Individuals donate the vast majority of funds to nonprofit organizations in America, whether it’s regular folks writing a personal check, making a monthly donation via a website, offering free services or supplies, or buying a ticket to a benefit party. Successful fundraisers devote significant time to soliciting such support; they conduct campaigns, produce special events and engage the community.
Whether you’re an individual artist going it alone or you work with a theater company or other artist collective, fundraising from individuals is increasingly important. We know it can be difficult to get started; we want to help you ask yourself the right questions so you can approach donors from the strongest position and feel secure in what you’re offering to contributors. If you’re raising funds for a socially or community engaged project, we encourage you to dig deeper with Stephanie Bleyer’s June 9th webinar, “Producing and Funding Your Community Engagement Campaign.” Read more about Stephanie here.
Getting Ready: Key Questions
As you begin thinking about your campaign, you’ll want to begin researching potential donors and strategies; deciding what donors will get when they give; and preparing to do follow-up, give thanks and keep track of donations long-term. You’ll also want to ask yourself the following questions before you ever ask anyone for anything. You don’t have to answer each one, but read through them all. They are interrelated, and together they should help you develop a strategy that plays to your strengths as a person and as an artist.
What is your immediate goal? Financial security, increased visibility, recognition from critics? Tell your donors what you are trying to achieve. Professional fundraisers call this an imperative; knowing how funds will be used makes your goal tangible to a donor. It helps to be specific. Some examples:
- Your donation will mean I can pay a full-time rehearsal salary to the performers who have worked with me for several years.
- I am trying to raise $1,200 to cover my travel and lodging at Art Basel this year. Attending an international art fair will increase my visibility across the art world.
- Your contribution will be part of a down payment on a new, permanent studio space.
What makes your project worthy of support? It could be that your last three projects have been well received and you’re taking the next step to a larger venue; it could be your innovative approach, your involvement in a particular community, your high-profile partner or collaborator, or the issues you engage. There are no ‘right’ answers, just the ones that apply to you.
Where will this project lead you—is it part of a larger plan? Where do you see yourself going after this project is over? Introducing a project as one step in a longer process makes potential donors feel as if they are getting on a moving train—they’re more likely to want to take the trip: “I want to use this opening, my first solo show at a Chicago gallery, as a springboard toward exhibitions in Los Angeles, Miami and Houston.”
What is most compelling about you as an artist? This question is often difficult for artists to answer on their own, so you may want to enlist help from family, friends, collectors, presenters and colleagues. Are you a pillar of the community, an established visionary, a ‘maverick,’ a bold risk taker that excites audiences? Is your work empowering?
Who supports work similar to yours? Why? Maybe your work is tied to a particular social issue or a local community. Perhaps it’s more about a recognized school of creativity to which you belong. Whatever the case, answering this question can lead you to a new pool of donors. Who supports your colleagues? Start looking through performance programs and donor lists to generate your own list of potential donors. Be inclusive; you can always cut this list down later.
Where are you at your best? Knowing the answer will help you determine your approach. If you are best one-on-one or in small gatherings, hosting a large event is probably not a good idea. Similarly, if your best writing is in a personal, informal tone, don’t send a formal appeal letter.
What do you want from your donors? Of course, all artists need money to make their work. But if you need the money to buy goods or services, consider asking for those directly. Perhaps you need publicity help for an opening, or other in-kind services and materials. If space is most important right now, consider approaching commercial landlords and developers.
What does a donor get in return for their support? Perhaps it is as simple as access to a fantastic artist and her work; maybe it is an association with a trend; perhaps it’s a simple perk, like free tickets, an inkjet print or a built-in social network. Whatever the reason, knowing this helps you ask with more confidence.
When is the best time to ask? This is an ever-changing issue in fundraising. Each December, donor solicitations clutter mailboxes across the country, and it’s often hard to weed out the charities you’re most interested in supporting from those that got your name off a generic mailing list. Even the best donor letters can get lost in the shuffle this time of year. On the other hand, many donors make charitable contributions at the end of the year for tax reasons. For some, sending a letter just after Thanksgiving works wonders—you beat the rush by a couple of weeks; for others, it’s a completely off-season ‘ask’ that works best, or it’s timed around a specific event like a gala or the premiere of a project.
Be on the lookout for more fundraising tips on our blog, and in our workshops and webinars. And, if you’re preparing to fund a socially or community engaged project, check out our June 9th webinar with Stephanie Bleyer, “Producing & Funding Your Community Engagement Campaign.”