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Donor Cultivation

Posted By Julie Sasse, Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Donor Cultivation

Blog by Julie Sasse


I found Katharine De Shaw’s introduction to Donor Cultivation very motivating, and whether as curators we like it or not, we are increasingly being asked to cultivate new and existing donors. I was not surprised by the percentages in 2009 for charitable giving—such a large amount from individuals and such a small amount from corporations and next to nothing from government grants. One only needs to read the newspapers to see that we are far from out of the woods economically and the first to go is government funding and corporations. De Shaw confirmed what I already knew from personal experience—that individuals and family foundations should be top priority for an institution seeking funding. Yet what was not discussed was the distribution of this wealth across the country—the smaller the region, the fewer the wealthy people for a given region. It would be interesting to see if the new wealth will remain in the largest cities or if there are pockets of money arising with changes in demographics due to weather or a city’s or region’s political or economic situation.


What surprised me was the percentage of philanthropic women—a relatively untapped group as such for our institution identified as such. It would be interesting to know if these women form to make giving consortiums—I know of one in New Mexico, but otherwise I have approached women as individuals, but I now am reminded that such groups exist. Knowing about a source listing for such giving groups would also be helpful.


Much of the information that was given in this workshop seems to be of the most use to a development office, but what seems crucial is the partnership/collaborative goal between development and curatorial. I appreciated hearing that to be effective, it is best to meet with a potential donor as a team rather than a curator going out solo. That way the curator can show the passion for the exhibition/project and the development officer can make the ask to allow the curator to connect with the donor on the project level and the development officer on the philanthropic benefits. The steps De Shaw laid out were thorough—preparation, determination to reach your goal, and confidence that is a worthy project seems to be the three top priorities in the ask. I was most impressed with the creative ideas to thank the donors—the idea of have a professional photograph taken with the donor and the artist(s) in a playful and professional pose seems fun and unique. Too often we forget to thank the donors for their gift after the first official letter. My personal practice of inviting some of my top donors to private "art parties,” however casual, was reaffirmed by this talk, and I will continue this practice to connect with them on a personal level.


I have long been curious about the process of voting for new acquisitions and bringing in three works or so to choose from, so it was interesting to hear from the Birmingham Museum of Art and their practice of combining their six support groups. That seems to be a daunting task and I applaud them for keeping their groups thinking on the same page and not advocating one collection focus over another. I would assume they already have a strong, predetermined sense of what the groups would like, but the idea of paying for the crating/shipping of three works knowing one or more might go back seems risky, while I understand that many times someone steps up to the plate and purchases the other works for the museum. Likewise, I learned a lot from Edgar Marx, Jr.’s presentation, especially as it relates to the Junior Patrons Group. The "one nail at a time” method is something that might work in a community such as mine that cannot afford the high-dollar donations from all but a few top patrons. I also like that this makes a broader community feel like they contributed to the collection, even if in some small way. All in all, the emphasis on the curator in the process of raising money for exhibitions and collections was gratifying. Too often curators are marginalized for what they can bring to the donor cultivation process, yet still expected to raise a substantial amount for their programs. Acknowledging the team approach makes sense.


I was also taken with Paul A. Johnson’s talk about the formation of Friends of the Arts of the Islamic world and came away with good ideas about new focus groups to organize for the benefit of small, but growing collections. A festival sounds like a wonderful way to identify supporters and new audiences. Ultimately, this workshop reminded me that fund raising is a team effort and having a strong vision and a solid plan for how to go after the money is an absolute necessity. Curators cannot wait for the development office to tell them what the plan is—it should start early and with everyone working for the same goal but not working in competition with each other in isolation. Each exhibition or project should have some kind of event or plan that is unique to itself so it does not become repetitive, especially when often the same donors are expected to give over and over. Unique approaches such as these encourage new donors and supporters and also keeps the base group of donors interested.

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