Hi ho, Lina Yang here, guest writing for artofhustle.com. I’ve been asked by Anthem Salgado to give some friendly advice on fundraising. A little about myself: I am a dancer turned performing arts manager with a passion for building community and enhancing artists’ careers. As a dancer, I have worked with dance artists such as Elisa Monte Dance, Kyle Abraham, Katie Faulkner, and Rachel Erdos. I spent a year touring the US, Israel, Spain, and Brazil with an Israeli dance theater production, The Aluminum Show.
While pursuing my dance career, I have worked with many nonprofit organizations in their development and marketing departments, including Asian American Arts Alliance, Kearny Street Workshop, Lar Lubovitch Dance Company, and Mark Morris Dance Group. I experienced the grind for bringing in revenue and working on a tight budget. No matter how big or small the organization, fundraising and marketing oiled the money machine that kept these organizations running. I got to work on successful fundraising campaigns and not-so-successful ones. While working for these different organizations, many of my friends were starting to create their own work and came to me for fundraising and marketing advice. I felt that I was never really quite qualified to give advice to my peers as I was still trying to figure it out myself, but I saw the great need for a good arts administrator in my community.
I decided to take a huge leap and put my dance career and work life on hiatus to go back to grad school. This past semester, I took an intense fundraising course with three of the most successful fundraisers in the performing arts industry. I learned about the inner workings behind a successful fundraising campaign and had many “Aha!” moments that explained the successes and hiccups art organizations and artists make when trying to fill their coffers.
While the class mainly focused on fundraising for arts organizations, I think that it’s valuable for both arts administrators and (maybe even more so) artists to be familiar with the fundraising cycle and have fundraising skills under our belt. More often than not, we will need the support of others to create our work. We may rely on our friends, colleagues, and family members to help us get started, but how do we get people outside of our social circle to support our work? I have put together my work experience and textbook knowledge on fundraising to tailor strategies and methods to help individual artists to build connections and inspire interactions with a diverse group of donors.
With the creation of Kickstarter, Indiegogo, and other crowd funding sites, getting a project or product up and running seems easier than ever and self-promotion seems like a cinch. While this is true for product development, as artists, we may hit a wall instead of the ground running with funding for our artistic endeavors. Unlike a bike light that uses powerful LED strips to protect a biker on a busy street or a pillow that helps you take more refreshing naps, art’s use is a bit harder to define. When it comes to money, many potential donors will put on their consumer caps and ask, “how will this benefit me?” To avoid being tongue-tied or becoming a deer in headlights, the first step to getting a sound group of supporters is to know how to market your art.
Every artist has a mission statement, whether you are aware of it or not. Something drives you to create the work that you do and that work is unique and fascinating. I suggest sitting down and meditating over these questions:
Knowing how your art will affect and effect others will help you grasp the support from donors. If you can speak enthusiastically and intelligently about your artistic process, people will be eager to learn more about it, which can lead to supporting your work. Positivity and knowledge are contagious.
Like any healthy relationship, you want to get to know your potential donor as much as possible and let your donor in on your artistic process. One of the first steps in creating the relationship is doing your research. Whether you are asking an individual or a giving institution (i.e. foundation, government, corporation/small business) to contribute to your work, find out as much about the person and institution and how they fit as ideal donors.
Now remember those family members and friends, I mentioned above? Well, these people are great spools of thread to expanding your web of donors. Do not only research how this person or institution makes an ideal supporter but also whom within your social network does this potential donor know best. Ask this mutual acquaintance to introduce your project to these donors. A warm lead is better than a cold call. Yet, don’t be discouraged to ask a stranger, as long as you have a great convincing argument why they should support your work.
Depending on whether or not you are the gregarious type, this step can be either panic inducing or really fun. Be creative and do what’s comfortable for you to showcase your process and artwork. It can be as simple as a phone call with a potential donor or as extravagant as hosting a cocktail party in your personal workspace. Cultivation efforts with your donors should be warm and personable. Avoid generic emails and letters that sound and look like they were mass-produced. In a letter, provide a handwritten note. In an email, provide a personal anecdote that brings you closer to your potential donor. Don’t be scared to be creative, your ultimate goal in this step is to deepen the relationship with your donor and build a stronger connection between your work and your donor’s philanthropic heart.
I have heard from fellow artists that they hate asking for money or have compared fundraising to prostitution. The latter is a bit extreme, but I can understand the anxiety and caution behind an appeal. Yes, asking for money may seem a bit uncouth, weak, or insincere. Connecting with your donor, however, will help keep an unsettled conscience at bay. Let your potential donor know from the get-go you are seeking their support and hope they will take part. Don’t be frightened by people who decline your ask nor pester them to give to your cause; you don’t need a reluctant donor. Be gracious, confident, persuasive, and charismatic. After all, it is how you ask for money that defines the action. If you sound tasteless, crass, or pitiful, then your potential donors will believe so. The tone behind your fundraising appeal should reflect what you want your donors to think of you.
To combat the anxiety of asking for money, think of the end goal. If not for the support of others, would your work be possible or as easy to achieve? Instead of thinking of your work as a project that can only be tackled alone think of it as a group effort. One of the great things about art is that it can bring people together and stimulate a sense of community. The donor-artist relationship is most eminent of that. You can’t build Rome in a day, and you can’t build Rome without the entire Roman Empire.
Once you get a supporter, give yourself a pat on the back. You deserve it! But don’t forget to write that acknowledgement letter! I can’t emphasize that enough. Make it personal and make sure to emphasize what their support means to you. Also, don’t forget to thank those who decline your ask. Yeah, I know it may seem weird. But think of it this way, although they didn’t give to your project this time, a nice thank you note may just change their mind for future projects.
Like a good friend, you don’t just drop off the face of the earth after you get what you want from him or her. Keep your donor updated on your project: email them about the success their donation has brought or Facebook tag their names on pictures from inside the rehearsal studio or of the not-so-blank-anymore canvas. As with the cultivation event, be creative! Being gracious and seeing fundraising as a way to connect people to the arts, cultivating donors can lead to invaluable partnerships and friendships.
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