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Developing Donor Cultivation Confidence

Posted By Rebecca Elliot, Curatorial Assistant, The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, Wednesday, June 8, 2011

As a curatorial assistant at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (MFAH), I was excited to attend this panel; indeed it was a factor in my decision to attend the AAMC conference. I have been fortunate to learn about (and indirectly benefit from) some of the MFAH’s fundraising successes, but was eager to hear perspectives from other institutions. And I was not disappointed, for the panel conveyed a wealth of information.


The presentation began with the workshop offered by Katharine De Shaw, which had three parts, moving from more general to more specific advice. First, De Shaw summarized a very enlightening study of high-level philanthropists conducted recently by Bank of America. She provided many statistics concerning donors’ motivations and expectations, thereby grounding her presentation in numbers and facts and communicating her expertise in this area. Next, De Shaw gave a general overview of strategies for success in researching current, former and potential donors; communicating values to them; and acknowledging them. Finally, she detailed 39 steps of soliciting a donation, from scheduling your first meeting with a prospect all the way to continually engaging with them after they’ve given. The level of detail De Shaw offered made her presentation much more valuable than if it had consisted of generalizations and platitudes—which would have been the easy way out of describing the delicate dance that is donor cultivation. My only criticism is that "workshop” is something of a misnomer, because to me "workshop” sounds more interactive, suggesting perhaps small-group discussions where curators troubleshoot specific issues they are having. Perhaps that’s a matter of semantics though.


The second part of the presentation was the panel discussion. Jeannine O’Grody and Edgar Marx Jr. talked about patron groups at the Birmingham Museum of Art from the perspectives of a curator and a trustee, respectively. The BMA’s success at engaging its community came through strongly in both their presentations, and it was especially interesting to hear from Marx about what the museum means to him. He made a good poster child for the idea that donor cultivation isn’t just about asking for money—it’s about the sense of fulfillment that trustees gain from being involved with museums. For curators and other museum staff, what we give our audience should be foremost in our minds, not what we take. Teresa Carbone’s comments about fundraising for African American art at the Brooklyn Museum reinforced this point further when she described a program in which contemporary African-American artists host dinners in their studios for high-level patrons. This sounds like a win-win-win situation for the artists, patrons and museum. Paul Johnson also works at the Brooklyn Museum, but to my surprise, he presented about his experiences at the MFAH helping to establish and fundraise for the department of the Arts of the Islamic World. Although I already had some familiarity with this story, I still learned more from his presentation.


All of the presenters gave specific advice and concrete examples of successful programs, and it was helpful that they talked about the challenges and rewards of beginning initiatives from scratch, since this may be the most difficult kind of fundraising. Taken together, the presentations delivered much practical information that will inform my approach to donor cultivation when I am charged with that responsibility in the future.


Rebecca Elliot

Curatorial Assistant

Modern and Contemporary Decorative Arts and Design

The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

Tags:  donor 

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