raising money for an arts organization

Or, how to make your ask concrete, if you work for an arts organization.

Arts lovers know that art can’t always be constrained by words.

I spent a good part of my career as a staff person in an arts organization. Theater was my route into the nonprofit world. But my love for all kinds of art started way earlier.

If you’d asked 7 year old me, I was most definitely going to be a ballerina when I grew up. Or maybe a singer. And one of my most distinct childhood memories was driving home from my grandmother’s house. My father would always have WQXR, the New York classical music station, on. That felt like comfort.

So, those jobs were never just jobs. They were loves.

But, boy, it can be hard to pin down just what makes art so important. Even when you love it. Maybe more when you love it.

Making the case for art

If you want to successfully raise money, you need to make the case for giving. And there’s the rub. (Yes, I know what I did there.)

When you ask for money, you need to explain… why should I give? “Because we need money” doesn’t quite do it. “Because we’re so great” doesn’t, either. So let’s go back to basics for a minute.

What is an ask, anyway?

You need a clear statement of a problem and a solution (their gift). Or, to put it differently, there’s why you need money (problem), and here’s what that money will accomplish (solution).

Just saying “our budget” isn’t the kind of problem a donor will be eager to solve. There’s no emotion in a budget unless it’s YOUR budget. You need a better reason.

And that’s the first bump in your road. What makes someone love a painting is very personal. Or a symphony. Or theater. Why do I like Ibsen’s plays, but not so much Moliere’s?

What is it about your art that moves people… enough to support it? It’s not always clear. Or as I heard from board members over the years, “but we’re not feeding hungry children!”

The case for an arts organization

You need a couple of ingredients, as I see it:

Emotion = the mystery of art and why it moves us. It’s personal, but also communal. Emotion is why people give – to any cause. It’s how our brains are wired. Get to that love, communicate it, and you’re on the right track.

Practicality = the cost to make your art. People understand it costs money. But unfortunately, staff salaries (probably your biggest expense) are hard to sell. And the more detail you provide, the more eyes glaze over and the less money you raise.

Why do you need money? To make art that moves hearts and inspires minds. To make art that means something ineffable to the people who love it.

I know. Not so easy. So here are some ideas, based on how our brains work.


Your donors probably think of themselves as arts lovers. It’s part of who they are – the story they tell themselves. That’s powerful. So use the emotion attached to their art form. And combine it with reality. You need money to continue creating.

“We know you love classical music. You get it. Music lovers like you are our favorite people. But we cannot continue to bring the music you love to you without your help.”

Loss aversion

Loss aversion is a cognitive bias that describes why, for individuals, the pain of losing is psychologically twice as powerful as the pleasure of gaining.

The Decision Lab

If an arts organization has become part of your community, or even your life, losing it hurts.

We assume these organizations are fixtures of our communities. And even if we don’t attend, we still think of them as a way to make our community look good. They matter, from purely emotional reasons to purely fiscal ones.

So even people who just know your organization exists might not like the idea of it going away. And people who attend… really won’t like the idea of losing it.

(But go carefully. You can’t hold a fire sale every year. Cry wolf enough and ears stop listening.)

Remind people of what they love or at least appreciate. Remind them that your organization depends on help from the people who love it. From them.

“Making original, first-class theater is expensive. And tickets don’t even cover half the cost. We know you love great theater, so please help keep it here in our community by making a gift today.”

Social proof

Social proof is a psychological phenomenon where people assume the actions of others in an attempt to reflect correct behavior for a given situation.


When everyone is doing it, you hate to be the one left out. So if your community support is strong, you can use that to leverage more support.

“We’re proud to be an important part of this community. And proud to have the support of so many of our neighbors. But it takes all of us. Would you join your friends and neighbors with a gift today?”


You will be more persuasive if you do something for someone else with no expectation of anything in return.

Neuroscience Marketing

This is one of Robert Cialdini’s original principles of influence. If someone does something nice for you, you’ll want to return the favor.

You might underline a person’s sense of identity and trigger a sense of reciprocity by including a small token with your appeal. A branded sticker that identifies the donor as a member of your arts organization, maybe.

“Because you’re such a treasured member of our community here at Arts Organization, I’ve enclosed a small gift for you. Display it proudly! Because you’re someone who understands the power of art.”

Your job is to connect art to reality

Connect to the people who love the art on an emotional level. Art isn’t about being rational… if it was, we would not be creators – all of us. And humans aren’t really rational creatures. We make choices based on our feelings. Then we justify those choices by rationalizing them.

So immerse yourself in the art. Feel all the feels. And recreate those as much as you can in your communications.

Then make a clear, tangible, personal ask.

“I feel a chill every time the curtain first rises. Don’t you? Those moments, suspended between real life and art… take us away and show us new worlds.

“I know you understand. You love ballet as much as I do. And you know how important our company is to this community we both care about.

That’s why I’m asking for your help today. And why I’ve enclosed a small gift for you. Wear it proudly as a member of our company. And please, if you can, send a gift of $100 today so we can continue to bring you the dance you love.”

See? Not that hard, right?

Photo by Hulki Okan Tabak on Unsplash