Arts and culture fundraising: Four reflections from 2020

11 February 2021
Art, Heritage and CulturalStrategyResilience
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People wearing masks looking at paintings in a gallery

On 23 March we will have reached the first anniversary of the UK lockdown. As we’re bedding into 2021, RAISE is looking back on the year that was 2020.

We wanted to capture the mood, memories and thinking that shaped our experiences and our learning; about ourselves, our sector and our work. Our contributors, who have been speakers for RAISE or Culture Sector Network events, reflect on the highs, lows, challenges and triumphs of a year like no other.

Dana Segal: ‘We need to keep doing everything to protect the places we love’

In short, 2020 has been a monumental year for cultural and heritage fundraisers. 

Even at this point it's difficult to reflect - a lack of closure around the coronavirus pandemic means we're not out of the woods yet. But I continue to be so proud of all my fellow fundraisers for continuing to put the civil in civil society throughout this turbulent time. To all of you who were furloughed for months and put your skills to use, you are amazing. To those of you who worked throughout the pandemic in almost impossible situations, with more pressures on your work/life balance than ever before, you are amazing. To every cultural fundraiser who woke up to daily emails called "Plan B", then "Plan C", then "Plan D" – and still managed to inspire people to give – you are amazing. 

Culture, arts and heritage will have a huge role to play as we continue to emerge from, and reflect on, this historical moment. For now, we need to keep doing everything we can to protect the places we love, look after our freelance workforce and entertain and enlighten those who cannot be with the ones they love. And we need to look out for each other too: the Chartered Institute Cultural Sector Network is here for you to connect with your fellow cultural fundraisers.

Dana Segal
Dana Segal
Co-Chair of the Institute of Fundraising - Cultural Sector Network, Senior Partner Consultant at =mc consulting, Director at Adapt for Arts, Deputy Director at National Arts Fundraising School
Mark Bains: ‘We must be agile, purposeful, realistic and brave’

The date of 7 April 2020 had been stamped indelibly on our minds for over ten years.  This was William Wordsworth’s 250th birthday, and for the Wordsworth Trust it was meant to be the culmination of a major project and a day of great celebration. I had spent most of the previous month on the final details of anniversary events in London and Grasmere, and we were on track to reopen Dove Cottage, a key milestone in the £6.5 million ‘Reimagining Wordsworth’ project.

And then coronavirus happened.  Events were cancelled, staff were put on furlough, workplaces were mothballed, home offices were improvised, and we all learnt how to use Zoom.  I must have written at least a dozen risk assessments while seeking funding for ‘Reimagining Wordsworth’, but I never saw that coming.

 So, nine months on from the birthday party that never was, what did I learn in 2020?

1.  Be agile. I spent very little of 2020 on the work plan that I had diligently produced in January, and a great deal of it fundraising to compensate for our doors being shut at our busiest time of year.  It feels like the whole year was spent firefighting.  However, thanks to our loyal supporters, we ended up in a better place than we’d dared hope.  It was about grabbing the opportunities when they arose: it wasn’t very strategic, but we got there.

2.  Be purposeful. With our reserves already exhausted by a capital project that was suddenly on hold, we were in crisis mode from the moment the lockdown started.  The challenge was daunting, but we were all facing the same direction and there was something strangely cathartic about its simplicity.  But shouldn’t our fundraising always be like that?  Why do we need a crisis to get clarity of purpose and organisational consensus?  I’m hanging onto that thought as we edge our way (hopefully) back to normality.

3.  Be realistic. We were rapidly adjusting to an upside-down world in which social contact with family, friends and colleagues might have fatal consequences for them or us. Of course it was okay to have the occasional bad day.  But it took someone else saying it to stop me beating myself up about sitting at my desk with my head in my hands.  It was a great reminder that we fundraisers have to roll with the punches.

4.  Be brave. Nothing to do with the pandemic, but the National Trust publicly confronting its supporters over their reactions to its tweets about slavery and colonialism definitely felt like a pivotal moment.  Post-BLM, and with the arms-length principle seemingly getting shorter, the new normal looks more politicised than the old one.  I feel like we’re still getting to grips with it but being unafraid to defend your values was the lesson that I took from the National Trust experience.

Mark Bains
Mark Bains
Mark Bains is Development Manager for The Wordsworth Trust
David Burgess: ‘2020 was the year arts organisations embraced their vulnerability’

As with the Cats movie, it’s tempting to try and block 2020 from our memory and pretend it never happened. However, there were some positives to come from it that fundraisers should remember and cling to (from 2020, not Cats. That movie had no redeeming features).

For me, 2020 will be remembered as the year that arts organisations embraced their vulnerability. Gone was the embarrassed, bland, uninspiring messaging that had plagued arts fundraising for years. It took a pandemic to show us that “Did you know we are a charity?” might not be the best case for support. In its place we got emotive and honest appeals that were unapologetic in their cries for help and clear about the tangible difference supporters would be making.

And donors responded like never before. We saw appeal targets smashed in 48 hours. We saw organisations raise their annual fundraising target in just a few months. We saw what happens when we focus on what our supporters actually care about.

The pandemic might have forced organisations’ hands, but I hope that willingness to talk with vulnerability and honesty will stay. That doesn’t mean that everything needs to be a crisis. It simply means opening up to our supporters about the challenges and opportunities they care about and making space for them to come in and share the load.

David Burgess
David Burgess
Co-Chair of the Institute of Fundraising - Cultural Sector Network and Director of Apollo Fundraising
Victoria Symes: ‘2020 was the year that democratised fundraising’

2020 was undoubtedly a year that shook the cultural and not for profit sector to its core. When the pandemic first impacted the UK last March, it seemed almost overnight our clients were thrown into battle; fighting to save their projects and programmes, fighting to save their income, and in many cases fighting for their organisation’s survival.

Yet despite the sector having already spent years seeing its budgets slashed to the bone and operating in an environment increasingly hostile to both charities and the arts, we felt proud (but not surprised) when our colleagues fought back, finding innovative ways to maintain delivery virtually or at a distance; reforecast budgets time and time again; support staff and participants through difficult health and wellbeing issues; and still find time to home-school the kids.

For many cultural organisations, the move to digital working was initially a leap of gigantic proportions, and one that has not been without its difficulties.  Yet many are now using this mechanism to cultivate and steward major donors, hold fundraising events, and pitch to institutional prospects.  With many of our clients now enjoying relationships with supporters spread across the globe, or simply unable to visit as often as they would like, this approach is one that will continue to benefit the cultural sector long after we have emerged from this difficult time.  This will especially benefit organisations without access to substantial travel budgets, or simply in locations far from the bigger philanthropists, opening up new possibilities for fundraising previously only enjoyed by cultural venues in the most central locations or with greatest access to the right networks.

And whilst the innovation and resilience demonstrated was to be expected of our incredible cultural sector, they have also managed to surprise us in other ways.  Capital projects, although hard hit by the very necessary need to divert funds and attention elsewhere, are still thriving in many areas, and we are already speaking to funders welcoming the chance to plan for a brighter, post-Covid future.  Funders have finally appeared to embrace the importance of needs-based funding, reducing decision-making timeframes and increasing their tolerance of core and unrestricted funding asks, making it easier for organisations not in receipt of regular core public funding to be considered.  More than one very high profile family foundation known for its ‘invitation only’ support of the arts has for the first time in its long history opened its doors to new applicants, creating a more level playing field for newer, more diverse, and in many cases more radical and innovative organisations, who would previously have never had a look in.

No one will look back on 2020 as a positive year, and there are undoubtedly more challenges to come, but as we enter 2021 we do so with the promise of a more democratised funding environment ahead.

Victoria Symes (MCIoF)
Victoria Symes (MCIoF)
Founding Director of strategic fundraising consultancy Impact Fundraising, a committee member of the CIoF’s Cultural Sector Network and a member of its RAISE Project Development Team.
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