The digital revolution in philanthropy is here in Blacksburg, Virginia
May 3, 2021
2020 was a roller coaster. “Murder hornets,” civil unrest and protests against police brutality, brushfires in Australia, and more dominated the news against a backdrop of an ongoing pandemic. The news you may have missed: philanthropy was at an all-time high! The first half of 2020 alone saw a 7.5% increase in charitable giving as compared to the second quarter of 2019. The first two quarters also marked a five-year high in the number of donors and contributions and a 19.2% increase in donations in the first six months of 2020 alone. While experts believe that this may be a result of the $300 “universal deduction” granted by Congress in the second round of stimulus payments, arts organizations should embrace the permanent transition to digital philanthropy catalyzed by the pandemic and seize this opportunity to reach new donors.
The Move to Digital Offerings
Arts organizations across the country have spent the better part of a year adapting their programming to the digital space. From the Southeastern Theatre Conference’s completely virtual Convention 2021 to the Rubin Museum of Art’s “Inside the Mandala” virtual gala, arts leaders have provided innovative solutions to complex programs. The Blacksburg Master Chorale (also known as the BMC), an 80-member volunteer choral ensemble located in Blacksburg, VA, provided a season of 3 virtual performances on its YouTube channel in the wake of public health and safety guidelines. “When the Covid-19 pandemic hit, the Blacksburg Master Chorale moved to a completely virtual format for rehearsals, board meetings, and concerts,” says Dwight Bigler, the BMC’s Music Director. “As we worked to adjust to this format, we sought and received funding earmarked for these kinds of transitions. These were new sources not available before and were a significant support for the creation of our virtual choir concert.”
Dwight says that while membership numbers were down, the audience reach significantly increased. “Our audience reach significantly increased – our Fall Virtual Concert on YouTube currently has 1.8k views, and our Holiday Sing-Along has 900. Both of those numbers are higher than our normal in-person audience attendance!” As of April 2021, the organization has also gained 60 new followers (a 50% increase from this time last year) on YouTube and 100 new followers on Facebook. The impact of digital delivery—while a difficult transition—has had a marked impact and set up future success!
Digital Solutions for Digital Donors
While the pandemic forced performances to digital delivery, the BMC had moved into digital philanthropy well before the closures. The Community Foundation of the New River Valley sponsors an annual event in late-spring or early-summer, Give Local NRV, in which 100 charities and nonprofit organizations across the New River Valley of Southwest Virginia solicit donations over the course of an hour. “Give Local NRV has given us a reliable to platform to reach a new audience and their “Day of Giving” event brought a dramatic increase in first time donors,” says VP for Development Bill Drummond. The success of the program has been incredible for the BMC, and in their first year of participation (2019) they raised nearly $5,000 to support the commission of a new work by Music Director Dwight Bigler, Mosaic for Earth, that is set to be debuted in 2022 after being put on hold due to the pandemic.
Give Local NRV is just the start of the tools the BMC uses to reach donors across the New River Valley. The organization has also taken to social media to reach the community in the absence of live performances. With its Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, the BMC has developed a winning strategy to increase their influence across the New River Valley—starting with pushing new audiences to their YouTube—and utilizes PayPal to take donations. It also utilizes the Bit.ly service to customize posts and provide quicker, more efficient paths to past recordings and is considering using MailChimp to make customizable, personalized emails to established friends and community partners.
These strategies have paid off well. The fall campaign (which included a physical letter but also an email and several posts across social media) raised $2,000 in donations—with two separate donations of over $500. And the organization has already achieved well past its budgeted goal of $9,000 in contributed income. They attribute this success to staying true to their mission—to enrich the lives of its members and the New River Valley community by celebrating the tradition of choral music at its finest—and their increased digital presence even throughout the pandemic.
Your organization can and should utilize the internet and be a part of the digital philanthropy revolution, but it’s important to remember that most successful digital methods have an ongoing strategy to access new audience members while also exciting current donors.
To start, develop an ongoing marketing strategy that considers general programming marketing along with development/solicitation, with the intent of bringing new partners into your circle of supporters. Community members are more likely to donate if they know and are excited by the programming and the art you are presenting. An engaging appeal goes even further when you have enthusiastic supporters sharing their stories.
Find your biggest supporters and use them! Create a YouTube video with interviews from your key stakeholders. Make a poll on Twitter to gauge what incentives/benefits you can offer. Use Facebook to market your next program—in-person or digital—and connect your audience directly to your leadership. The possibilities are endless if you keep the content aligned with your mission!
Narrating your mission by using social media is only half the battle. Millennials (and younger individuals) increasingly use digital means to give but it comes with a caveat: they want to hear about results and stories from those who benefit from their support. If you want to engage younger generations, you need to focus on the results of your organization and your projects, tell stories from individuals that are impacted, and narrate how support makes a tangible impact the community and the long-term viability of the arts broadly. You’ll also likely find individuals that want to volunteer and make your work better and stronger in the process!
The Future of the Arts is Digital
The arts have nothing to fear from the shift to digital delivery. An unlimited audience is waiting at your fingertips. All it takes is a little imagination to reach people and engage new partners from anywhere on the planet—and a little creativity in presenting new and exciting stories!
Jacob Paul is the Leadership Gift Officer at the Moss Arts Center at Virginia Tech and is working towards a graduate certificate in arts leadership.