A guest post by Kel Haney, Senior Consultant at Donorly. As an artist, you already possess a skill set that lays the groundwork for strong and successful fundraising. If you can commit to using your artistic 'super powers' for fundraising, you can transcend the scarcity mentality that runs rampant in the non-profit culture (especially in arts organizations!)
I’ve always been a creative person who loves connecting with others.
My favorite movie growing up was 'The Wizard of Oz'. Yearning to have adventures in a Technicolor land far away, I liked to pretend I was Dorothy. Now, as a Fundraising Consultant, I like to envision myself as Glinda the Good Witch: I help artists and creatives recognize that, “You’ve always had the power.”
Before I embraced a full-time career as an Outbound Fundraising Expert, I spent 16 years as a theatre director in New York City. I can’t even begin to tell you how many confident, accomplished artists and artistic leaders I watched get small (and sweaty!) when a conversation shifted to their fundraising skills and responsibilities: “Fundraising is the aspect of my job that I dread.” or “I’m terrified to fundraise.” These interactions always made me sad because I knew the creative, inspiring artist sitting across from me already possessed the most important qualities needed to become successful fundraisers.
How did I know this? I knew it because I was personally using my artistic gifts to create fundraising magic. In my twenties and early thirties, to supplement my income as I pursued a life in the theater, I worked as a telefundraiser for a non-profit theater in New York City. I was extremely successful: I raised approximately six million dollars in individual donations under $3000, in the span of seven years. Because of my own positive experiences with philanthropic conversations, I know other artists can tap into their own fundraising gifts, which are interwoven with their creativity.
As an artist, you already possess a skill set that lays the groundwork for strong and successful fundraising. If you can commit to using your artistic “super powers” for fundraising, you can transcend the scarcity mentality that runs rampant in the non-profit culture (especially in arts organizations!).
Whether you are raising $7k for an independent passion project or $7m for a capital campaign, you already have the tools you need to embark on the path of meaningful community building through your fundraising efforts. Here are the top six I’ve identified through my own experiences:
I’ll now go into a each of these qualities a bit more in depth:
“Vulnerability is not winning or losing; it’s having the courage to show up and be seen when we have no control over the outcome. Vulnerability is not weakness; it’s our greatest measure of courage.” Brené Brown
As an artist, you already know how to lead with vulnerability in order to fully express yourself - this holds true for your fundraising conversations, too.
Donors frequently make donations inspired by the connection they are developing with the specific person making the ask. The level of vulnerability that you, the (artistic!) fundraiser implements, is directly connected with how successful you will be in connecting with the potential donor.
I don’t believe that fundraisers should work with a prescribed script. In order to be effective fundraisers, you need to utilize who you are as an individual: your personal opinions and tastes, your specific brand of humor, your particular expertise, and your unique experiences.
We’re all accustomed to people who want something from us presenting themselves as sleek, styled, and curated - the best way to stand out is to present yourself as authentically as possible.
If you lead with sharing who you are (as a professional, as an artist, and as a HUMAN) you are sharing your own unique identity, and therefore leading with what makes you vulnerable.
Leading with your own vulnerability will encourage your potential donor to be vulnerable with you, too. Both of you being vulnerable will lead to your conversation being much more intimate and direct.
This all being said, I know that leading with vulnerability is much easier said than done: it’s always challenging to be vulnerable, but it’s even more challenging when you are asking for money (which brings up all of our individual blocks/triggers around finances - I’ll save that for another day, another blog post). I’d warn you that being vulnerable makes rejection hit that much harder, but as an artist, you already know that, don’t you?!
I have ventured to write more intimately about my personal life than is customary for a member of the Supreme Court, and with that candor comes a measure of vulnerability.” Sonia Sotomayor
Candor and vulnerability go hand in hand: the more vulnerable you are in conversations with potential donors, the more candid you will become (and vice versa).
As a creative, I know you are always trying to ‘cut to the chase’ and identify the truth of your given circumstances, so go ahead and embrace this impulse when you are in a fundraising conversation!
If you are raising money for a project or organization that you are personally, specifically passionate about, you should lead with that!
Also, I urge you to ask yourself ‘why’ you love this project or organization: chances are, this ‘why’ is related to connection and community. If this rings true to you, your fundraising conversations can be just as much (if not more) about community-building than whether or not this person makes a donation to the organization right now - and I suggest you flat-out say this to your potential donor.
Also, be candid with the potential donor about your own connection to the organization or project for which you are raising funds (it’s yet another way in which candor and vulnerability go together like cheese and crackers!) For example, when I was fundraising for a theater company I loved, I frequently confided in potential donors that my largest artistic goal was to be the Artistic Director of that theater someday. That statement was true for me then: it was a very personal and vulnerable anecdote to share, but it also spoke volumes about my commitment to the organization.
It never ceases to amaze me how surprised potential donors are when fundraisers lead with candor in these conversations. Our culture is mired by the 'hard sell', the 'sweet deal', the 'for a limited time only', so you being straightforward and honest with your ask is a breath of fresh air to the potential donor. Who would have thought candor could be so novel?
"I have no special talents. I am only passionately curious." Albert Einstein
I explored the importance of cultivating curiosity in my June blog for Spektrix (Taking the Ick out of the Ask: Seven Tips for Fundraising Conversations).
Since curiosity is essential to building relationships with donors and also a creative 'super-power', I’m revisiting the concept here: I believe everyone is capable of engaging with community members from a place of genuine curiosity.
I encourage you to use active, open-ended questions to get to know your community members. Here are some examples:
- What was their last experience with your organization like?
- Who joins them at your organization’s events?
- How can your organization better support their needs and interests?
- What led to them engaging with your organization in the first place?
The more genuinely curious you are about the community member, the easier, quicker, and more natural the connection between you will be.
“Empathy is a quality of character that can change the world - one that makes you understand that your obligations to others extend beyond people who look like you and act like you and live in your neighborhood.” Barack Obama
Luckily, as a creative person, you have a wealth of empathy into which you can dive. Get your scuba gear on and get right in there!
Your unique gift for empathy will lead you to intuit how to start the conversation, what follow-up questions to ask, and how to fine-tune your ultimate fundraising ask.
Fundraising hinges on active listening, and active listening works best when you lead with empathy: we need to be keeping note of what the donor is directly (and indirectly) communicating.
This can include what they directly express regarding what they like or don’t like about the organization, how they make their decisions about where to donate, and whether or not this a good time to donate. I also encourage you to pay attention to what they are NOT immediately sharing: Have they disliked your organization’s recent programming? Are they unhappy about a staffing change at your organization? Have they recently had a life changing event?
Leading with empathy will help the potential donor to open up and share more information with you. Diagnosing what's really going on with this person, not just with their donation habits, but their life in a larger sense, is essential to building trust that will ideally lead to a stronger relationship between them and your organization.
And abiding cheerfulness
Can accomplish everything on earth
Your passion is leading you to dedicate your own time, energy, and/or financial resources to this organization. How about using your personal enthusiasm to inspire your community members to do the same?
When I was working as a theatre director, I entered every rehearsal thinking about the six year old version of myself who just wanted to 'do the play'. Little Kel would have been thrilled to see the life I was living. Thinking about how a younger version of me would respond to seeing my current circumstances would always enable me to lead from a place of enthusiasm.
I encourage you to tap into whatever fuels your enthusiasm. When you do, this enthusiasm will become ‘infectious’: I can’t begin to tell you how many times potential donors have used this phrase to describe the enthusiasm of fundraisers I’ve coached or trained.
“Great stories happen to those who can tell them.” ~ Ira Glass
Luckily for you, just like in your artistic pursuits, story-telling is a critical element to developing philanthropic relationships.
As I said, I don’t recommend writing out a formalized script for yourself, but I do have four 'Tentpoles' I’d suggest you explore, as you craft an arc for your fundraising conversation. While I won’t go into them in depth here (check out this podcast I recorded for more details), I define these four Tentpoles as the following:
- The First Impression (establishing a connection)
- The Main Event (connecting the potential donor to your organization)
- The Ask (asking for a specific, deliberate, numerical donation)
- The Wrap-Up (confirming any necessary information; establishing the next moment of connection)
It’s also important that your narrative arc has various tributaries (aka: space for spontaneous conversation!), and for you, the creative fundraiser, to use your empathetic listening skills to decide which route to take, in order to best connect the specific potential donor to the overall narrative.
The biggest takeaway is that a fundraising pitch should be a finely tuned, lovingly crafted narrative. It should include story elements related to the organization: the current fundraising event or season, why the support is necessary now and how it will be used.
Now that you’ve read about how the skills you’re already implementing in your artistic endeavors (vulnerability, candor, curiosity, empathy, enthusiasm, and storytelling) can be immediately put to good use (and lead to successful results!) in your fundraising efforts, I hope you are feeling more confident and inspired to connect with potential donors.
Read the Spektrix Insights Report: Asking for Donations chapter to understand the effectiveness of in-person asks at the early stages of the donor pipeline.ASKING FOR DONATIONS