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Myths about arts fundraising are common, especially amongst directors and board members, says David Dixon. He identifies eight of the most commonly held ones. 

Photo of exhibition of contemporary furniture
An exhibition at the Kunsthal in Rotterdam

A myth is defined as ‘a widely held, but false, belief’. It’s actually pretty easy to check if you are faced with a myth. Just ask ‘how do you know that?’ and if the answer is something like ‘everybody knows that’ or ‘it’s just common sense’, then you can be pretty sure it’s a myth.

Arts fundraising has its own myths, some of which I once believed myself. They are most common amongst those who have little experience of fundraising. Perhaps it is not a surprise that directors and boards are most likely to hold myths dear to their hearts. After all, they’re not professional fundraisers and may find fundraising uncomfortable, yet they must have confidence in their own opinions.

There is no such thing as a ‘culture of giving’. Instead we need to create a ‘culture of asking’ inside our organisations.

For the eight common myths I have gathered, I suggest you keep two scorecards: one to mark how many of them you believe yourself and the second to mark how many your director believes.

1. It won’t work here

I began arts fundraising at the Oxford Playhouse in 1991 and became a consultant two years later. I made my way to London and people told me :“That might work in Oxford but in London there are too many theatres competing for the same money.” I had the same response in the north (“It might work down south”), in Scotland (“We are careful with our money up here”), and then in Spain, Germany, Austria and the Netherlands. Context is very important but basic principles and techniques work in the same way anywhere.

2. In the US there is a culture of giving

I love this one as it is the perfect excuse not to do any fundraising. Some people in other European countries think this is true of the UK too, and I have to explain that until the early 1990s there was virtually no individual giving to the arts in the UK. What changed? Not the public – our organisations just got good at fundraising. There is no such thing as a ‘culture of giving’. Instead we need to create a ‘culture of asking’ inside our organisations.

3. Businesses are the most important source for arts fundraising

This myth was actively financed by the old Arts Council for over two decades. Based on no research at all, it paid millions to Arts & Business and not a penny for any other form of fundraising. In fact, all research shows that the overwhelming majority of fundraising income comes from private individuals, with foundations next on the list and businesses a very poor third. The most important source of fundraising income for almost any arts organisation is personal donations.

4. You must give benefits to donors

This one was imported from the US, where arts fundraising is often highly structured, with levels of giving and benefits. It’s easy to think that people give because of the benefits, but the structures are designed to give donors an appropriate starting point and then to help develop their giving upwards – rather like a points system.

At the Metropolitan Opera in New York, one of the world’s most successful fundraising arts organisations, the difference between one level and the next one up is $25,000 for which they receive one extra benefit – a free cloakroom ticket. Do we really think it is the free cloakroom service that generates the extra $25,000? Donors are motivated by your cause and by personal relationships, not by benefits.

5. You need a friends or patrons association

Most UK arts organisations have absorbed their separate friends or patrons associations. Why place a third-party organisation between you and your donors? It simply gets in the way, and while you do want the active engagement of the people in the association, the structure is just a nuisance. Keep relationships with donors under your direct control.

6. We are fishing in the same small pond

Not so common in the UK these days, but this myth is alive in other countries. Is it true that there is a fixed number of arts donors and once someone has ‘caught’ some there are fewer fish available? In the early 1990s there were only a handful of donors to the arts in the UK and now there are hundreds of thousands. The same sharp increase is happening in the Netherlands where I mainly work. The job of a fundraiser is not to steal donors but to create them.

7. If we hire a fundraiser the problem is solved

Fundraising is the responsibility of the fundraisers, but they can only raise a certain amount of money without support from the board and director, and nowhere near as much as could be raised with it. Professional fundraisers know how to make the processes run well, but the big money comes through the board members who have the networks and seniority to make and use the right connections. If they don’t have those connections you need a new board. Without the active involvement of directors and board members you won’t get far.

8. Fundraising is about money

Of course it is, but strangely the money does not flow on its own. It comes from people – individuals, company executives, trustees and officers of foundations. All of them are real live people with their own ideas, stresses, aspirations, dodgy digestions, prejudices, etc. Fundraising is first and foremost about developing relationships with people, ideally over a long time period so you can really get to know each other. That kind of long-term relationship also generates the best fundraising return on investment. Fundraising is a people business.

Just excuses

Looking at the list, and listening to many different people tell me confidently that one or more of these statements is obviously true, I have come to realise that these are not just myths but some of them are excuses. If you are a director or board member with little experience of fundraising, it can seem quite daunting. So it is comforting to believe that it won’t work here, that you can hire a fundraiser or create a friends committee and everything will turn out right – without you having to get your hands dirty.

All of this is subconscious but the psychology is clear: my eight myths are really eight excuses not to get personally involved with fundraising.

David Dixon is Director of David Dixon Associates.

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Photo of David Dixon