When is the Best Time to Plant a Tree?


A few months ago, I received a letter from an arts group asking for a donation. I know they had my name on a list because I had given them a few donations in the past. But since a couple years had slipped by without a thank you or acknowledgement, I gave to other organizations who did seem to appreciate my humble donations.

Receiving the request was, and was not, a surprise. It was not a surprise because every arts organization is seeking more donations during this Covid era. The surprise was that after not hearing anything from this organization for a couple years, that they reached out in a rather nonchalant way asking for money, still not acknowledging my past gifts. It flat out lacked sincerity.

During the last several months we have discovered many weaknesses in arts organizations. But engagement, or lack thereof, is proving there is a severity of disconnect with donors and patrons.

Case-in-point was this arts group who reached out to me. I was not the only one who was suddenly invited to “help invigorate and empower” them with a donation. I heard from a few others who had stopped donations in the last few years because of a lack of a thank you or acknowledgement. It makes one wonder how many small donors stopped giving and, if added up, would that have been equivalent to a large single donation? Quite likely.

Something as simple as a thank you should be the baseline of all arts organizations’ engagement actions. We all know there are clearly some gifts that are grander than others, but even the humble gift might turn into a more sustainable gift down the road after trust and relationships blossom.

It boils down to building friendships, trust, and relationships. These are the long-term values that sustain and perpetuate arts organizations. By keeping the lines of communication open both ways, it leads to a sincere and meaningful partnership to foster a healthy arts organization for the community, for the future.

This is only one example of engagement that can be fixed. But the bluntest ways to illustrate this point are these two quotes:

“The best time to make friends is before you need them.” ~Ethel Barrymore


“When is the best time to plant a tree? Twenty years ago. When is the second-best time to plant a tree? Now.” ~Chinese Proverb

There are many things to adjust going forward. This is only one facet of engagement. But it is one of the most important foundation builders out there. To the organizations who are already doing this, fantastic! Keep it up! To those who are just discovering they may have dropped the ball a few times in the past several years: plant your tree now. Engage with the audiences, listen to them, thank them, invite them, welcome them…. treat them like they matter. Because they do.

Here is a helpful list of who to thank, in no particular order:

  • Board members for their service and commitment
  • Staff for their dedication and excellence
  • Donors of all levels, from $1 to sky-is-the-limit
  • Volunteers for their time and energy
  • Board members who are stepping off the board
  • Musicians/Artists for their dedication and excellence
  • Advertisers for their support

And here is a simple rule to remember: If you ask yourself, “should I thank them?” the answer is always yes.

About Holly Mulcahy

After hearing Scheherazade at an early age, Holly Mulcahy fell in love with the violin and knew it would be her future. She currently serves as concertmaster of the Wichita Symphony Orchestra. She spends her summers at the celebrated Grand Teton Music Festival. Believing in music as a healing and coping source, Holly founded Arts Capacity, a charitable 501(c)3 which focuses on bringing live chamber music, art, artists, and composers to prisons. Arts Capacity addresses many emotional and character-building issues people face as they prepare for release into society. Holly performs on a 1917 Giovanni Cavani violin, previously owned by the late renowned soloist Eugene Fodor, and a bespoke bow made by award winning master bow maker, Douglas Raguse.

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