The arts are an indispensable part of the fabric of society. They enrich lives with inspiration, from captivating performances to thought-provoking exhibitions. However, making the arts happen requires more than just virtuosity — it takes money, and raising it is generally a complex endeavor across the globe. In her book "Bam... and then it hit me," Karen Brooks Hopkins, the president emerita of the Brooklyn Academy of Music, aptly compares fundraising’s complexity to brain surgery. “The first thing you need to know about fundraising is that it's not brain surgery. It's harder than brain surgery.” The worldwide pandemic has disrupted fundraising for nonprofit arts organizations and made it tough for development officers to meet fundraising goals no matter where they are located. This blog explores how arts organizations in Malawi fundraise, as compared to their counterparts in the USA.

A group of people that have attend a marketing workshop in Malawi standing on a platform in front of a building outdoors.
Group photo of arts professionals in Malawi after the launch of the International Cultural Marketing Workshop in 2020 held in Malawi’s capital Lilongwe organized by Vincent Maluwa, a Malawian arts manager. The workshop was supported by the US Embassy in Malawi. In the picture, front row: Presidential Advisor on Youth and Arts, Lucius Banda (5th from right) former Public Affairs Officer at the US Embassy in Malawi, Douglas Johnston (4th from the left) the Director of the Department of Arts, Humphrey Mpondaminga (3rd from right) and Director of the Malawi Censorship Board, Anganile Nthakomwa (1st from left). Photo credit: Philmon Kuipa

Unlike in the USA, where nonprofit arts organizations support themselves with earned income, funds from public support and private donations, and the give/get policy for the board of directors, in Malawi, arts organizations have a different approach. For instance, there is no policy of give/get among a board of directors. Also, while galas may be considered a popular fundraising activity for nonprofit arts organizations in the USA, there are no galas in Malawi.

Over and above that, Malawi does not have a governmental entity like the American national, state, or local arts councils. In an interview that I conducted via WhatsApp, James Thole, Senior Arts Officer in the government of Malawi’s Department of Arts and Crafts said, “(The) government of Malawi does not give direct financial support to Arts Organizations. Through its Department of Arts and Crafts, it provides policy direction only.” He further said that in contrast, sports in Malawi get direct government financial support. The government through the Ministry of Finance allocates funding to the Sports Council for distribution to its affiliates. Unfortunately, the country does not have an arts council where the government could be allocating funding to support arts organizations. Leaders of various arts organizations and artists in general in Malawi have for a long time lamented the lack of support from the government in the arts and culture sector. 

While some organizations in Malawi may be able to secure support from solicited funding, especially from sources outside the country, usually it is for project support and not the most sought-after general operating support. In a WhatsApp call interview that I had with Isaac Mafuel, theatre director and creative writer based in Mzuzu City, Malawi, he said that arts organizations in Malawi rely on contributed income, especially from solicited grants. “Arts organizations rely on applying for solicited grant funding, requesting corporate sponsorship and ticket sales. However, mainly it is the grant funding that art organizations rely on; unfortunately, they are hard to get. Corporate sponsorship is even the hardest to get. Ticket sales are the least as they cannot support organizations to cover even the very basic costs. The corporate world prefers to support sports and not the arts.” With the funding environment in Malawi, Mafuel proposes that organizations need to change their operation approach. “Arts organizations should consider operating as social enterprises to generate money to support their mission since they are struggling to keep themselves functional,” he said.

Responding to questions that I sent him, Smith Likongwe, Senior Lecturer of Drama at the University of Malawi and accomplished playwright who has also served in various boards of arts organizations in Malawi said, “Between 2004 and 2015, arts organizations used to receive funding from the now-defunct Cultural Support Scheme with support from the Norwegian Embassy in Malawi.”  Arts organizations had an opportunity to apply for support and if successful receive funding for project support. This is all history now as the scheme was phased out. “Arts organizations now look for funding from various other sources to implement their programs. They also depend on membership fees which are barely enough to perform administrative functions. Membership fees have not worked because many artists claim they do not earn enough to be able to pay their annual subscriptions,” he said. However, he stated that he felt the excuse for nonpayment of individual annual subscriptions to their arts organizations is just a sign of lack of commitment on the part of artists.

A man wearing a red vest and short sleeved olive shirt stands with his fists on a table.
Tawonga Taddja Nkhonjera performing Kafkas Ape at Madsoc Theatre, Lilongwe in Malawi. Photo credit: Tawonga Taddja Nkhonjera

In another interview, Taonga Nkhonjera, a member of the projects committee for the National Theatre Association of Malawi who is also the founder of Dikamawoko Arts, said that he self-funded the organization to begin it. “I funded Dikamawoko Arts with personal money to get it established, and for a period it survived on my personal income. Once established, we engaged in providing different services that included selling arts products and producing theatre productions and using the proceeds to support the organization,” he said. However, Nkhonjera was quick to say that a more viable financial venture would be creating partnerships with corporate institutions.

In a separate interview Phil Kuipa, a theatre practitioner from Malawi’s capital, Lilongwe, asserts that he produces theatre productions based on the availability of funds. He said, “Operating as a nonprofit organization did not work out for us; we were set to establish ourselves as a nonprofit arts organization but due to unfavorable funding conditions in Malawi for the arts, we resorted to running our organization as a private company. With this approach, we work only when we are booked to perform at events. The money that we get from those performances, we use it to pay our actors, who are hired on a voluntary basis.” Kuipa recommended that arts players should continue to lobby the government to support the arts by instituting a National Arts and Heritage Council and also appeal for government commitment to support the arts in terms of infrastructure and provide access to financing for arts organizations.

I also spoke to Charles Levison, the Vice Secretary General of the Film Association of Malawi, who also serves as Secretary General for the Visual Arts Association of Malawi, both membership-based associations. He commented on the lack of sustainable funding support for various arts associations in Malawi. He contends that due to the unavailability of sustainable funding opportunities, some arts associations do not have physical facilities to operate from. The Film Association of Malawi’s annual membership fees collected from each member cannot sustain it to implement its programs. The membership is K5000, the equivalent of $5.

Arts managers in Malawi bemoan the lack of funding opportunities for the arts. Oftentimes, navigating through this maze of fundraising becomes fruitless labor. Likongwe emphasized the need for the noticeable presence of the private sector in funding arts organizations. “There is a lot that such organizations can do for the development of the country. The social and aesthetic functions of the arts organizations should be valued by all. Government should facilitate and redefine corporate social responsibility to include funding arts organizations that use art to foster social and behavior change.”

The arts organizations in Malawi heavily rely on contributed income through solicited grants mostly from outside the country. Sometimes, some diplomatic missions provide small grants that are not specifically for the arts but are open to all nonprofit organizations. Other organizations hold various fundraising activities like benefit concerts, art exhibitions, and festivals that patrons pay to attend, but organizations mostly end up incurring losses. Unable to find sustainable and creative means of raising funds, some organizations derail from their mission as they continuously create programs and projects that only respond to the demands of their supporters for short-lived support. Some arts organizations use crowdfunding to support their program's activities. However, this is very rare and unsustainable. Mostly at the end of each project cycle, the organizations find themselves repeating the process, asking from the same people, and without good donor relation skills it is hard to maintain support.

In conclusion, fundraising strategies differ from one organization to another depending on their mission and size the same way they differ from country to country. However, successfully raising funds for arts organizations irrespective of geographical location generally requires a strategic and multi-faceted approach. While arts organizations in the USA garner funds for general operating support, project support, capital support, and endowments from earned income and contributed income from philanthropy through private donations, businesses, individuals, and government agencies, in Malawi, arts organizations usually raise funds for project support mostly from contributed income through solicited grants from outside the country. Earned income hardly covers basic administrative costs. Securing institutional funding is extremely tough; therefore, administrative costs of project support in most arts organizations usually cover some of the general operating costs.

With the worldwide pandemic that has disrupted fundraising for arts organizations, perhaps it's time for governments and all stakeholders to become more intentional about supporting the arts. Perhaps it is also time for the arts organizations to strategize and revise their fundraising efforts. There is value in learning and understanding global fundraising trends and attempting to replicate and adapt the best practices of others. Working in the arts and my interaction with several arts managers in Malawi revealed several challenges and gaps in fundraising most of which point to a lack of commitment to support the arts by both the government and corporate institutions. Arts managers across the globe must continue to remind organizations of the centrality of the arts to a well-rounded human existence.

Vincent Maluwa is a graduate student in the MFA in Theatre - Arts Leadership program at Virginia Tech.