Competition, passion and the need for diversity in arts funding

By Ann Tonks

There’s a certain irony about teaching philanthropy to future arts and cultural managers at a university because universities are amongst the major competitors of arts organisations for philanthropy managers. If you look at what Philanthropy Managers get paid to help raise funds for small to medium sized arts companies, the answer is around $60,000, whereas the figure’s likely to be twice that amount in a University Development Department.

My students often ask why some companies and some programs attract considerably more private philanthropy than others and the answer is a matrix of size (aka risk) and output (aka profile).

Universities also compete with arts organisations for donations. If I’m interested in the future of dance, for example, should I give my money to a training institution like the Victorian College of the Arts or the WA Academy of Performing Arts, or should I give it to Lucy Guerin Inc or Ochre [DARDARK] Contemporary Dance Company? The universities will have better mailing lists, better data management systems, more staff and bigger budgets.

So although my students are passionate about the arts, by the time they are passionate about a mortgage and passionate about raising millions of dollars, they may have to leave the sector they love and work in other parts of the non-profit philanthropy world.

However, the one advantage of smaller arts companies in the world of philanthropy is the personal touch. Staff will know each donor and where their passions lie.

And it’s passion that’s always behind philanthropic donations from individuals. Foundations may have a rational approach to the outcomes they want from donating to non-profit companies but most individual donors just want the company they love to thrive.

My students often ask why some companies and some programs attract considerably more private philanthropy than others and the answer is a matrix of size (aka risk) and output (aka profile). Who makes most new and risky work? Think of a small contemporary dance company compared to a large ballet company. If the people who donate to you have to know and understand you, they come from your audience base and by definition, that pool is modest for the small to medium sector. This is why any attempt to push such companies to replace government support with individual funding is doomed to failure.

Why don’t Australian companies attract as much private wealth as peer companies in the USA? The answer is a long lesson on history, politics, tax systems, religion and capitalism. The short answer is ... is that what you’d really want?

The other side of the matrix is about the attractiveness of a fundraising program. Is it about a new building with naming rights attached, or a refurbishment project which is going to improve air-conditioning in the rehearsal room? Is it commissioning a new Australian play or about creating a digital archive of past productions? Although many donors in Australia are modest in their expectations of acknowledgement and reward, the ability to be connected publicly to a big exciting new project or program is a drawcard for some philanthropists.  

Another question my students ask is why don’t Australian companies attract as much private wealth as peer companies in the USA. The answer is a long lesson on history, politics, tax systems, religion and capitalism. The short answer is another question in return – is that what you’d really want? A couple of years ago, I joined a group of board and executive members from Australia’s major performing arts organisations and we went to New York to see what we could learn about philanthropy from the experts. And in every conversation with every peer company, they expressed the wish that things were different. That they didn’t have to spend most of their time fundraising. That they didn’t have to produce conservative programs to keep their donors happy. That they had a diverse board and not just a board of wealthy people. That they were free from at least some of the constraints imposed directly or indirectly by the rich.

Yes, most Australian arts companies I know try to diversify their income. Yes, they work hard to source philanthropic funding. Yes, they value their donors. Yes, they wish that they could find more donors. But what they really want is recognition hand-in-hand with money from our State and Federal Governments. They want recognition from our political leaders that making and sharing art contributes not just to tourism, employment, regional regeneration and to the economy, but to the heart of what it means to live in Australia. Artists create stories about our lives and those of others, offer insights into how we connect, help us learn from the past and give us a kaleidoscopic view of the future. What other sector of our economy does that?

Our donors know that  - which is why they give.


Ann Tonks is an Honorary Fellow in Arts Management at the University of Melbourne. She combines consulting in arts management with teaching and board membership. She is currently combining those roles with being locum CEO/Executive Director for Chunky Move Dance Company.