U.S. – German Comparative Fundraising Practices

I subscribe to the Arts Management Newsletter which provides insights into international arts and cultural issues.

On page 14 of the most recent issue, is an article about the experience Laura Brower Hagood had during an exchange program in Germany as a Bosch Foundation Fellow.

Much to my disappointment, you need to be 40 or younger to apply because it sounds like an amazing opportunity.

Hagood offers some interesting perspectives on the differences between American and German cultural entities based on her five month long work placement with the Prussian Palaces and Gardens Foundation.

Because the US vs. Europe cultural funding models are an ongoing topic of conversation, her observations on the different fundraising practices and capabilities were interesting:

For instance, whereas membership programs are managed in-house in the U.S., friends associations are external to their nonprofits in Germany. How do you develop a major giving program, if you don’t have access to your small donors’ information? How do you “share” donors and their information with another entity?


My German colleagues were interested in adapting U.S. fundraising practices, but were judicious and thoughtful about cultural differences. Many
conversations centered on what may or may not be effective in a Brandenburger setting. Galas at $10,000 a plate: probably not. Planned giving for individuals who wish to express their values after their death: maybe, yes. Donor interest in arts education: absolutely. This experience helped me distinguish between core, if not universal, fundraising principles, such as the benefits of philanthropic giving and the importance of building relationships, from specific fundraising strategies and tactics. I also came to appreciate that there are multiple pathways to the same optimal result.

In comparing the general operating environment, there wasn’t really anything she says to dispel the widely held perception that the grass is greener in Europe:

U.S. arts nonprofits draw only 9% of their funding from local, regional, and national government sources, which means that, on a day-to-day basis, organizations, audiences, funders, and board members are linked in a tight feedback loop. Most arts nonprofits must make artistic and programmatic decisions based on whether an audience exists to support their work, whether in the form of ticket purchases or private donations. This connection is of such significance to the organization’s sustainability that it must be directly relevant and intimately connected to its community of patrons in order to flourish.


In contrast, the German system of sustained government subsidies provides real reliability, allowing arts organizations to plan over the long-term and encouraging the production of art for art’s sake, a value rarely articulated in the U.S. The Prussian Palaces and Gardens Foundation has recently benefited from multi-year capital investment in its 33 palaces and 150 historic structures. As I visited Weimar, Dresden, and Berlin, I learned that Potsdam was only one of many cities restoring their cultural infrastructure with millions and millions of taxpayer Euros. This kind of sustained, long-term investment in culture is for all intents and purposes unheard of in the US and represented for me an exciting and reinvigorating perspective.

She does feel, though, that the necessity of paying close attention to the interests of the community makes American cultural organizations more responsive to their audiences.

However, the links between German organizations, their audiences, and even society at large were less clear, less convincing, than in the U.S. In museum after museum, with a few notable exceptions, I found outmoded display and interpretive techniques that ensured that only German nationals with an intimate familiarity with art history or European history would enjoy seeing them. Almost entirely funded through government subsidies, these institutions are often missing a key feedback loop that ensures responsiveness to their audiences’ needs and wants. And, while American organizations have fully embraced arts education as a vehicle for building diverse and multicultural audiences now and into the future, the German arts sector remains too tentative in realizing this potential.

Two questions that immediately came to mind after reading this were:

1- While American cultural organizations may be more responsive to audiences, are they receiving enough funding to effectively serve their communities? When there was more funding available in the past, arts organizations may have been more lazy about proactively serving their communities. But I would argue that businesses on the whole took customers for granted with the service they provided and the type of marketing and advertising they used.

Given the current business environment in the US, if arts and cultural organizations were better funded, I suspect they would still be working to better connect with their communities in the face of declining participation.

2- While I don’t doubt the museum displays in Germany need to be updated in order to better connect with foreign visitors as well as German nationals, I wondered if the difference in educational systems may have created different perceptions in the size of the gap that needs to be bridged.

Essentially, would an American museum educator go to a German museum and suggest that displays have a number of features and that certain educational programming be added based on an assumption that German visitors were as unaware as American museum visitors.

In turn, would a German museum professional enter an American museum and feel like the displays and programs were simplistic and patronizing based on the fact any German national would be aware of these details from their elementary level education?

Questions like this make me regret being a little too old to participate in the exchange program. One you dear readers needs to apply so I can live vicariously through you. (Though I am not quite clear if they are accepting another round of applications at this time.)

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 (artshacker.com) 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. (http://www.creatingconnection.org/about/)

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.


1 thought on “U.S. – German Comparative Fundraising Practices”

  1. Thanks for pointing this out to me as a German in Germany. Indeed: usually we look for guidance on fundraising to the US. I happen to know someone at the organization she worked with and they had not seen the report in the arts management magazine. so we have gone roundtrip here 😉


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