Donors With Baggage

There was a short piece on the Chronicle of Higher Education’s website about fund raising (subscription required). What caught my eye was some of the insights it provided about how people money and the act of donating it. The story cites Laura Fredricks, a former fundraiser for Pace University and Temple University, who addressed attendees at Fund Raising Day in New York 2008 last week.

Much of what I read and heard at conferences about fund raising primarily deals with strategies for developing a relationship with a donor and convincing them to support your organization. In some respects, much of the advice has been similar to what is given in regard to dating. Some of the advice is a little aggressive and cutthroat and some advocates a more practical and sensitive approach. (Of course, there is also the “be content being single” camp but that philosophy doesn’t quite work in fundraising.)

In any case the advice generally focuses on a somewhat formulaic planned approach. Just as dating tips rarely acknowledge that other people have the baggage of past dating experiences which will impact the relationship you are trying to cultivate, I rarely hear/read a similar acknowledgment in connection with fund aising.

One of the anecdotes mentioned in the story was about a wealthy developer who never gave more than $1,000 at a time to Temple. When Fredricks asked why, she discovered that even though he could afford to give more, he harbored fears about running out of money that went back to his childhood.

She recognizes that the people who ask for money like presidents and trustees also have varying degrees of comfort with the subject. “They should be treated the same way donors are—as individuals with different emotions about money—and given simple requests, she said. Instead of giving a reticent board member a list of prospective donors, Fredricks suggested starting out with the names and biographical information of two current donors and then asking the trustee to call them to say thank you.”

Back when I was fresh out of grad school I remember having a conversation with someone about fund raising. I don’t quite remember who it was but the comment was made that you couldn’t ask someone to make a large contribution of money until you had made a large contribution yourself. The idea was that if you had done so you could empathize with what motivated someone to donate that much to something they believed in and could also understand how making such a donation impacted their standard of living.

At the time a $50 would have had dire consequences on my standard of living so I really wasn’t ready to do serious fund raising at that point in my career. Some of the other advice given at the Fund raising Day in New York meeting actually revolved around this idea. One person suggested requesting large donors make the ask for similarly large gifts.

One last tip that caught my eye which might be rather difficult for some arts organizations to embrace given perennially precarious financial straits. “Don’t show your desperation, no matter how far you are from hitting your goal. You’re not raising money to keep your organization from going out of business.” Yeah, right! That little bit of advice came from Michael Margitich, senior deputy director for external affairs at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. The approach he said he used while at Columbia University was “he was raising additional funds to ‘maintain our level of excellence.'”

Sometimes I Feel Like A Fatherless Color

I don’t know how it found its way to my backstage, but I came across a booklet from Apollo Design that really show the company has a sense of their customer’s needs and seek to add value to their products. They have what they term Playbooks which provide a scene by scene break down with gel and pattern suggestions of some of the most popular plays high schools and community theatres perform.

They admit that the options they offer are among the safest choices a lighting designer can make. They also can’t offer guidance about placement of instruments and intensity of light since they can’t know the needs of every theatre. But for the high school teacher who has volunteered to direct the fall play and knows nothing about choosing gel colors, the booklets can remove quite a bit of anxiety. Even if you aren’t directing any of the plays they cover, you can get a sense of how the design theory you might read in a text book has been put into practice in specific instances.

You can download pdf versions of specific Playbook sections here. As an example of the general guidance they offer, for The Glass Menagerie, the notes state:

“Smoky, red glow” – mentioned in the Amanda and Tom argument scene. The colors should not be malevolent or suggest violence. It should be a subtle indication of frustration and tension”

Another example is in scene 3 the booklet provides guidance for different colors on the fire escape, living room, bedrooms and dance hall.

Although their skills far outstrip those of the people who would use these booklets, my technical crew thought the booklets were a great idea and have been thumbing through them for the last week.

We did get a little chuckle though from their political correct renaming of Bastard Amber, one of the most often used gel colors around. It was created by mistake when a guy was trying to create a batch of regular amber. Bastard Amber ended up being generally a better color choice and more widely used than regular Amber. The two leading gel manufacturers, Rosco and Lee both have the color in their swatch books.

Apollo on the other hand calls the color Fatherless Amber. Given that they have a Dominant and Submissive Lavender, we can’t imagine they are complete prudes.

If you want to have a bit of fun, ask your tech director if you can see their gel swatch books. You can find some amusing names for colors in there. Given that Rosco and Lee have created proprietary colors that the other hasn’t been able to reproduce, you can have fun looking through both. Like some famous painters who have created their own paint shades, lighting designers have asked that unique colors be created for them and so you will find some colors named after notable theatrical folks. Be warned that there are also a lot of mundane boring colors in there as well though you will probably wonder at the contradiction of shades like No Color Blue.

All The Kids Know It Is More Fun To Sit In the Back

There is a great illustration (in my mind as least) for why arts people need to value learning and be cognizant of what is happening elsewhere in a story out of Orlando. It seems the Orlando Opera Company and Orlando Ballet have decided to try to bump their subscribers out of the balcony and into the more expensive floor seats in an attempt to make that area look fuller and increase revenue.

The subscribers are none to happy and are resisting. Just like the subscribers at the Honolulu Symphony did when the balcony seating prices were both raised and that section closed until the floor section was filled. Just like the subscribers at the Boston Symphony Orchestra did when that organization increased balcony seating prices by 80% in one year. Both Honolulu and Boston backpedaled and admitted the increases were ill advised. I suspect the opera and ballet in Orlando may end up doing the same.

Fortunately, the Orlando Philharmonic hadn’t received the advice the opera and ballet did about changing the pricing structure or this entry would make it seem like orchestras were the only ones making this poor decision. Or at the very least, weren’t doing a good job presenting this new policy to their audiences. I am not sure there is a good way of making such a large change in one year’s time palatable without investing a whole lot of time and money in the campaign.

The Orlando Sentinel article mentions that the opera and ballet had received the results of a study. I wonder who did the study and how they came to the conclusion that subscribers would tolerate this in acceptable numbers. I could believe a study that found people would tolerate a price increase of X amount over what they are paying now. Likewise, I could foresee people grumbling but generally acceding to moving their seats to the floor for the same price if they were told it was a cost saving measure. (Don’t have to pay the ushers for the balconies, perhaps.) It would be a sneaky way to get people out of the seats and raise the prices the following season when you reopen the balcony due to demand. People would probably be rather angered at such a move when it emerged a couple years hence.

I would be rather incredulous at a study that found it would be productive to both displace subscribers and place them in a situation where they were paying more than the previous year. (If anyone knows of a case of the decision succeeding, I would love to know!) I would ask to see the research that back that up and if it didn’t include a fair sampling of my ticket purchasing base, I would be rather skeptical. In other words, I am wondering if they even talked to anyone in those seats. (Or researched how similar decisions played out.) I don’t expect any of them would have answered yes to a question that flat out asked if they would be willing to give up their seats so some extensive communication of the rationale would need to transpire. Which would be a pretty good opportunity to gauge the most effective way to communicate the rationale.

There are obviously too many factors of which I am unaware to make a real judgment about why the decision was made. I feel secure though in stating that their case doesn’t appear to have been communicated well.

Art, The Government Prescription Program

There is a piece on the online journal, Spiked from Frank Furedi decrying the English government’s prescriptive use of music in their sponsorship of the Music Manifesto. My first thoughts were that this is what comes from positioning the arts as having all these benefits when asking for money. This is further evidence that the authors of Gifts of the Muse in saying the arts were ill served emphasizing these elements over the intrinsic value of the arts. I also thought that it should come as no surprise that governments would be employing music to advance an agenda. This has been happening for centuries from the Medicis to the current day where popular music is used to sell everything from cars to presidential candidates.

Perhaps I have been exposed too much to commercially motivated music, but I had a difficult time envisioning music as a vehicle for seeking and serving Truth. Perhaps it is the lack of this connection to Truth or my inability to see it that can be attributed to what he cites as “impersonal force of the market impinged on the development of art and culture.”

My initial cynicism about his complaints aside, there were a number of observations he made that I hadn’t really considered. For instance, he notes that by valuing who will be attracted by the experience over the art itself, “what really matters is the audience rather than the music that the audience listens to. The question of who sits in the audience, rather then what they hear, shapes official thinking on music today.”

I have seen this myself. Every final grant report I fill out regardless of whether it is privately or publicly funded asks me how many K-12 students were served. Many ask about the racial make up of the audience and if my program was designed to serve specific races or K-12 students. Some ask how the programs reinforce family values and self-sufficiency. I am occasionally tempted to ask how a particular government policy is actually reinforcing these things. The arts shouldn’t necessarily be looked to in order to patch what has been rent.

I do think that arts organizations should be paying attention to who is attending. I am happy not to have to break down my audience into all sorts of demographics for my grant reports. One should always be assessing who is attending and how they are receiving it. Though the identity and number of people attending shouldn’t form the sole measure of success.

One of the toughest parts of Furedi’s complaint to tackle is the idea of accessibility equating to dumbing down. He criticizes music classes.

“Instead of providing an opportunity for pupils to study and learn about music, ‘music-making opportunities’ are often about involving kids in playing around with digital media and pretending to be djs…But frequently the ‘music-making’ approach is praised because it allegedly removes the ‘barriers’ that prevent children from ‘making music’.”

and suggests that the real elitists are,

“the educational and cultural establishment who have so little faith in the ability of children to appreciate and learn about classical music. Their anti-elitism is a populist gesture designed to flatter ordinary folk and reassure them that not much is expected of them.”

The question that emerges in my mind is how to structure an introduction to theatre, music, dance and art to people whose experience with these disciplines has come from movies, television, MTV and Photoshop? Are the activities you intend as a bridge between these experiences and the creative/performing arts underestimating your audience or does it provide necessary context? A contributing factor to activities that do indeed dumb an experience down is the receipents may not view the relevance in the same manner you do. So the bridging activities become the whole program rather than just the initial steps of a larger plan.

For example, does all the art and literature about the transitory nature of life have the same poignancy for people who can create and destroy a visual representation with a touch of a button? How do you cultivate an appreciation for an artist’s technique in mixing colors or composing music when there is software that will correct those flaws? How do you instill a desire for preservation in someone whose criteria for doing so is based on the amount of room left on a memory card rather than what ever quality of composition is apparent on the tiny digital camera or cell phone screen?

I don’t doubt that you can cultivate appreciation and understanding of art in people amid all of these influences. But if they don’t feel it to the same degree or manner as you and your contemporaries do, you may never move beyond a certain point and allow them to develop a more sophisticated understanding. On the other hand, if you don’t take into account that people experience the world differently than when you were their age and proceed to present the discipline in the same manner it was presented to you, you risk alienating people with your insensitivity and general cluelessness.

What is the balance then between presenting an accessible context that is intellectually challenging? It is easy to say that is your goal and just as easy to be diverted from the plan by what seems to be a general atmosphere of anti-intellectualism.