At least twenty years ago I began sharing this formula with students in fundraising classes. (Clearly, we were all math whizzes!) The point was (and is), of course, that a large number of small contributions is just as much $1 million as is a single contribution of that amount. I was concerned way back then about the proliferation of not-for-profit organizations, the skyrocketing costs of labor intensive industries, and the simple math of how many extremely wealthy people there were relative to the need. It seemed to me that real attention had to be paid to alternative models of how to fund 501(c)(3)’s.
When I would talk to practitioners about it, they would smile, pat the academic on the head, and politely (some of the time) try to explain to me that the administrative demands of soliciting 40,000 new contributions were unmanageable in those pre-Internet (and largely pre-computer) days. They were right on the practicalities. . . . And I was right on the need for re-thinking the model.
Fast forward to today. The only piece of my analysis that is not even more obvious now than it was then may be the part about the number of wealthy people. We all know about the incredible rise in income disparity. But even if the number of multi-millionaires had increased enough to keep pace with the growth of the not-for-profit sector (which it has not), the increasingly high cost of labor intensive enterprises compared to industries that can mechanize (economists call this situation productivity lag) makes the big donor model (as a primary focus) untenable in the long term.
In an earlier post (Arts 2.0: The Power to Give), I observed how the administrative complexity of soliciting, receiving, and tracking large numbers of gifts has become manageable with the Internet-mediated options available and that that availability has inspired what is called mass market and crowdsourced fundraising. The future I hoped for in the past is nearly upon us.
That is all interesting and valuable (as well as potentially life-saving) for arts administrators. But I am interested in how these developments relate to engaging communities. (Try to rein in your surprise.)
The reality is that not-for-profits must be responsive to their donors. When there were a relatively few large donors, arts programmers would tolerate or ignore (up to a point) the annoying suggestions that came from well-heeled supporters. But their interests were heard. Small gift donors will never have that kind of power, but collectively, to attract and maintain their contributions, arts organizations will eventually need to shift their program planning to take the interests of the larger community into account. I can imagine (in my idealistic dreams) that this might eventually lead us to a time when the arts are an expression of the whole community, bringing us in a great, millennial-scale circle back to cultural sharing around the common campfire. (Cue the violins.)
The essential tool is well understood. Development officers know, better than any other arts administrators, the value of relationships. To date, that understanding has been used to cultivate the wealthy. That’s where the incentives are. But some of the same principles can be adjusted and applied to discovering the interests of a larger swath of the populace. In a September post (Fundraising as Participatory Practice), Nina Simon of Museum 2.0 discussed this. [Nina, I hope sometime to be able to go more than a week or two without stealing from your blog.] She observed that fundraisers have good basic instincts when it comes to relationships but are wary of openness when focused on a small number of big gift donors. Maybe their understanding of relationships coupled with the openness of the web and of community engagement specialists could significantly expand the funding base for arts organizations. Who’d o’ thunk? So, with these things in mind
Engage! (and rake in the cash)