Schemes for Living and Giving

One of my specialisms as a fundraising consultant is capital campaigns. As far as I’m aware, I’ve now actively worked on more cultural capital projects than anyone else in the UK. However, no matter how many projects I work on, one of the observations that strikes me when I start to work with a new organisation, is how challenging the team finds the shift to major gifts from the annual cycle of revenue giving. The tendency to revert to setting up schemes and managing prospects and donors in groups is, for many, overwhelming.

Revenue fundraising is not only a high investment to return ratio business; it also requires the successful management of large numbers of individuals. Schemes are an obvious way of managing volume effectively in a manner, while ensuring a personal and tailored feel. Schemes are, however, fundamentally linked to an annual cycle and while the benefits they offer may act as useful cultivation tools for major donors, the personal attention and cultivation needed to develop major gift prospects can’t be offered through such schemes alone – a deeper, multi-year approach is required.

As human beings we rely on routine in many aspects of our lives. This tendency, combined with the pressures on fundraising time, makes the difficulty of the shift to thinking about the interests and needs of individual prospects understandable. But I also think that there’s something inherent to our understanding of philanthropy and the reason to give, which is also complicating the question.

One of my colleagues from BOP Consulting (of which I’m an Associate) asked me a perfectly straightforward question a few days ago, which I struggled to answer: why are patrons schemes considered philanthropic, as opposed to purely transactional?

Thinking about how to answer him, I reflected on my first experience of seeing a patrons scheme established at the National Theatre almost 20 years ago. There was something of a disbelief in the institution at the time that anyone would give to the theatre and the American fundraising models, which were employed as illustrative examples, highlighted how important benefits would be to securing support. This principle is of course still largely borne out by the fact that patrons schemes work particularly well in institutions where tickets are highly sought after and priority access is a key benefit.

I advocated this point again at the Natural History Museum. Every fortnight we had an exhibition-planning meeting, which would take up most of an afternoon. The ideas for exhibitions were creative and varied, but what I struggled to get across was that it wasn’t the single idea in itself that would generate regular income, but a high quality offer targeted to audiences with whom a relationship and a pattern of repeat visits could be established and to whom benefits become valuable and worth paying for.

The advent of blockbuster art exhibitions in the last 15 years have, of course, transformed the understanding of these issues in institutions which previously simply insisted they were for everyone, and didn’t think how to market and target specific audience groups.

Reflecting on these experiences and my colleagues’ question, I realised that essentially what patrons schemes do is smuggle in philanthropy to a culture where giving to the arts is still a subject of much lively discussion and the understanding of cultural organisations as charities is still underdeveloped.

While this is a highly effective device in many regards, ironically we often lack confidence in their effectiveness and fail to complete the process of conversion to the philanthropy of major gifts. This was evidenced recently when I was working with the National Theatre on the NT Future campaign. One of the most remarkable lessons learnt was the realisation that their long-standing and very loyal donor base, whom we expected to be drained by the campaign, understood very clearly the difference between a patrons membership and a major gift and were, it transpired, willing to give both. The projected drop in revenue income not only never happened, individual giving became the lead income source for the first time.

This of course begs the question as to how many such individuals, whom have been nurtured and invested in, would willingly give major gifts to the institutions they support, if only that final leap to personalised cultivation and asking for a major gift were made? Patrons schemes may be an odd mix of philanthropy and a more transactional relationship, but they are without doubt a great way of opening up our organisations and developing close relationships. What we mustn’t forget is that the final conversion to the philanthropy of major gifts, is also up to us.

Caroline McCormick  |  November 2014