Fundraising is Evil?

I have a colleague who believes, and isn’t even remotely embarrassed to say, that marketing is evil. Like many arts pros he thinks that marketing is a dubious but necessary process that the arts must endure in order to survive in a culture that’s lost its arts-belong-on-top-and-everyone-should-aspire value hierarchy.

I read an arts blog today that made a passing reference to the evils of marketing. At first it seemed like just another glib aside, but soon it dawned on me that the idea runs much deeper than I’d imagined. Arts professionals talk like this all the time. Nobody would dream of casually referring to fundraising as a necessary evil, but as an industry we regularly confess, and often promote, a matter-of-fact disdain for marketing in our ongoing professional discourse.

Lately I’ve come to understand that arts professionals’ aversion to marketing isn’t just surface-level stupidity, it’s bred in the bone like a racial bias or phobia. We don’t just roll our eyes and say, “Gosh, wouldn’t it be great if we didn’t have to do all this marketing,” we say frankly, openly and without a hint of reflection or guilt that there is something inherently malevolent about the marketing process itself, and that it’s been foisted on us, through no fault of our own, like when the wrong sort of family moves into the house down the street.

The idea is preposterous, of course. Anyone who thinks marketing is evil is ridiculous and anyone who has the temerity to say it out loud is a fool. Marketing is a value-neutral tool that can be used for good or evil. Saying marketing is evil is like saying the knife in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho was evil. Any intelligent human being knows that Norman Bates was evil and the knife was just a knife. People can be evil. Tools can be used by evil people. But tools themselves cannot be evil.

Back in the 1980s I managed telephone sales teams for nonprofit arts organizations where we sold subscriptions and solicited individual gifts. I trained my staff to use carefully calculated techniques that could turn someone who wasn’t even thinking about subscribing or donating into someone who’d plop down a credit card and charge $500 in the space of twenty minutes. Those techniques were extremely powerful tools and they worked just as well on subscriptions as they did on donations, but they weren’t evil, and neither were we.

If you’re the sort of person who’s fond of saying that marketing is evil, or someone who perpetuates the metaphor in less direct ways, or even someone who harbors such sentiments privately, I challenge you to separate out the fundraising we did and call it good by comparison. The process was identical. If the marketing was evil, the fundraising has to have been equally evil. Both were accomplished using the same tools.

And the principle applies across the board. Marketing is a process of persuading people to participate in the arts. Development is a process of persuading people to give money to the arts. There is nothing whatsoever about the marketing process that makes it less moral or honorable. The value distinction lies in arts professionals’ prejudices, not in the processes themselves.

Why do arts pros harbor such a deep-seated belief that marketing is evil? That’s a long and complex story, but my theory after 35 years in the business is this: We resent having to sell something that we believe people should want. Our egos and identities are so deeply invested in the unquestionable value of art – and, by extension, the value and worth of our career investments in the arts – that it’s almost impossible for us to admit that we have to do something as low and humiliating as persuading indifferent outsiders to want us. We project evil onto marketing because we fear it: An honest, open-eyed acceptance of marketing threatens to lay bare the fact that we’re no longer on top, that the value hierarchy has been leveled and that tomorrow’s audiences don’t aspire to consume what we so desperately need to sell.

Here’s a scary thought. Marketing is the only reasonable hope many large, traditional arts organizations have for survival. Audiences are disappearing steadily and the only way to get them back is to persuade them to come through strategic communications, a.k.a. marketing. The better the marketing, the greater the chance of survival. Arts pros who want sustaining audiences will have to meet new audiences where they live, engage with them personally, learn from them what they yearn for and then figure out how to convince them that the art we make and sell will make them happy. At its core, that’s what marketing is, and as far as I’m concerned it’s the most honorable job any arts administrator could ever hope to do.

The arts’ aversion to marketing is irrational, unhealthy and counterproductive. If you’re an arts pro who likes to toss around facile condemnations of marketing to compensate for your waning belief in the sustainability of your chosen profession, it’s time to stop. Marketing is a useful tool that honorable people can use in good faith to lead others toward transcendent ends.

It may just be our salvation.

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12 thoughts on “Fundraising is Evil?

  1. Maybe a situation of greener grass, but as a fundraiser, I’ve often noticed that marketing seems to be taken far more seriously. I guess because people not in the nonprofit world see it’s use in their own businesses. But I can assure you that there are many, many fundraisers out there who bemoan the idea that marketing is sexy, but fundraising a distasteful but necessary evil.

    As you say, they’re very close to the same thing. And both are absolutely necessary and not in the least evil.

  2. Interesting post, but I have to agree with Mary (above). I have not experienced a lot of disdain for arts marketing, but I think there is absolutely a disdain for arts fundraising. The idea that we have to pander to donors to get them give money (especially corporate donors), and then we have to turn around and value their opinions about our work more than the opinions of the general public just because they gave large sums of money. Would be curious to see some examples of disdain for arts marketing.

  3. Hi, Kyle. Thanks for chiming in. And hi to Mary, too. I really appreciate your perspectives and I’ve certainly done enough development work to understand what you mean.

    For me the issue goes back to the early eighties when arts marketing was new and veteran arts pros were despairing over the idea that the arts had to do more than just let people know they were there. There were many people then – plenty of whom are still here today – who would decry marketing as a shameful concession to commercialism and a sign that the arts were losing their way. In fact, the reason we use the phrase ‘audience development’ is that folks back then were so offended by marketing that we had to give it a name that sounded more like fundraising – which has noble roots in European patronage systems and has been with us for centuries.

    I have commenters on this blog (whose comments don’t always get approved) who write me long angry screeds about the evils of marketing. I got a comment just this morning from someone who said flat out that marketing was evil, but declined to offer any further clarification. I’ve heard people talk like this for decades, some blatantly and some more casually, and while the sentiments they express may be softening as older arts pros pass on, the biases still influence the industry’s attitudes and behaviors – especially at the leadership level.

    If you’re not hearing these attitudes expressed anymore that’s a great thing and a sign of real progress. I’m sorry to hear, though, that you’re hearing disparaging things about fundraising. It’s hard enough to do this work without having people demean or disrespect it.

    I might have been more nuanced in this post and talked about “necessary evil” as a metaphor that exerts a subtle influence on attitudes and behaviors, but anyone who reads my work knows that I seldom pass up an opportunity to make an impertinent generalization.

    Thanks for your input. I’ve enjoyed having you both as readers and commenters.

  4. When I created the first marketing department for the Cleveland Museum of Art in the mid 1990s, most of the colleagues around me called it the “M word” — a necessary evil. But I agree it’s changing somewhat. There’s almost a love-hate thing going on when it comes to both marketing and fundraising. I’ve had some fun with this dynamic in a novel in wrote called “The Wild Pitch”. You might want to check it out.

  5. A brilliant post – thank you so much! Marketing used to have a more respected name – rhetoric “the art of effective or persuasive speaking or writing.” Today marketing is more likely to elicit associations like “pandering” or “manipulation.”

    I see marketing as bridge building between those making art or involved in the business of presenting art and those who aren’t, but who have some interest. We’re all busy and over-committed, so the ability to get someone to do something they want to but don’t because it’s hard or expensive or inconvenient or unknown, that’s a great skill. It’s missionary work for the mission. And yes, it’s called marketing.

  6. I’m so glad you said that, Laura! Yes it is rhetoric (which also has an undeserved bad rap) and classical rhetorical theorists talked a lot about the fact that humans could be evil but rhetoric itself was either neutral or, as some claimed, morally superior.

    Missionary work may be the perfect metaphor. We can’t afford to just preach to diminishing mainline audiences; we have to step down out of our dusty old pulpits and take the good news to the people.

  7. Attitudes (in my experience at least) are the other way around in the UK. It’s been accepted since the 80s that marketing is a necessary activity, and marketeers now have a senior management role in most arts orgs, occasionally even rising to CEO level. Fundraising on the other hand is new, and is generally disliked, perceived as a nasty thing forced upon organisations by an arts-hostile government following their withdrawl of what had previously been high levels of state subsidy.

    • That’s a fascinating perspective, Arnold. Here in the US the culture of culture is centered on fundraising. Marketing has definitely grown in importance since the 1980s, but industry leadership still focuses primarily on development and advocacy (which is a form of development). Meanwhile, arts marketers recycle decades-old inside-the-bubble traditions with decreasing effectiveness and leadership doesn’t know how to steer out of the downward spiral. I wonder if having been denied high levels of single-source support caused UK arts organizations to embrace marketing more enthusiastically.

      • I suspect marketing was embraced in order to satisfy the needs of state funders. For most of the 1990s and 2000s government was happy to subsidise the arts, but didn’t want to be seen to be spending taxpayers’ money on work that appealed only to small audiences or a social elite. Arts orgs therefore had to demonstrate that they could attract growing, and increasingly diverse, audiences.

  8. Trevor – you don’t know me from a hole in the wall, but I am a true convert and believer. If you really are winding-down your blog I for one will miss it as it has been a source of great inspiration for me and at least one of my staff that I force feed your rhetoric to!

    That said, I don’t know too many arts professionals either back in the USA or here in Australia who actively think marketing is evil. What I have observed is that marketing is an after thought, like … Oh sh!# … we left the marketing on the bus!

    I am now compelled to share an experience; what my very first marketing professor said to the class on our very first day. Cast yourself back to the early ’80s and a small liberal arts college in the mountains of New Hampshire and here is what he said: “Welcome to the world of marketing. Marketing is the art of taking a product no one wants or needs, selling it to someone for more than they are willing to pay and making them feel like they can not live without it.”

    Discuss amongst yourselves.

  9. I will certainly miss it too, Trevor, and this last post has encouraged an important discussion that I doubt happens in the basement offices where arts staff are kept. If this blog really is winding down, I hope you’ll find other avenues of challenging the status quo. Your voice has been a valuable contribution.

  10. Trevor, I wonder if the reason both marketers and development folk feel like the black sheep is that they’re often in competition for similar resources. Anything from lists, to budgets, to the approval and support of the executive or managing director. I’ve found that the chief development officer is often the one to tell uncomfortable truths to staff and board leadership. We have to see the organization as a whole, not just the fundraising piece. So we’re apt to spot organizational issues that others might prefer not to see.

    And don’t get me started on who controls the lists! I still say it’s more likely to grow a single ticket buyer into a subscriber AFTER you convert them to a donor. But I never won that argument.

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