Are you trying to attract audiences with fundraising appeals?
I read a symphony orchestra brochure recently that devoted all of its content to describing how wonderful the organization was, how important classical music was to western civilization and how many great things the orchestra was doing for its community. I knew they were trying to sell me tickets, but I wasn’t at all clear about why they thought I’d buy.
In re-reading it, I got the distinct impression that the people who wrote, designed and published the brochure were asking me to support them with my participation rather than offering me something that I might actually find personally rewarding.
They weren’t asking me to buy, they were asking me to give.
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When the good people in the development department talk to potential donors, their communications are rooted in a set of assumptions that go like this:
- We are valuable to you, to the community and to the larger culture
- We cannot provide this value without your support
- You should give us money so we can continue to be of value
When professional marketers talk to potential buyers, their communications are rooted in a set of assumptions that go like this:
- You have stated needs and desires that we recognize
- The artistic products we sell can satisfy those needs and desires
- We promise that when you buy our products, your needs and desires will be satisfied
You may notice a striking dissimilarity between these sets of assumptions. The development set is self-centered while the marketing set is audience-centered. The development set focuses on the value of the art, artists and institutions while the marketing set stresses fulfillment of the customers’ needs and desires. The development set is rooted in shoulds while the marketing set is rooted in promises. In fundraising, we put ourselves first and ask people to support us. In professional marketing, the customers come first and the emphasis is on satisfying their personal yearnings.
If this description of marketing sounds strange to you, it’s probably because you work in the nonprofit arts where marketing is almost never about the customers. We don’t do professional marketing in the arts; we do arts marketing, which takes its cues not from the marketing profession or from successful businesses, but rather from nonprofit fundraising traditions.
When arts marketers talk to potential buyers, their communications are rooted in a set of assumptions that go like this:
- We are wonderful, important and of value to the community (and to you)
- (You may not know it, but you need us and may, if you try us, desire us)
- You should buy our products so we can be of value to you (and to the community)
Compare these assumptions with the sets above and you’ll see that arts marketing has a lot more in common with fundraising than it does with professional marketing. Arts marketing emerged in a culture dominated by fundraising and fundraising has exerted such a powerful influence that we actually taught ourselves to do marketing backwards: We use an entirely self-centered, self-important form of promotional communication in a vain attempt to motivate sustaining audiences when we should be using customer-centered communication that’s developed in response to our audience’s stated needs and desires.
Why do we do marketing backwards? Because back when arts patrons viewed buying and giving as interdependent parts of the participation process, it didn’t matter. People bought and gave for similar reasons so arts organizations could use similar appeals in their fundraising and marketing pitches. But today, when arts audiences are disappearing at a rate that makes many traditional institutions unsustainable, and new audiences don’t necessarily view arts participation as a social responsibility, the distinction makes all the difference in the world. Marketing that’s rooted in fundraising assumptions doesn’t work anymore and our refusal to embrace legitimate, businesslike, customer-centered marketing practices is quite literally killing us.
If we want traditional arts organizations to survive, we have to assign marketing a level of priority that’s equal to its task. We have to sever the ties that allow marketing to be encumbered by outdated nonprofit traditions. And we have to replace amateur methods with professional approaches that take their cues from best practices outside the insular, fundraising-oriented cultural sector.
Marketing and Development are fundamentally different administrative endeavors. It’s time to separate them and allow each to do its job according to accepted professional standards.
In defense of fundraising, Trevor, only bad fundraising works the way you describe. It doesn’t work for marketing and it doesn’t work for fundraising.
Your approach to marketing is exactly the same approach fundraisers will take if they’re going to be effective. It’s not about the organization or its needs. It’s not about how fabulous the organization is. It is about what donors what to do and how they can do it through the organization. The vehicle, not the end. Donors want arts thriving and available in their community. They want kids to be exposed to the art form and learn. They want any number of things – and you find out what those are by asking them. Then you make the request all about them and their desires.
I’ve seen the same garbage in appeals. “We’re so wonderful. Let me tell you more about how wonderful we are. So you should give us money.”
Nope. It doesn’t sell tickets and it doesn’t bring in donations. Or enough of either. Because there are still many patrons and donors who are just plain used to being mistreated. Or who love the art form enough to support it in spite of the way they’re asked or marketed to.
You are right on. And your approach is also the way to fundraise well.
Oh, and silos? BAD. Just bad. We’re really in the same business, just with different goals. When development and marketing are both doing it right and working together that means patrons and donors are being treated like individuals. That means we’re responding to them and their needs. And silos get in the way.
I wondered if anyone was going to call me out on that. You’re absolutely right. Effective fundraising pitches should always appeal to personal needs and desires. I drew a false dichotomy for rhetorical purposes, but loaded the development side with just enough veracity to make it seem plausible.
I’m not convinced about those silos, though. In an arts organization where marketing and fundraising are fully professional and autonomous, there probably should be no silos. If you ever hear of such an organization, please let me know.
Oh, I know. It seems almost gospel that the way to organize administration is to encourage marketing and development staff to spar with one another – fighting over budgets, lists, timing… all of it. And, of course, forgetting about patrons/donors as they focus internally.
I’d love to see that model tossed out!
I love what you keep writing about, Trevor. It so needs to be heard!