Remembering It’s Not About You

I finally got around to reading the report WolfBrown generated following a study of what motivates donors in the San Francisco Bay area, “It’s Not About You … It’s About Them: A Research Report on What Motivates Bay Area Donors to Give to the Arts and Artists.” As you might imagine, it encourages people to focus on the interests and needs of the potential donors rather than the needs of the organization.

Much of it is very interesting. The study revealed five different motivation groups in which donors fell- Values-Driven Intrinsics, Community Altruists, Progressive Artist Champions, High-Touch Social Givers, Supportive Audience; and discussed what characteristics each group possessed as well as the percentage of the audiences these segments comprised. The report included a number of case studies on Bay area arts groups and identified the way the groups’ approaches successfully met their donors’ needs and interests.

Rather than doing a lengthy summary, I just wanted to cite the things that popped out for me. The first was regarding elements that influenced relationships:

Live conversation: Talking directly with potential donors can increase their interest in an artist and his or her project. Direct conversations can also energize the person seeking the contribution….

Online giving: Two-thirds of FFAMC donors have made donations online, and more than 60% of those who have not given online would consider doing so. …

Giving time as well as money: FFAMC donors are almost twice as likely to be volunteers with organizations to which they give than are donors to large institutions….

Contact pre-gift is more important than post-gift: Two-thirds of all donors surveyed indicated that they prefer to have attended an organization’s performances before they make a contribution. 42% of FFAMC donors indicated they prefer to get engaged with an organization personally before they make a gift; only 21% of FFAMC donors suggested they need a lot of postgift attention.

Write your thank you notes: Most FFAMC donors and donors to other cultural organizations desire timely acknowledgment of their gifts, information about the impact of their contribution and regular notice of upcoming programs or invitations to special previews or openings. There are outliers at both ends of this spectrum – people who want a lot of information and some who prefer very limited post-gift contact. Asking a donor which kind of contact they
prefer is an important part of getting to know them.

I was actually surprised about the pre-gift contact being more important than post gift. I can understand that developing a relationship with an organization is a strong motivator for that initial gift, but it is interesting to know people don’t value post gift contact as much. Which is not to say they don’t want acknowledgment. I wonder if this might be regional or even generational based since so many of the donors in this study were younger than the usual arts attendee/donor. But perhaps our assumptions about what all donors want has been flawed from the start.

The other thing that caught my eye was the way The Shotgun Players survey their audiences. When we have conducted surveys, we try to keep it short but also try to capture as much pertinent demographic information as possible. The response rate is mixed, but generally very light. From the way I read this report, The Shotgun Players asks two questions on a raffle questionnaire, a serious one about motivation or demographics and a silly one related to the show, “During our Rosie the Riveter show, it was “If you were a power tool, what kind of tool would you be?” They get a 85%-90% response rate. It was a sort of “duh” moment for me when I recognized getting the answer to one important question a show from a meaningful number of people is more helpful than getting a handful of people to answer 6-8 questions.

Later in the report were some comments that belied the idea that artists don’t want to get involved in the business end of things. (And even if the idea is true, the sentiments expressed by an artist may provide a challenge to think differently where administrators may sound like nags.) Philip Huang said of his grant seeking experience:

“I liked the matching requirement very much. I would have never done this project on my own, without the match. I never would have changed artistic direction, or changed medium on my own without the endorsement of the FFAMC grant. I believe that artists should chase things slightly outside of their personal comfort zone. For me, fundraising from individuals was definitely that. Having an externally imposed timeline and an externally imposed mandate was good. I think the match was also a motivator for my donors. Once I got clarity about what I needed and I asked for it, people responded to my sense of propose and vision.”

Finally, what I thought was really excellent were instructions in the appendix prepared by Alan Brown on how to conduct the interview portion of the study. I have read a lot of studies over the years and I have never seen something like this included. There was just a very accessible and comfortable element to the instructions. Had I been conducting the interviews, the instructions would have calmed any anxiety I felt. And from various parts of the instruction, it appears Brown was training people who were not professional researchers and may have in fact been members of the commissioning organization.

“Sitting down with ticket buyers and donors and asking them about their experiences sounds simple enough. In reality, few cultural institutions or funders conduct qualitative research on a methodical basis, and many have slipped out of touch with their constituents.”
During most interviews, a great deal of data is communicated non-verbally, through body language, hesitation, gestures, and intonation. No matter how good the researcher, it’s just not the same as experiencing the interview in person. This is why the exercise is participatory – you’ll be doing the interviewing….With the researcher out of the way, the “filter” between you and your interviewees is gone.”

Some of the instructions are just good reminders for talking to donors and supporters in informal settings.

Good interviewing also requires a good set of questions. Asking the wrong questions (or avoiding the hard questions) is a waste of time. You may feel good by the end of the interview, but nothing is gained. Asking the right questions the right way, however, can unleash passionate, emotional, or even angry responses – which can be extremely informative.

Which brings us to the hardest part of interviewing – listening. A good interviewer is a good listener. Listening requires a great deal of concentration. A good listener understands what the respondent is saying, and also thinks about what the respondent is not saying, or trying to say…. A good listener hears when the respondent is having difficulty answering a question, and re-phrases the question or illustrates a response drawing from her own experience. “Maybe I can help you with this question by telling you how I would answer it for myself…” Perhaps the most difficult aspect of interviewing is simultaneously concentrating on what the interviewee is saying and also having a sense of where the interview is going – whether to probe deeper or move on to the next question.

Some questions are direct, while other questions involve asking people to tell personal stories. For example, “Can you remember when you felt especially proud of a gift you made?” Storytelling can be extremely useful in getting people to explain important events in their lives and to open up about difficult issues….”

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. (

I am currently the 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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