Lessons for Cultural and Arts Organizations: Do You Really Know Your Donors?

Photo used with permission of Christina E. Dennis

I am given the opportunity to review graduate student theses and dissertations. Usually, they are about audience development or diversity, equity and inclusion. However, I recently read a thesis about philanthropy in the African-American community. It was researched and written by Christina E. Dennis, and I thought the existence of her work was important to share with the readers of Arts & Culture Connections.

A native of Piscataway, NJ., Ms. Dennis recently graduated from Drexel University with a Master of Science in Arts Administration. She did her undergraduate work at Westminster Choir College, where she majored in vocal performance. Ms. Dennis is the Associate Director of Music Ministry and Arts at Mt. Zion A.M.E. Church in Plainfield, N.J. She works as a Meetings and Events Associate for a New York-based company, but hopes to soon transition to working in the arts.

Ms. Dennis’s research, analysis and conclusions pose an important and challenging question for all cultural and arts organizations: Do you really know your donors? The following is the abstract for her thesis:

 This thesis research looks into the African American donor community and how arts organizations are connecting with that community. The researcher interviewed Development and Community Engagement representatives from five performing arts centers in New Jersey to understand how the organizations included in this research currently connect with the African American community and cultivate donors in that same community.

 A donor assessment survey completed by respondents, mainly residents of New Jersey, looked to see if people were donating to arts organizations and if they felt these arts organizations were connecting with them through the programming presented. The survey found the majority of respondents have donated money to an arts organization, many donating $1 to $100 in a year. The majority also felt that arts organizations were communicating with them in a way that connected with them and the organizations also presented exhibits, performances, etc. that connected with them.

 The research offers recommendations to the field on how to connect with a

diverse community to grow a more diverse donor population. Community engagement is key in cultivating this relationship. The more the entire organization’s staff is involved in connecting with the community, from the board and executive leadership down to the ushers and box office personnel, the more authentic the connection will be.

 After completing the research, the question arises if race and/or ethnicity should be a consideration for development teams when connecting to donors. This study also found that many arts organizations do not ask their donors their race and/or ethnicity, resulting in a lack of knowledge of this donor demographic. This knowledge is important to have to show accurate donor data and dispel the assumption that most, if not all, donors are white.

 I also had the opportunity to ask Ms. Dennis a few follow-up questions

Donna Walker-Kuhne: Why did you choose this topic?

 Christina Dennis: I believe diversity has been the focus of many places within arts, but it has mainly focused on the diversity of internal staff and audience. I wanted to take a look at how arts organizations were reaching out to connect with people to cultivate a diverse donor pool. It is important that arts organizations not only reflect diversity in a few areas of their organizations; diversity should permeate all facets of the organization.

I also wanted to provide a road map that these organizations could follow to reach out to and cultivate a more diverse donor family. Most important, I wanted to dispel the myth that African-Americans and people of color do not donate to the arts.

Donna: What surprises did you discover as you conducted your research?

Christina: What surprised me most is that some development leaders have never considered race or ethnicity when conducting outreach to donors. On the other hand, marketing departments take into consideration various demographics when determining how and where they promote a show. I asked the question, “Why do some development departments not do the same?”

I also was surprised by the apprehension these development leaders had about asking someone’s race and/or ethnicity. They were afraid of offending someone. However, the question must be asked in order to have a full picture of who your donors are.

Donna: What would you like to see happen as a result of your findings?

Christina: I truly want people to think about who their donors are. I would like to see arts organizations begin to look at the race and ethnicity of their donors, if they have not already, to see what percentage of people of color are donating to their organizations. If they aren’t collecting this type of data, I hope they will start. It’s needed; it’s overdue.

Going back to the myth that people of color do not give, this myth can be dispelled by collecting data and showing the diversity in their donor pool. And I hope the organizations that do not have a diverse donor pool will consider the reasons why and then decide to make an earnest effort to cultivate donors from various racial and ethnic backgrounds.

Donna: Can there actually be a significant change in philanthropy as the result of the participation by people of color?

Christina: Absolutely! I think the change is in progress and is being shown as more research is being conducted about people of color and philanthropy. And I believe the more information available about this topic for organizations to learn from, the more change we will see.

People of color are ready and willing to give. People of color are giving now! They just have to connect with an organization and believe in its mission. In my opinion, philanthropy should not be a word that is linked only to the rich or to white people. Whether through money; donated time and/or talents, philanthropy is something we all can be a part of and that definitely includes people of color.

Donna: Thank you, Christina.

 Arts & Culture Connections has previously written about efforts to expand philanthropic models, from Reginald Van Lee and Robert Smith to Darren Walker and the research of Dr. Yuha Jung. Ms. Dennis’s research spotlights this untapped resource that can help cultural institutions and arts organizations plan for future sustainability, especially as our nation’s demographics continue to change.

If your arts organization is proactively cultivating people of color as a donor base, I’d love to hear about your experience. And as always, comments about this topic also are welcome. Write to me: donna@donnawalkerkune.com

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