Fundraising…the dreaded word for many. Some people despise asking for money while others despise being asked for money. But this is just a misconception about what fundraising actually is. Somewhere along the road, fundraising only became known as asking people for money. But it’s so much more. In fact, fundraising is also known as development, which may actually be a much better term for it. Because, while yes, asking for money is involved in fundraising, it’s also about developing relationships with members of the community who may or may not become donors to your organization. A big part of cultivating those relationships is by showing the impact a donation has on the community, the organization, and the lives of specific beneficiaries.

Now that we’ve cleared up that looming misconception about fundraising, why exactly is it important? According to Performing Arts Management, 50%-80% of nonprofit revenue comes from contributed sources. This can include donations from individuals, foundations, or corporations, grants, or in-kind (noncash) gifts. This revenue can be used for a variety of purposes, including operational costs, specific projects, or other purposes as agreed upon between the organization and donor. Regardless of its purpose, there is no doubt that donors and donations play an important role in keeping nonprofit arts organizations up and running, especially in times when earned income, such as ticket sales, may be lower than normal. (Yes, 2020, I’m talking about you.)

Despite the important role that donors play, the average donor retention rate is only 45% (VOMO). There are numerous reasons why donors don’t return; however, one of the top reasons is because they feel like their contribution doesn’t matter or isn’t making an impact. But often, this isn’t the case. The gifts are making an impact; that impact just isn’t being publicly shown.

So, arts leaders, how can we show donors that they truly are making an impact? By doing what we do best: telling stories. The Chronicle of Philanthropy explains, “Great storytelling captures people’s attention and drives them to action. When facts and characters, logic and emotion, and cause and effect work together artfully, the resulting stories affect us in a deep way.” While data and statistics are great, human connection is a powerful tool like no other.

Get Fully Funded provides three primary reasons why storytelling is likely to increase your funding and engagement:

  • It connects with the emotions.
  • It shows donors that their actions are making a difference.
  • It gives dignity and context to the beneficiaries and connects their lives to the donors.

Not only does storytelling make donors feel appreciated, but it also allows the recipients of funds a chance to show their appreciation and thanks to those who are supporting them.

In order to keep up the spirit of storytelling, I felt that it was appropriate to collect and actually share some stories of artists who have been impacted by donors. My hope in sharing my story as well as a few others is to encourage donors that your gifts do make an impact, even when you don’t see it. I also want to inspire arts leaders to start sharing your stories with the community today! It can be as simple as a letter to your donors with a brief statement from someone who has been impacted by a donation.

As someone who grew up heavily involved in music, dance, and theatre throughout my childhood, arts donors have had a big impact on my life. However, there are two more recent stories that are near and dear to my heart that I’d like to share.

A group of college theatre students backstage at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival dressed in costumes smiling and laughing at one another.
Edinburgh Fringe Festival

The summer after my freshman year, I was presented with the opportunity to attend and perform at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. This once in a lifetime opportunity – quite literally because the trip only happened every 3 years – was an exciting but costly trip for a full-time college student. But I was determined to make this trip happen, so I began fundraising. In addition to receiving monetary gifts, I received in-kind donations. I’d always enjoyed baking so I decided I would make and sell cake pops at different events as well as take special orders. Thanks to someone who was willing to purchase and donate supplies, all the proceeds I made went directly to my trip costs. I also had a family member who loved to knit and crochet so she made things for me to sell as well. After several months of fundraising, I reached my goal and spent three weeks traveling in Scotland and London. It was truly a trip that I will never forget as it was my first time traveling outside of the United States. I was able to see many historical sites, try new foods, explore beautiful landscapes with my friends, and perform on an international stage. The experience both challenged and grew me as a person and performer. And it was all made possible by the support of individual donors.

The cast of Ella Enchanted the Musical onstage for bows.
"Ella Enchanted the Musical ." Photo credit: Samford University Department of Theatre and Dance.

Institutional giving has also had an impact on my life. Each year, one individual donor sponsored the annual Theatre for Youth production at my undergraduate institution, and my senior year, I was cast in this production. Thanks to the generous gift of this donor, we were able to perform several school-day matinees, as well as host a special festival the first night of the production. This provided underprivileged families, children from the School of Deaf and Blind, as well as many others to see the production free of charge. Without donations, these families and children may not have been able to see the show.

Performing for children is a magical experience, especially when you have the opportunity to meet them afterwards. Hearing the giggles and gasps from the audience and being hugged by the little star-struck girls dressed as princesses is incredibly memorable, impactful, and rewarding.

Little did I know but due to COVID, this would be the last production I would perform at my undergraduate institution as well as with the friends I had made over the past four years. So, to the donors who made it possible for me to travel to new parts of the world and perform a dream role, from the bottom of my heart, I say thank you.

A young girl hugging Princess Ella.
Photo Credit: Samford University Department of Theatre and Dance.

But enough about me. Knowing there are numerous other people who have been impacted by arts donors, I wanted to share their inspirational stories as well:

  • The university I attend has an organization called the Theatre Alliance which is a way for donors to directly impact students. Recently, they started awarding funds to help defray the costs of attending auditions and interviews. This has been incredibly impactful because auditions can be very expensive. In addition to audition fees, there are also expensive costs for travel, hotel, and food. Because of donors who support the Theatre Alliance, I was awarded a significant amount of money that allowed me to attend SETC and find a summer job. Without generous donors, I wouldn't be able to pursue my dream further.
  • I recently attended a performance that provides people under the age of 30 with discounted tickets thanks to a donor-sponsored program. These donations allowed me to see a truly incredible show that I might not have otherwise had the means to attend without depriving the organization of ticket income. This program also helps the organization grow its younger crowd of supporters.

Donors, you may not always realize it, but I hope these stories encourage you that your contributions do matter and that they are making an impact. Your donations to arts organizations are so incredibly important. Still not convinced? Here’s why donating to arts organizations is so crucial directly from those who are being impacted by your generous gifts:

  • Donating to the arts is important because it allows organizations to be more experimental and daring with their work. Knowing that not every show will reliably sell tickets doesn't mean it isn't valuable. Donations give organizations the freedom to start building new audiences and reach their full potential.
  • The arts are all about creating empathy and imagination. The arts hold the power to continue to better humanity. But making money in the arts can be difficult. In order to continue making an impact on the world, artists and arts organizations need the support of donors who are willing to partner with them on this journey.

I’ll close with this: to arts donors everywhere, thank you for the generous gifts you provide so that artists and arts organizations have stories to tell. Every gift, no matter how big or small, allows our work to make a difference in our communities. And arts leaders, go beyond sharing statistics and numbers with your donors. Fundraising and storytelling really do go hand in hand! Share the stories of how personal lives are being impacted. It could be the difference between losing or retaining a donor and gives you the chance to express your appreciation for those who support your work. Always remember, every story counts.

Ashley Pope is a graduate student in the M.F.A in Theatre in Arts Leadership program at Virginia Tech

A special thanks to Rachel Nunn and additional artists who wished to remain anonymous for sharing your stories.