Be open and honest with donors - Museums Association

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Be open and honest with donors

Aurelie Cauchy and Leslie Ramos on how to encourage philanthropy
Fundraising
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Aurelie Cauchy
Leslie Ramos

It requires only one look at the statistics to reveal that the state of arts philanthropy in the UK is not great. The arts is regularly the least-supported cause, receiving only 1% of total charitable donations, according to the Charities Aid Foundation’s UK Giving Report 2023. 

There’s an imbalance of where the money goes, with London’s cultural organisations claiming 65% of it. Perhaps the most depressing statistic is that the UK’s 600,000 wealthiest individuals give only 0.05% of their wealth, on average, to charity every year. So a person with £5m to spare will likely give only £2,500. The uncomfortable reality is that for arts organisations looking to source funding from philanthropy, Brits are an uphill battle.

While this might sound rather fatalistic, especially from two people who work daily with donors and organisations to facilitate more philanthropy in the arts, we think it is vital to recognise these challenges – but also that it is not always the fault of the giver.

It is true that many individuals and companies engage in “bad giving”, where it is done selfishly with little genuine respect for the organisation or its mission.

One could point to the “artwashing” of the Sackler family, foundations that overburden organisations with excessive reporting, or wealthy individuals that use the promise of a future donation to get complimentary benefits without ever actually supporting.

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But what is rarely spoken about is the other side of the coin – the ineffective ways in which many organisations struggle to deal with donors, meaning that they miss out, which we’d call “bad taking”. 

The fact is that when philanthropy goes wrong, there is often fault on both sides.

Take many organisations’ failure to thank donors sincerely and be prompt when communicating. While this is sometimes due to a lack of staff and resources, all too often it is caused by a sense of entitlement that the donation is deserved, so no thanks is necessary.

We have lost count of the number of conversations we have had with donors who have chosen one organisation over another – or withdrawn funding completely – simply because an organisation took them for granted, or nobody ever took the time to write a thank-you letter or email.

Perhaps more frustrating is the failure to say no to donors. There is often a sense – particularly in small and medium-sized organisations – that if someone comes along with a cheque, it should be accepted irrespective of any conditions attached. It can be scary to turn down funding, but not doing so opens you up to “bad giving”, and damages you in the long run.

When necessary, organisations must tell donors frankly and openly that they are doing it wrong, and explain that a donation, no matter how generous, is simply not worth their time if it doesn’t sufficiently cover costs, or if it pulls organisations far away from their core mission.

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Lastly, when looking to the future of arts philanthropy, one of the growing preoccupations, particularly among a new generation of young donors, is impact.

However, their perception of impact is often not about helping organisations better the lives of target beneficiaries, but more about being an agent of change – something they can attribute to their sole influence.

In its most egregious form, this can put excessive pressure on organisations and divert them from their primary mission. But properly addressing the impact of arts organisations would certainly help get closer to a new audience of donors. 

The question of how to encourage more and better arts philanthropy in the UK is complex, and many of the changes needed are systemic.

But we believe it is important for arts organisations to drive this change as much as possible, actively celebrating good giving where they see it and, although it might seem scary, not be afraid to say no.

In our experience, the best donors appreciate an organisation that knows what it wants. 

Aurelie Cauchy and Leslie Ramos are co-founders of The Twentieth, an arts philanthropy advisory. Ramos is the author of Philanthropy in the Arts: A Game of Give and Take

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