Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Fundraising as Participatory Practice: Myths, Realities, Possibilities

"Fundraising is about relationships."
"The key to fundraising is listening."
"Development works when you are responsive to the donor's needs, not just presenting your own."

Anyone who has worked in fundraising has likely heard these missives again and again. But as a creative type who has recently taken on an executive role, I've been fascinated, shocked even, to learn that the folks in the development department have been singing the relationship chorus for so long.

On the one hand, this is awesome. I'm finding myself really enjoying fundraising because it is fundamentally about inspiring people to participate--and to do so in a way that is significant both for the organization and for themselves. As a designer, I'm always trying to ensure that participatory activities, however casual, impact both the participant and the organization. When someone gives money, that's almost always a given.

On the other hand, there's something deeply weird about the fact that I didn't know that fundraising was about relationships before I started doing it. If fundraisers are so keen on relationships, why weren't they the first into social media and participatory projects on behalf of their organizations? Even stranger, why are they so often the most opposed to such relationship-oriented efforts when extended to everyday members or visitors? I've led many meetings and workshops on building relationships with audience members in which development officers are the least comfortable with fostering open, two-way engagement with participants.

What's going on here? I suspect there are two contradictory issues behind this confusion:
  1. While relationships are about giving and receiving, fundraising strategies frequently rely on a scarcity model in which gifts and thank you's are finite and defined. In a world in which donors are traunched, relationship "benefits" are meted out to individuals based on their level of giving. You can't have a personal relationship with someone who hasn't earned it through appropriate gifts--you'd be "wasting" your attentiveness.
  2. While relationships are about trust and open communication, donor communication is perceived as very high stakes. Fundraisers therefore want to sculpt the message as much as possible. Too much openness could lead to someone being unhappy and withdrawing their participation.
Interestingly, in the participatory design model I'm more familiar with on the Web and in collaborative project design, the fundamental issues are different. It tends to be easy to communicate openly and express appreciation abundantly when you are co-creating an exhibition or a community art project. There's no such thing as too much community cheerleading or engagement. What's hard is to ensure that people make meaningful contributions and to help participants advance from one-time actions into ongoing involvement--two things that fundraisers are pretty darn good at.

I'd love to see a book, blog, or conference that focuses broadly on building relationships in cultural organizations--with donors, staff, visitors, audiences, members. I think there's a lot we have to learn from each other to get to a place where those relationships are as genuine and meaningful as possible. Authentic relationship-building is something I've long debated with friends in the education, exhibition, and online worlds. And now I feel silly that I haven't more actively engaged with fundraisers about it.
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