How Arts Nonprofits are Responding to COVID-19

Posted April 15, 2020

We recently launched Coffee Talk, a virtual series where we gather small groups of close friends of the firm practicing in the same sector to share advice and stories about how they’re responding to the pandemic.

This week, we sat down with seven heads of fundraising at an array of arts organizations—museums, performing arts, and outdoor art—for a fascinating and timely discussion. Here we captured a number of topics top of mind for them.

Arts organizations across the nation have had to close their doors, postpone their seasons, cancel galas, performances, and festivals that contribute substantially to their funding.

With this in mind, how should membership programs be addressed?

Our coffee talk participants all agreed that now is the time for your fundraising team to personally call each and every one of your patrons and high-level members. First, ask how they are doing and tell them what you are doing to both weather the impact of the pandemic and to keep them and others engaged. Then, consider providing them with the opportunity to request a refund for the membership/subscription dues they have already paid, but do not automatically assume they will take it. Instead, offer them options: They could, of course, receive a full refund if they need. Alternatively, they could gift the value of their membership or tickets to help the organization bolster itself and maintain creativity while closed – or perhaps a partial refund and a partial gift. Some have already seen success with this strategy.

One of our participants shared that in presenting these options to her subscribers, 50% have chosen to donate their tickets back. Since only 25% of their subscribers are also donors, this strategy has revealed a group of potential donors that they wouldn’t otherwise have.

How can we keep constituents engaged?

Many arts organizations are feeling the pressure to create virtual content—and do so quickly… After all, it is everywhere! However, all of our participants emphasized the importance of staying true to your organization’s brand and being strategic in your marketing and communications. What feels right for one arts organization may not feel right for yours. Fast might not be the answer. Better will definitely serve you well.

Virtual content is not the whole answer. Coffee Talk participants got some good ideas going when they started talking about alternating virtual content with the high touch engagement that is more typical for them. Some were offering small group “visits” via Zoom – tea, porch talk, “chats” with your artistic director (questions submitted in advance)!  Maybe even encourage your donors, friends, and community members to be creative on their own. One participant shared their idea for inviting friends to “make” art via a creative prompt from the organization and then share it back. The idea is to create a virtual network of creativity that keeps friends connected in a great way.

Can we continue to make asks when we don’t have a lot to offer right now?

During the recession of 2008, arts organizations—particularly small ones—were hit disproportionately.  The same is true now. Then, many of these nonprofits paused their philanthropic efforts entirely, and as a result, their fundraising recovery took a long time – longer than was perhaps necessary. 

Our participants emphasized the importance of learning from the past. This time they will not stop asking.  They will pause and be respectful of the swirl around them and their prospects. And they will soften their approach. But they all intend to continue educating their audience about the impact of the pandemic on their organization; and making the right asks at the right time. Many patrons of the arts remember 2008 and do not want to see organizations that they love struggle excessively – or even close for good. They have a different sense of urgency and some wonderful support is happening. NYC’s COVID-19 Response and Impact Fund is just one example.

All of us here at Development Guild recognize the critical role our friends and clients are playing in supporting the most vulnerable among us during this crisis. As we face these uncertain times together, it is our top priority to support you. Visit our COVID-19 Resources page for useful information and insights.

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