prospect and hid out in my office to avoid the task. I wanted to be successful at it for the sake of my institution but felt so intimidated by the image of asking very important wealthy individuals (who intimidated me already) for their money.
So I focused on grants. It seemed much easier. I had the same perception of many of my board members. There are foundation pots of money “out there” for the asking; one just has to write a grant. “Can’t you write a grant for that?” a well-meaning board member would suggest. They, too, didn’t like fundraising and wanted to avoid it by suggesting another route to funding a special project or need. It was a reflex response to any funding issue. “Just write a grant.”
Working with our grant writer and researching on my own, I quickly learned that being awarded grants requires a process of research, cultivation, and relationship building similar to those when fundraising from individuals. It can take years to identify potential funders, establish a relationship with them, and write a request that they may or may not fund. Crafting a compelling grant request takes time and artistry, and involves sound business planning and program evaluating methods. It must demonstrate impact. Writing a thoughtful, well-researched single grant may be a multi-year process.
I came to realize that the common denominator between asking institutions for money and asking individuals for money is relationship. And that takes time.
The best part of the grant-writing experience was meeting with the program officers of the Knight Foundation, PEW Charitable Trusts, Lila Wallace Fund, and Creative Capital. It started to give me confidence in my ability to make a strong case for our institution’s mission, history, and future plans. It also taught me the importance of building relationships over years.
However, perhaps the most important lesson for me was the importance of learning that fundraising isn’t about me (was I a good fundraiser?) or my institution. It’s about the goals of the foundation or the individual or corporate philanthropy department and learning if there is goal-alignment between their institution and mine. It’s about making a good match of core values, goals, and impact, Not about whether the funder is supporting the “right” cause or whether my institution is that “good cause.” This has helped me care more deeply about the conversations that I get to have with donors and funders. I get to learn about their institution’s passions and motivations and, if it’s an individual donor, what they would like their legacy to be. I get to create a deep and meaningful relationship between them and my institution. What a gift it is to me to act as the facilitator of that relationship.
Recently, I was fortunate to participate in Charlotte’s Leadership Gift School. Leadership Gift School is presented by a consortium of funders: the Foundation for the Carolinas, Charlotte Mecklenburg Arts & Science Council, Carolinas HealthCare, Blumenthal Foundation and others. The brilliant program is designed and led by Chris McLeod, an independent fundraising consultant in Charlotte, and Karla Williams, author and national fundraising consultant. Through that remarkable program, I have come to love philanthropy and see it as a unique and noble calling. I owe the consortium of funders and Chris McLeod and Karla Williams my greatest thanks.
I am a slow learner. My life lessons and those lessons learned from program officers at foundations taught me much about authentic relationships built upon shared values and goals. Leadership Gift School taught me that those lessons are instrumental in philanthropy and creating vibrant and meaningful impact for individuals and community.
August 6, 2013
Charlotte Substituted Efficiency in Place of Passion for the Arts
In her admirable self-effacing essay, Suzanne Fetscher offers a positive and accurate portrayal of what philanthropy is all about. Many of us working to sustain organizations and missions would agree with her admission: “I have come to love philanthropy and see it as a unique and noble calling.”
Ms. Fetscher’s essay indirectly illuminates the costs to this community when it adopted 50 years ago a united fund model (UFM) to raise money for the arts. In short, the model takes a top-down, centralized approach through an annual campaign conducted primarily through corporations, businesses and the professions. In fact, a major reason city leaders created this type of model was to minimize the number of requests to the business community for support. Charlotte organized its approach through the Arts and Science Council (ASC).
The various arts and science organizations, which became annual grant recipients with funds through the campaign, had over the years 25 to 33% of their budgets covered by this revenue source. This encouraged a degree of dependence by these organizations on the ASC. For example, an organization would garner about 30-35% of its budget from ticket/admission sales, 20-30% from its annual fundraising efforts, and the balance from project grants, advertising and other miscellaneous sources.
As a result of the UFM, the emphasis at these organizations tended to be project/campaign oriented fundraising: brochures mailed to season ticket sales, letters going out soliciting annual support donations. Donors tended to be viewed as ticket-buyers, or annual donors not as individuals with a potential passion for the art form. In other words, there were very little resources—time, energy, knowledge—placed upon cultivation.
In short, there was very little of what Ms. Fetscher describes as exciting to her about philanthropy: “I get to create a deep and meaningful relationship between them and my institution.”
Had Charlotte not adopted the UFM a half-century ago and instead had allowed an open environment for arts, cultural and science organizations to develop and nourish passionate donors, a number with deep pockets, our arts scene would be a lot different. Our organizations would have experienced many decades to seriously cultivate individuals who initially show an interest in their plays, their concerts, their dance performances and their art collections.
At the beginning of the last decade, the Nashville Symphony Orchestra embarked on an aggressive endowment campaign. Nashville has no UFM and is smaller than Charlotte. Because it had to cultivate individuals over the years, the campaign was very successful. The endowment was increased from $23M to $123M with 35 individuals giving $1M and one donor giving much more.
I am not saying that a city without a UFM approach will be able to attract huge numbers of wealthy donors. I am suggesting only that Charlotte tied its hands by keeping a UFM approach in place for a half a century. No one knows what would have happened with an environment friendlier to philanthropy. I would bet, however, our groups would be more effectively endowed than they are now and, consequently, much better off today. And, maybe more importantly, there would be more knowledge and appreciation for the arts generally.