I remember the first time I asked someone for money. I had just taken the job as director of a museum that was struggling financially. If we didn't raise substantial funds in my first few weeks on the job, we'd have to close our doors.
I stood in my bathroom, looking in the mirror. I tried saying, "Can I count on you for ten thousand dollars?" without choking or bursting out laughing.
The first few times I asked for money--heck, the first few years--it felt awkward. But it also felt amazing. I saw how we were able to garner support for work I was passionate about. How we could build a more relevant and valued museum. How we could expand our impact. How donors could be partners in change. I learned the addictive power of asking.
The more I asked, the more I found myself thinking about giving. I started asking on behalf of other organizations I care about. My husband and I started being more intentional, and bolder, with our own giving. The more I asked, the more people asked me. Even with limited means, I saw how our own giving could make a difference.
At the same time, I became more and more aware of the screwed-up societal inequities that make philanthropy possible. One of the ways we redistribute wealth in an inequitable society is by asking rich people to voluntarily donate. And then we celebrate their generosity, rarely questioning why they had the capacity to give in the first place. Especially in the arts, research shows an alarming imbalance in what kinds of organizations have access to grants and donations. Our system of philanthropy often reinforces the inequity that it theoretically has the power to disrupt.
I decided that in my own limited way, I wanted to contribute in two ways:
- by developing a strategy for my own giving that helps boost organizations that have powerful impact AND are more subject to philanthropic inequity than others.
- by trying, where I can, to talk more openly with friends and colleagues about philanthropy.
That's on the personal side. Professionally, I've always struggled with what organizations to support--especially in museums and the arts. I admire many around the world. I can't support a fraction of those I love. How should I narrow the field?
Bearing in mind the data on who has access to philanthropic capital, I've decided to give to organizations that are rooted in and/or led by communities of color. This year, that included: Rainier Valley Corps, a Seattle-based leadership development program for people of color; the Laundromat Project, a New York-based neighborhood arts organization working in communities of color; and the South Asian American Digital Archive, about which I know little but was encouraged to support by a colleague volunteering her time to a project of mine.
These are organizations that inspire me. I've learned from their work and their leaders. I'm trying to more frequently convert my admiration into cash--just as I encourage people to do as a fundraiser for my organization every day.
I've noticed that the more time I spend fundraising as part of my job, the more comfortable I get talking about money. Money has become a currency of my work. I talk about it. I think about it. I treat it the same way I treat ideas and people and objects and stories. It is an essential, powerful part of getting the work done.
I realize that not everyone is comfortable talking about philanthropy, or about money. When we do so in our field, we're often focused on pay inequities for the work that we do. But pay and philanthropy are two separate topics. We should be willing to talk about both.
Talking about money is like talking about death. The more we do it, the more we are in control of our own fates. Talking about money helps us honestly and unflinchingly tackle challenges we face in our society. The more I talk about it, the more power I see it has--and the more I feel I have an ability to influence that power, however small my influence might be.
Many professionals--myself included--have the capacity to give. We give as donors. We give as volunteers. Let's not be silent about this giving. We can be leaders with our dollars and our time. We can influence change when we put our money where our hearts are.
As alluded to above, topics like the role of money, or the equivalent (time/work), in bringing about radical inclusive change are little discussed in our field.
We have some questions we want to pose to YOU in an upcoming #RadicalGiving Tweetchat on December 18 at 10am PT / 1pm ET.
Below, find some questions that came from our joint discussion on these subjects and that we will ask for your responses on during the tweetchat:
- Q1A. What is your personal motivation to give to support inclusive change and those who are leading change?
- Q1B. How do you give?
- Q2. What do you give your time/money to? Let’s signal boost these projects and efforts!
- Q3. How can we have these conversations about money more in museums?
- Q4. If money talks, how can we influence the conversation?