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U.S. – German Comparative Fundraising Practices

I subscribe to the Arts Management Newsletter which provides insights into international arts and cultural issues.

On page 14 of the most recent issue, is an article about the experience Laura Brower Hagood had during an exchange program in Germany as a Bosch Foundation Fellow.

Much to my disappointment, you need to be 40 or younger to apply because it sounds like an amazing opportunity.

Hagood offers some interesting perspectives on the differences between American and German cultural entities based on her five month long work placement with the Prussian Palaces and Gardens Foundation.

Because the US vs. Europe cultural funding models are an ongoing topic of conversation, her observations on the different fundraising practices and capabilities were interesting:

For instance, whereas membership programs are managed in-house in the U.S., friends associations are external to their nonprofits in Germany. How do you develop a major giving program, if you don’t have access to your small donors’ information? How do you “share” donors and their information with another entity?

[…]

My German colleagues were interested in adapting U.S. fundraising practices, but were judicious and thoughtful about cultural differences. Many
conversations centered on what may or may not be effective in a Brandenburger setting. Galas at $10,000 a plate: probably not. Planned giving for individuals who wish to express their values after their death: maybe, yes. Donor interest in arts education: absolutely. This experience helped me distinguish between core, if not universal, fundraising principles, such as the benefits of philanthropic giving and the importance of building relationships, from specific fundraising strategies and tactics. I also came to appreciate that there are multiple pathways to the same optimal result.

In comparing the general operating environment, there wasn’t really anything she says to dispel the widely held perception that the grass is greener in Europe:

U.S. arts nonprofits draw only 9% of their funding from local, regional, and national government sources, which means that, on a day-to-day basis, organizations, audiences, funders, and board members are linked in a tight feedback loop. Most arts nonprofits must make artistic and programmatic decisions based on whether an audience exists to support their work, whether in the form of ticket purchases or private donations. This connection is of such significance to the organization’s sustainability that it must be directly relevant and intimately connected to its community of patrons in order to flourish.

[…]

In contrast, the German system of sustained government subsidies provides real reliability, allowing arts organizations to plan over the long-term and encouraging the production of art for art’s sake, a value rarely articulated in the U.S. The Prussian Palaces and Gardens Foundation has recently benefited from multi-year capital investment in its 33 palaces and 150 historic structures. As I visited Weimar, Dresden, and Berlin, I learned that Potsdam was only one of many cities restoring their cultural infrastructure with millions and millions of taxpayer Euros. This kind of sustained, long-term investment in culture is for all intents and purposes unheard of in the US and represented for me an exciting and reinvigorating perspective.

She does feel, though, that the necessity of paying close attention to the interests of the community makes American cultural organizations more responsive to their audiences.

However, the links between German organizations, their audiences, and even society at large were less clear, less convincing, than in the U.S. In museum after museum, with a few notable exceptions, I found outmoded display and interpretive techniques that ensured that only German nationals with an intimate familiarity with art history or European history would enjoy seeing them. Almost entirely funded through government subsidies, these institutions are often missing a key feedback loop that ensures responsiveness to their audiences’ needs and wants. And, while American organizations have fully embraced arts education as a vehicle for building diverse and multicultural audiences now and into the future, the German arts sector remains too tentative in realizing this potential.

Two questions that immediately came to mind after reading this were:

1- While American cultural organizations may be more responsive to audiences, are they receiving enough funding to effectively serve their communities? When there was more funding available in the past, arts organizations may have been more lazy about proactively serving their communities. But I would argue that businesses on the whole took customers for granted with the service they provided and the type of marketing and advertising they used.

Given the current business environment in the US, if arts and cultural organizations were better funded, I suspect they would still be working to better connect with their communities in the face of declining participation.

2- While I don’t doubt the museum displays in Germany need to be updated in order to better connect with foreign visitors as well as German nationals, I wondered if the difference in educational systems may have created different perceptions in the size of the gap that needs to be bridged.

Essentially, would an American museum educator go to a German museum and suggest that displays have a number of features and that certain educational programming be added based on an assumption that German visitors were as unaware as American museum visitors.

In turn, would a German museum professional enter an American museum and feel like the displays and programs were simplistic and patronizing based on the fact any German national would be aware of these details from their elementary level education?

Questions like this make me regret being a little too old to participate in the exchange program. One you dear readers needs to apply so I can live vicariously through you. (Though I am not quite clear if they are accepting another round of applications at this time.)

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Lightly Stoking The Sense of Wonder

Last month London’s Royal Opera House posted a video of two young brothers who are attending the opera for the first time and go from apathetic to excited over the course of the recording.

The title of the piece frames the boys’ wonder by quoting their question, “‘How do they hold a note for so long!?” You know from that question that the kids are engaged with the experience.

So why do actors and musicians roll their eyes at a Q&A when people ask how they can remember all those lines or all those notes?

I mean, sure it is cuter when kids say it, but aren’t adults expressing the same degree of wonder at the achievement?

The reason performers roll their eyes is because learning the words and notes is the default expectation for the job they are doing. An actor might be asked if they have any experience in classical acting styles, but no one is ever asked if they can memorize the lines.

There is more skill and technique involved in sustaining a note or doing a credible job portraying King Lear than there is in memorizing lines and notes.

(Though to be honest, there are a lot of different techniques you can use to memorize lines but no drama class teaches them. The actor is left to discover and create a method themselves. It would probably make actors’ lives easier if they did have coaching and a list of techniques to try.)

Three years ago, I highlighted a technique for dealing with the “how do you memorize..” question from a HowlRound piece Brant Russell wrote on post show discussions.  Russell suggests that “how do you memorize…” is essentially a first date type question. You don’t really care about the answer, you just want to get your date (or the actors) talking to you.

Having all be in a situation where we wanted to fill an awkward silence, I am sure we can all empathize with that impulse.

But looking at the Royal Opera House video, I have to consider if maybe the question isn’t also the manifestation of a 10 year old kid inside expressing his/her wonder. Is dismissing the question with a quick “its what we do” type comment stifling the sense of wonder we want to cultivate in audiences to keep them coming back?

Though it seems to have suffered a crisis of formatting, Brant Russell’s piece has some good suggestions of what to do when you are leading a discussion.

But if a question like this gets asked as you are exiting the stage door or some other informal setting and you feel like your process is unremarkable, it might be best to call upon the memory of your earliest effort or that of colleagues for an amusing anecdote.

Saying, “Well my current practice is pretty boring, but when I was starting out I used a tape recorder and this one time…” can keep the sense of interest and wonder alive for people of all ages—if it’s only to comment on how OLD you must be if you used a tape recorder.

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…And by Americans For The Arts

When I am listening to public radio, I often take note of the times when Americans for the Arts is cited as an underwriter. These days it goes something like “…and by Americans for the Arts, for over 50 years….learn more at Americans for the Arts.org.”

The reason I pay attention is because I wonder if the ads are subtly keeping people connected with the arts by reinforcing the concept of the arts contributing to more vibrant and creative communities.

Yeah, I know that having these spots on public radio is sort of preaching to the choir since their audience tends to be inclined to like and support the arts. But you know these days I think every demographic can use all the reinforcement about the arts we can get. People who like the arts are just like everyone else and are susceptible to all sorts of distractions.

Back when they were doing those wacky Van Goghgurt and Raisin Brahms TV and web commercials, I was thinking how great it would be if Americans for the Arts had the budget to consistently run those sort of messages for years aimed at different demographics.

The reality is, none of us individually have the budget to run any sort of general awareness campaign for the arts continuously throughout the year. So the fact that someone is able to do it on a consistent basis, even on limited delivery channels, is really a benefit for everyone in the arts.

Even if the sponsorship message is passing beneath most people’s notice, it is probably infiltrating its way into people’s subconscious.

For example, the title of my post on Monday was an intentional riff on the Hair Club for Men commercial from the 1980s. Believe me, back in the 80s, I was in no need of the Hair Club’s services and didn’t really pay attention to the ads. (Though my mom could have done a better job cutting my hair.) But the “not just the president, I’m also a member” phrase stuck in my head because I was exposed to it so often.

So next time you are listening to your local public radio station, try to pay attention to the number of times the National Endowment for the Arts, Americans for the Arts and various foundations have a message stating their support for the arts and be a little grateful that they are making a statement to the nation that the arts are worth supporting.

And yes, I am a member.

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Choosing The Default, Even If It Makes You Miserable

As part of our effort to upgrade the look and design of our website we have been checking the accuracy of our area restaurants and bars list, verifying which offer discounts to patrons. In an attempt to strengthen our relationship with them, we have been making them aware of the general audiences we expect to attend each event.

For example, we talk about our season opener being something of a date night type show while others are more family oriented. We suggest if they want to put together any sort of fixed menu of selections that are easy to prepare and get audiences to the theater on time, we will be happy to make a notation on our website listing or social media account.

As might be expected, some people are resistant to the idea while others are onboard whole-heartedly.

Then there are guys like the owner of a local coffee house that I spoke to today who basically scoffed at me repeatedly for not being creative enough with these suggestions. He was open for anything I might want to propose that would be appropriate pre- or post-performance. He got into talking about how great it would be to close off parking spots and roast a pig. Rather than a discount, he said would rather charge full price for something and donate part of the proceeds to a cause or something. He was full of ideas.

It got to the point I started wondering if maybe my approach with some of the other restaurants may have been a little too conventional. Even though some of the places balked nervously at some of the most conventional suggestions, would they have been open to ideas that didn’t seem to threaten their bottom line?

I saw a parallel between this situation and an approach that I espoused in one of my very first entries on this blog 11 years ago. I had suggested trying to find a creative solution to respond to people’s dissatisfaction other than the refund. People don’t go to the trouble of buying tickets, getting a babysitter, getting dinner, finding parking, etc just so they can leave with a refund.

Demanding a refund is the default response because that is the solution we are socialized to seek when we are dissatisfied with something. There are often a good number of other options available that will provide a sense of satisfaction better than a refund.

It was in this context that I was wondering if I was thinking to narrowly by suggesting a discount or a fixed menu.

Except, in my experience over the last 11 or so years, it seems no matter how creative and accommodating you get with alternative solutions, people still want the refund even if other solutions create a better result. (Though from what I have read, making the attempt to address the issue, even if the result isn’t what the customer wanted, still generates a higher level of satisfaction than making no attempt at all.)

I think it is a matter of both continued socialization and a certain degree of distrust engendered by companies who do everything they can to avoid refunding your money (i.e. airlines).

In the same way, making suggestions that deviate from the normal procedure, even if they are pretty clearly low risk propositions, can result in resistance. Arts organizations are no exception (and may even embody the practice more than most.)

It can be really difficult to gauge the degree of a person’s receptiveness in advance so it is easier to suggest something familiar and safe and be surprised when someone proves to be more adventuresome than expected.

It’s just that while I celebrate the coffee house owner’s openness and look forward to finding interesting ideas that will benefit us both, it stings a little to be working in the arts and be called out for lack of creativity.

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