Development Is Everyone’s Job Too

The assistant theatre manager and I had a meeting with our development officer today. I haven’t had a lot of faith in the foundation people since I took this job but today’s meeting gave me cause for optimism.

In the past, my interactions with the foundation people have mostly consisted of them telling me not to do things. I wasn’t to try contacting people, except on a very limited basis or write appeal letters, but rather give them a list of our needs and depend on the phone bank for the annual appeal. In the last six years we have had five development officers and no consistency or follow through from one to another. I have hosted four receptions in cooperation with them where there was no ask for donations. That would be fine, but there was also no follow up with the invitees to help them develop a greater investment in the theatre.

Despite all the promises and plans that were made, not only am I no closer to the endowment they keep telling me they want us to develop, but my annual contributions have been flagging every year, even before the recession. So I pointed all this out, noting that this was the fifth time I have pretty much had this meeting and asked what would be different.

The development officer acknowledged the foundation hadn’t really done well by us and then proceeded to talk about how the focus of the donor cultivation would move from her to us. We would take more ownership of the process so that if she was hit by a car tomorrow, the effort would still move forward. We aren’t going to depend heavily on gala events and chasing corporate money. We are going to clearly define giving opportunities and the case for giving to the theatre. Then we are going to start cultivating people on an informal basis.

I was glad to hear this because I figure I am already ahead in the game. I started actively cultivating relationships with people about a year ago. I was talking to a person I had specifically targeted as a prospect just last Friday. After a number of years of discussion, I am finalizing the arrangements for the donation of new carpeting for the lobby and seating areas. I had also started sending out targeted solicitation letters on the theory people give to people they know, not anonymous phone banks representing institutions. I decided if there was a foundation person to take umbrage, there was a good chance they wouldn’t be here in a year to prevent me from doing it again anyway. Yes, it might be a cynical outlook, but it has doubled my donor base. (Admitted, not a hard thing to do at this point.)

Since I regularly echo the idea that marketing is everyone’s responsibility, I am certainly on board with the idea that development requires everyone’s investment as well. When the topic of creating a case for what makes us worthy of donations came up, it was quickly decided we needed to include the technical director in some of the encounters with potential donors. He has been with the theatre for over 30 years. He has a great institutional memory and is probably the best qualified to talk about what has made us special over the years. I took it as a positive sign that the foundation was ready to give up some control when everyone quickly saw the value of having the guy with sawdust in his mustache talk to potential donors.

My suspicion is that the impetus for ceding some control and involvement is a result of the economic downturn. With staffs being shrunk, it probably became clear that the foundation couldn’t sustain the level of engagement with donors they needed to with those who remained. (The “small staff” motif was frequently mentioned by the development officer.)

I don’t know if they will be promoting the same sort of dynamic with everyone in the system. I’ll be the first to admit, not everyone is suited to advocate on behalf of their program. There are situations that really are best to defer to the professionals. The chancellor knows I have been chafing under the restrictions imposed on us and may have had a hand in getting the reins loosened a little. It may have helped that the theatre staff and I worked together to gain the donation of the new carpeting and some lighting instruments independent of the foundation.

So we will see how things unfold. The assistant theatre manager is pretty energized. Partially I think, because he hasn’t sat through this same meeting multiple times before. I am obvious still a little cautious and skeptical about the whole thing. I didn’t lay all my cards on the table in terms of possibilities I have been pursuing and after this meeting, there is less of a need to do so until the time is right.

About Joe Patti

I have been writing Butts in the Seats (BitS) on topics of arts and cultural administration since 2004 (yikes!). Given the ever evolving concerns facing the sector, I have yet to exhaust the available subject matter. In addition to BitS, I am a founding contributor to the ArtsHacker ( website where I focus on topics related to boards, law, governance, policy and practice.

I am also an evangelist for the effort to Build Public Will For Arts and Culture being helmed by Arts Midwest and the Metropolitan Group. (

My most recent role was as Executive Director of the Grand Opera House in Macon, GA.

Among the things I am most proud are having produced an opera in the Hawaiian language and a dance drama about Hawaii's snow goddess Poli'ahu while working as a Theater Manager in Hawaii. Though there are many more highlights than there is space here to list.


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