Development and fundraising: how arts organisations put their case

The other day I asked the great Twitter hive mind this question:

I had to clarify what I meant by development (pesky jargon) so I’d better do that here too. When I talk about development teams in this context, I mean the people who deal with fundraising, memberships, donations, sponsorship and that sort of thing. Not website developers.

Before I waffle on about why I asked the question, big thanks go to the people who came back with good answers:

When I sent that tweet I was hoping to find examples of organisations that do a decent job of explaining why they need to be given money and showing what they do when they get it. Or maybe I thought I might dig up a couple of experts working in-house that I could follow and learn more from.

Development is something I’ve been thinking about more and more lately:

  • It’s loomed large in a couple of recent conversations with clients
  • It was very relevant to some consultancy I did about a year ago
  • I went to a really interesting talk about sponsorship at the AMA Conference in the summer
  • Without seeking it out on purpose, I keep reading about how different sectors are approaching memberships

There’s a wider context too. The message that the arts need to get better at asking, not just receiving seems to have been taken on board. Not that this is new thinking particularly, it’s just that there seems to be an increased sense of urgency around it at the moment. I’m sure £30m of Catalyst Arts funding will have concentrated a few minds too.

With all that in mind, I’m currently very interested in how arts organisations use their online presence to do two things:

  1. positioning themselves as charitable organisations that are worthy of receiving donations
  2. ‘making the ask’

I’ve no concrete answers on anything yet – I’m just letting the thoughts build up.

Of the other responses I had to that tweet, I mostly disagree with Ash Mann’s suggestion that content related to development is doomed to be “pretty boring” and of no wider interest to people. If it’s possible to make blenders interesting online then how hard can it be to wrap a story around the need to hit a fundraising target, or show how in-basket donations where used in a given year? Although to be fair I’m sure that, although it could be interesting, in practice I’ll bet it’s not.

I do, however, completely agree with Ash’s other point that “non arts’ charities/fundraisers are much better at doing this”.

The issue, I think, is that the message for arts organisations often isn’t so clear as it is for other charities. Arts organisations get income from public funding and ticket sales. Some might well ask ‘why should we have to give money on top of that?’ There’s a problem with consistency across the sector too. Take the case of theatres – some are purely commercial, some aren’t. How’s yer average member of the public supposed to tell the difference?

The RSPCA (to pick a random example) don’t have that problem. It’s clearer that they need donations. I’m also not likely to have a purely transaction-based relationship with them, whereas I’d guess that’s how many people are likely to have their first encounter with many arts organisations.

Back to the digital side of things – do people in the arts look at what their colleagues are doing in other types of charities (health, environmental, education, animal, etc)?

The reason I ask is that I’m just starting work on a big website redevelopment project. We had conversations with departments across the organisation and everyone’s very keen that the new site makes their charitable status much more evident. We asked people to name websites that they like – a pretty standard question in this kind of situation. I thought it was interesting (and, in fact, this is always the case) that they suggested many websites for other arts organisations but only one person mentioned another charity’s website –

I’m starting to think that’s quite revealing – that arts organisations don’t tend to place themselves in the same context as other charities. I wonder what would be different if they did. I wonder how far most organisations could/should go in that direction, given the need to present and promote the artistic work and the fact (ok, assumption) that websites may well be more effective at driving transactional income. How would you test different approaches?

One more thing – the shortlist and winners of the Digital Fundraising Awards were released this week. I don’t know how well publicised these are but, of the charities that earned a mention, their are plenty of health and environment charities and a couple of heritage organisations. No arts organisations though.

Sidenote: I’m going to put more questions like this out on Twitter. I’ve always said you get more from that thing when you ask than when you tell.

Published by Chris Unitt

I work at One Further, doing digital projects with cultural organisations. Follow @ChrisUnitt or find me on LinkedIn.

3 replies on “Development and fundraising: how arts organisations put their case”

  1. Great conversation piece, and I am living out the content in my career at the moment. Coming from fundraising work and consultancy in small-medium local and national charities (health, community, debt relief, homelessness, domestic violence and international development), I have just taken a position at a Dance Charity in the South West!

    Pumped full of enthusiasm, I thought I might be able to bring my expert learning of fundraising in the charity sector into the paradoxical realm of arts organisations (note how I have separated them), but it is proving a lot harder than I originally thought.

    I believe this is primarily due to the culture shift required. Arts organisations are a funny beast, as they have artistic aims, commercial facets, charitable status and, in the case of my new place of work, a public sector identity. There aren’t enough conversations between ‘pure’ charities and the arts, partly becuase the later haven’t needed to depend on voluntary income in the same way, but also because arts organisations are in the re-orientation phase of realising they need to diversify their income streams, before it is too late.

    I fully expected to find arts fundraising blogs – I have found a great book and a couple of articles about techniques and Case for Support ideas, but no one has really worked out how to communicate the case well.

    I scanned financial reports on the charity commission and struggled to find any UK arts organisation that relies heavily on voluntary income (please correct me if I am wrong, so I can look at their website, contact them and find a mentor!)

    There is definitely an understanding, through evident income pressure, that arts organisations need to engage in strategic fundraising, but learning needs to be cascaded from the third sector fundraisers and conversations need to happen to create a new business model/organisation structure that accounts for all of these commercial, artistic and charity facets that arts organisations are dealing with. This will be probably become more of an issue as organisations cross the sector boundaries (Businesses with a CSR arm, charities that trade, social enterprise etc).

    It probably doesn’t help that dance is, scandalously, the least funded artform, above festivals (cf., and the South West receives the least amount of Individual Giving Income across the country (bar South East).

    Never mind. I wanted a challenge! At the very least, I should probably document my comparisons and experiences in a blog.

  2. Hi Lizzie and thanks for the really interesting comment (the prose was fine!). I’ve not a lot to add, but I’ve tweeted a link to here in case someone more knowledgeable than I can chip in.

    Otherwise, I’d really encourage you to start blogging your thoughts/experiences on this stuff. The more voices out there, the better (and please send me a link – you’ll have one subscriber, at least).

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