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When Arts and Money Mingle: The Three Challenges that Fundraisers in Arts Nonprofits Face

Resource Center - Foundation

By Betty Xie 

Betty XieI have always characterized myself as an accidental fundraiser. With an academic background in cinema studies, I've been working for film festivals ever since my university years.

When I joined the Toronto Reel Asian International Film Festival, there was a real need to restructure the organization’s membership program and increase its individual giving revenue. That was how I got into fundraising. Before I knew it, I was overseeing the festival’s membership program.

Over the last three years, one thing that has become increasingly clear to me is that fundraising for the arts is at times an entirely different beast from fundraising for other kinds of nonprofits. In this article, I want to share several challenges that every fundraiser in the arts probably has encountered at one point or another, and try to provide some tips on tackling these challenges. 

1.     “Why should I give money to the arts?”

Early on in my involvement with the Toronto Reel Asian Film Festival, I noticed a strange occurrence. Every time we asked for donations at an outreach event or a film screening, there were always people that frown and wonder, “What do you guys do again?” This is a question that my fellow fundraisers working for universities or hospitals rarely need to answer.

Many people fail to realize that arts are legitimate causes that deserve support. The arts enrich our lives and provide the foundation of our culture. In Canada, there are over 13,700 arts nonprofits, accounting for nine percent of nonprofit and voluntary organizations. Only five percent of these arts nonprofits have annual revenue of half a million or more. Without a doubt, arts need more support from donors! 

Steps to take: Legitimize your organization’s need for support. The first task for fundraisers in the arts is to sharpen their organization’s case for support. Start with answering very basic questions: Whom does your organization serve? Why does your organization exist? What niche idea of the arts does your organization present that other arts organizations don’t already fill? Provide these answers to any new staff being oriented, and make sure everyone at your organization can answer these questions. This will help to spread the word about your organization, answer questions that donors may have and legitimize your organization’s need for support. 

2. “That’s a development department issue.”

In an ideal world, the case for support of arts organizations would be organically promoted or communicated when donors get the opportunity to meet the artistic director or board members. At a film festival, for instance, individual donors always love to hear the programmer’s vision for the festival’s line-up and get reassured that the festival is on track with fulfilling its mandate.

In reality, to get the staff or board to chip in their efforts takes a lot of work. Most arts nonprofits lack the budget to have many staff members. The National Survey of Nonprofit and Voluntary Organizations shows that in Canada, 63 percent of arts organizations are run entirely by volunteers, and 20 percent have less than five staff. As a result, every staff member in an arts nonprofit usually functions as a one-person department, and there is a tendency to shove all the money concerns to either the executive director or development officer.

Step to take: Train your staff and board to be development-minded  At your next meeting, ask your staff and board to provide three points on why donors should give to your arts organization. Get them to think about your case for support. You may be surprised at the ideas that they have and how proactive some of them can become once you invite them to think as if they were in your shoes. 

3. “Here’s a free ticket….but next time it won’t be free?”

Going to a film festival or a gallery is fun, and providing a complimentary ticket to a film screening, a show or an event is indeed one of the best ways to court a potential donor. As fundraisers, our best wish is that once these potential donors receive a perk, they will become grateful, see the value in investing in the organization and pro-actively give. 

That, unfortunately, is not always the case. The downside of providing complimentary tickets or perks is that people get the idea that your organization is entertainment-oriented. Some might even think that by knowing you, they have an “in” for all complimentary entries. I still struggle with striking the balance between showing goodwill to prospective donors and courting them too much that it hits a point of no return.

Step to take: Engage the prospective and existing donors one-on-one Follow-up after you provide the complimentary screening, event or show. Get their feedback on their experience and keep the line of conversation open. Donors for arts organizations usually love to talk about their thoughts on the work that the organizations curate. These one-on-one conversations will provide a wide enough window for you to clarify the organization's’ need for support and make the ask.

Reference: “Arts and Culture Organizations in Canada,” Imagine Canada, 2006, Accessed 12 Aug. 2016.

Betty Xie is a filmmaker and fundraiser. Currently, she works at the Toronto Reel Asian International Film Festival as its development and programming associate. She is also a 2016 Fellow in AFP's Fellowship in Inclusion and Philanthropy Program. Follow her blog posts at


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