Silo Smashing: How Can We Blend Fundraising and Programming?

How could a mash-up of Development and Education departments deepen engagement and erase “audience silos”?

Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company's Connectivity program connects board, staff, and audience members to foster a sense of artistic ownership in its community. Image: Ted Eytan.
Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company’s Connectivity program connects board, staff, and audience members to foster a sense of ownership among its community. Image: Ted Eytan.

The problem of silos

As with professionals in other fields, those in the arts spend a great deal of time worrying about silos.  The result of traditional hierarchical management structures that favor divvying up institutional functions into specialized departments and staff roles, silos promote efficiency and technical competency, yet are a hindrance to cross-departmental communication and collaboration.

In light of today’s trend of results-driven philanthropy, I can understand the desire for efficiency. However, a more adaptive approach to organizational structure and practices, whether through the use of digital technology, shifts in approaches to funding, or any other number of strategies, often yields a wealth of other far-reaching benefits.

Audience silos – “donors” and the wider “audience”

One aspect of the larger conversation of silos has been foremost in my mind throughout my tenure as an arts administrator: the issue of audience silos. Although this topic itself has many sub-categories deserving attention, such as the social bridging of diverse audience members (a subject explored from many angles in Nina Simon’s Museum 2.0 blog), the silo walls I’ve found particularly confounding and tricky to surmount are those that have built up around “donors,” thereby separating these individuals from the wider “audience.” Claimed as the purview of an organization’s Development department and Education/Engagement department, respectively, the two are treated as disparate entities, resulting in a perpetual segregation of an organization’s programming and funding operations.

On the surface, this may not seem to be a problem. Naturally, the black-tie-open-bar annual gala wouldn’t seem to fit in the same category as an organization’s programming.

True. But why is it we have to step away from our core operations in order to raise money? Why is this an accepted norm?

A hybrid solution?

For nonprofits in other fields, like health and human services, donors are not the beneficiaries of the programs to which they are donating their funds. In cases such as these, an organization’s fundraising scheme is necessarily separate from its mission and programs. The vast majority of arts engagement activities are open to anyone – including audience members who could be donors. In this sense, engagement is engagement, and the opportunities presented therein simply require steering toward deepening someone’s art experience, or deepening their financial commitment. Or both (within reason, of course – there’s no reason to chuck the sound principles of development entirely out the window and start hitting up anyone and everyone for donations)!

It would seem then, that the arts are missing out on a tremendous opportunity to simultaneously increase their donor base and their capacity for fulfilling their mission by strategically uniting their development and engagement efforts.

So, what does a fantastic silo-busting mash-up of the Development and Education/Engagement departments look like?

The answer is, I don’t know. But that’s because, contrary to a straightforward Development department that is similar in scope and function from organization to organization, the Development/Engagement mash-up is grounded in an organization’s mission, and cannot therefore be replicated by another institution (nor should it).

In my hunt for good examples of arts organizations leading the way in this type of thinking, I was pointed in the direction of two notable initiatives:  Yerba Buena Center for the ArtsYBCA:You program, and Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company’s Connectivity department. Both are not explicitly geared toward either “donors” or general “audience,” but rather, an unpredictable co-mingling of the two.

  • YBCA:You – Similar in design to a gym membership, YBCA:You is a monthly-fee program that grants members free admission to YBCA programming as well as the opportunity to work one-on-one with an “art coach” to identify one’s art goals. YBCA:You members receive biweekly communications with program and event recommendations that align with those goals.
  • Connectivity – A new and wholly re-imagined organizational department within Woolly Mammoth, Connectivity staff work with the board, staff, and audience members to create a sense of artistic purpose behind every production, and brainstorm audience design and experience ideas.

Although two very different approaches, the essential functions of these initiatives are the same: deepen engagement, resist traditional cordoning off of audiences into predictable separate camps, and increase audience and revenue streams. Important to note is that the manner in which they achieve their objectives is also the same: engaging in direct dialogue with their audience.

Measuring success

With these new approaches come new challenges in measuring program success and impact. The clear metrics established by traditional Development departments – Was the fundraising goal met? – won’t always be applicable.  Conversely, the same may be true for the more qualitative methods of measurement often employed for engagement initiatives. Just like the programs themselves, developing tools for effective measurement will require a little give and take, patience, and most of all, a willingness to experiment.

A few final thoughts and questions

My perspective on this matter is colored by my experience within small visual arts organizations which have no admission fees for their exhibitions and public programming. Therefore, I have not grappled with typical, more traditional models of memberships or subscriptions. I’m eager to hear from administrators within other arts disciplines about how, if at all, this issue of the fundraising/programming dichotomy is applicable to you and your work.

Are you developing or have you developed any strategies for closing the fundraising/programming gap? If so, how are you measuring the success of this initiative? Please share!

Alison Konecki graduated with a B.A. in Art History and English from Canisius College and received an M.A. in Art and Museum Studies from Georgetown University. While living in Washington, D.C., she was the Development & Community Outreach Coordinator for Transformer. After transplanting to San Francisco in 2012, she became the Development Associate for the FOR-SITE Foundation, a non-profit dedicated to art about place, and held Fellowships with Emerging Arts Professionals/SFBA, and California Association of Museums (CAM). An arts and travel writer, she is interested in cultural policy and funding, and is intent on exploring as much of the world’s cultural wealth as possible.