Donation Ex Machina or How I Learned to Stop Worrying About An "Angel Donor" and Love Donors of All Sizes
Does a performing arts organization you love and/or work for regularly wish and wait for an angel donor to swoop in and save the day?
This is something I like to call "donation ex machina," and it's not the sanest or soundest way to run your development department. Not to mention it’s going to make your financial people break out into hives, exhaust your big donors, and erode everyone’s trust in you.
After all, there are only so many times you can proclaim “the sky is falling” before they stop believing you, Performer Little.
Why "donation ex machina?"
Deus ex machina means "God from the machine," and is most often used as a plot device where something/someone/God/Whatevs comes from out of ether at the end of a play to fix the seemingly unfixable problem/save the day/wrap things up in a nice neat little bow and make it all better.
In other words, you know those times you’ve watched a show, knew it was almost over, and wondered how the hell they were going to resolve everything? Then suddenly, seemingly out of nowhere, a brand new character pops up and saves the day?
That's deus ex machina.
Donation ex machina is when that one very generous donor (#thankyouthankyou) pops up at the end of the season and writes a big fat check to pay for the budget deficit.
Unfortunately, too many groups use this as a regular funding strategy rather than an occasional, emergency-only strategy.
To survive and thrive, performing arts groups MUST look past this style of thinking and fundraising for a multitude of reasons:
Creativity doesn't thrive in that type of stress.
A little stress can be a good thing. It can get the creative juices flowing and help nudge staff into thinking outside the box. However, when it’s chronic then it puts staff in a constant state of stress which kills creativity and creates a toxic workplace.
How many times can you go back to the same donors with the same problem? Not as often as you think. We all know the definition of insanity yes? Doing the same thing over and over expecting a different result. If you keep going back to the same donors, they’re going to realize you’re never going to change and that they’ll always have to be your “savior.” After a while they stop because of…
When not only your major donors, but your audience at large sees you desperately asking for funds to survive again and again, they’re eventually going to think that maybe you shouldn’t survive. That you can’t run yourself properly so maybe you deserve to fold.
(Note: I know this is hard to hear. I don’t think any non-profit doing good works deserves to go under. However, this is what I see and hear from everyday audiences when it becomes public knowledge that an organization has financial issues. The din of that noise is especially louder if you’re a larger, professional organization and/or was perceived to be doing well. So I say this not to be unduly harsh, but rather to encourage you to get it together and do better.)
When the audience has the impression that they don't need to do anything because a larger donor will swoop in and fix things - because a larger donor has always swooped in to fix things - they stop donating. .
It’s not a sustainable long-term strategy.
Now “sustainable” is a word that the business peeps like to throw around as an excuse to cut artists’ salaries.
(P.S. you can’t cut your way to growth. Slighting the artists - aka product - is short-sighted. This is akin to the care-taking of bonsai. Yes, they must be cut to thrive, but that also keeps them small. Plus, remember that one wrong cut and you kill the whole thing. Alas, this is a blog post for another day.)
When I say “sustainable” here I mean true, long-term strategy in your development department to regularly raise enough funds to cover and grow the budget, coupled with compelling campaigns from the marketing department to share those fundraising initiatives in a creative way that encourages donors to give regularly and often.
When you lose a big donor, it can be devastating and even destroy your organization completely.
And the big one that most people don't like to talk about in public, but I'm not most people...
Potential loss of control.
I HATE to have to include this as a reason, but the truth of the matter is that not all big money donors are donating for purely beneficial and philanthropic reasons. Some unfortunately like to use their money to wield power over others.
To weaponize wealth if you will.
Sometimes big donations come with big strings. When we're dependent upon "the kindness of others" (said in a slow southern drawl, of course), we may find ourselves between a hard place and a hot frying pan.
When this one check is the only thing standing between more productions and striking the sets for good, we're most likely going to take that check. Even then, the strings may be so hazardous that we still end up shuttering our doors for good.
How do we extricate ourselves from this madness?
Simple. Court EVERYBODY and solicit donations of ALL sizes.
Treat EVERYBODY like they are your most fabulous donor.
Because they are.
Every donation that comes in - no matter what the size - is an opportunity to expand your audience. Connect. Drive ticket sales. And, best of all, get future donations.
The monetary level you start asking for in your talks and on collateral materials?
When I say small, I mean SMALL. As in $5 small. (Or even $1 if you dare!)
This is beneficial for a number of reasons.
All donors will feel good about their investment in you.
Many organizations start out their suggested lowest donations at $25 or $50. If someone can’t give that, they may not give at all because they feel bad writing in $5 or $10. However, If that’s all they have to donate, and they want to give it to you, this is a great thing! You need to create a way for them to feel GOOD about it, and simply changing that lowest suggestion to $5 can do that.
Furthermore, there could be those donors that want to give $1000 or more dollars but currently can only donate $100 or a couple of hundred, and feel bad about that. (They exist. They’ve talked to me about it.) Seeing the starting point at $5 makes them feel GOOD about giving their $100 instead of the $1000 or whatever preconceived amount in their head that they think they should be giving.
It fosters a better sense of connection and community.
Performing arts - especially classical ones - can feel snooty and out of reach for many - especially in the lower and under-served income brackets. However, the arts are for everybody and we need to make sure everyone feels that.
It grows your audience and supporters.
Donors feel more connection to an organization than simple ticket buyers do. This also translates into more people telling others about you, and as we all know word-of-mouth is the best advertising that money can’t buy.
Donor loss isn't potentially devastating to the entire organization.
If you lose a smaller donation or or so - which you will because that’s the nature of this gig - it’s not going to kill the whole company. Plus, if that donor is suffering a temporary financial set-back of their own, they may feel OK giving you less money rather than no money because they see you treating the smaller donors so well.
Best part? Large donors aren’t going to go away just because you’re openly soliciting small donations.
They’re going to feel like they’re no longer the only ones being asked or that you’re only targeting them for their money. They’re going to feel GOOD that they’re not carrying the entire load anymore. They should feel proud that this is a winning organization that everyone wants to be a part of at whatever level they can.
(Related side note: If the larger donors don’t feel good about community excitement for the organization and want to be the sole provider then congratulations! You’ve just smoked out the people I mentioned above who are weaponizing their wealth and want to control your organization. So really, it's still a win.)
While we’re here and talking development, let’s take a quick second to talk about audience relations in general.
DO NOT talk only to the people who are giving you money!!! I’ve seen and personally experienced this more times than I care to admit. I’ll get wooed by some organization. Invited to all the parties and special events. Greeted and hugged at performances. The whole dog and pony show. Then once they figure out that I’m not going to give them tons of money or allow them to use me solely for my contact list then BAM. I cease to exist.
And to tie back into courting smaller amounts, not once did anyone lower their ask. If I wasn’t going to give them exactly what asked for, then they stopped talking to me.
Lemme tell you...that feeling SUCKS. It’s absolutely the worst and makes a person feel like they’re being used. In instances like these, you are using them. It also makes people not want to attend performances or share the group with others at all, no matter how good they are.
So talk to everybody. Be charming with everybody. Make everybody feel good about the donation they give you no matter what the size is.
Plus, you never know when that donation will grow larger. I've heard countless stories of people who grew their donations as their incomes grew specifically because they were treated well when they were tiny donors.
I've also heard stories of people who steadily and dutifully gave $100 a year every year for decades. After passing, their organization of choice ended up with almost the entire estate which was valued and much, MUCH higher.
These aren't just urban myths. This is real life and can happen to you too.
Will courting everyone take more work?
Yes, but not as much as it seems. This really should merely be expanding upon the work you’re already doing. Think of this extra expendature as energy not wasted but invested.
(You know what is energy wasted? The Development Director I was told about who courted the girlfriend of a billionaire for TWO YEARS hoping to get the billionaire's big fat donation. Guess what? He didn't get it. In that time he could have gotten SO MANY MORE smaller donations that could have equaled and even exceeded was he was hoping to get from one person. And had he gotten the donation I gaurantee you it would have come with big, fat strings.)
In some ways it’ll be as easy as editing marketing materials and speeches. Tedious yes, but not a much extra energy.
You'll of course need to be chatty with everyone that shows up to performances. But you are already chatting everyone up, yes? So not an extra effort.
Marketing will need to research and find your under-served markets as well as how best to reach them. However, they should be doing that anyway as you should always be seeking to find new audiences to introduce your organization to.
Does this mean you stop going for corporate and large private donations?
Hell No! Go for all you can get. Just don't pin your hopes on a donation ex machina angel donor.
If you’ve been living in donation ex machina land for a long time, it can be easy to get cynical and think that no money is out there. However, if you’ve only ever gone after deep pockets you may discover - as well as be delightfully surprised - that people who want to give smaller amounts have just been waiting to be asked and are thrilled to give you their donations.
Disclaimer: if you’ve been proclaiming the sky is falling - and have subsequently saved by the donation ex machina - for years, you may have quite a bit of trust building to do. Do it. Do whatever it takes to get the audience on your side. After all, if they don’t trust you enough to donate to you then they may very well not trust you to buy ticket subscriptions from you. Earn their trust and you may find new donors as well as new subscribers.
Big fat caveat: if you are currently in a crisis then yes, you may very well need that giant, generous angel donor to get you back on even footing. But remember, when we need an angel donor, this is the canary in the coal mine warning us that things aren't working. It means it's time to get your ish together, your budget sorted, and go after donors of ALL sizes.
During this crisis time still go for donors of all sizes and make the entire community feel needed while looking for the big check to help. Who knows? You may even surprise yourself and get back on solid ground from those smaller donations.
Bonus, seeing large amounts of community support may encourage others to come forward as angel donors. I've seen it happen in other cases and it can certainly happen for you too!
Have you depended far too long upon donation ex machina to fund your budget? If so, reaching out to the entire community for donations of ALL sizes will increase your audience, your donor base, and the amount of donations coming in. Couple this development strategy with a compelling marketing campaign, and you’ll find yourself in solid footing for years to come.