Development Dialogue: Watching the Winds


Editor’s note: From the Green Room continues its regular series exploring issues relevant to the needs of non-profit development directors and fundraisers. If you have issues you would like to see explored here, please email journal@danceusa.org. We look forward to hearing your ideas. 

By Ron Fredman

We’ve experienced a subtle shift the past couple of months, especially with corporate donors. It’s not major. Most companies are not grabbing their generosity and running to the hills. 

But something’s in the wind, and we should all take note. 

Decisions from businesses seem to be taking longer. Some gifts are decreasing. Others from dependable sources are not coming this year — and maybe not coming back ever again. (The same, in all honesty, can be said of a few of the smaller foundations and individuals at all giving levels.)

From what we hear, both in whispers and loudly, political and economic uncertainty, changing corporate priorities and the world’s daily chaos seem to be giving businesses sudden pause and tighter budgets. At least when it comes to the arts. Unexpectedly, traditional “yeses” are turning into apologetic “no’s.”

I took a phone call today from a long-time business donor: “The budget was just ‘generously cut’ and all charitable or marketing-related dollars are ‘exhausted.’” (To be fair, 10 minutes later we received a signed pledge form from a new corporate donor — thus is the roller-coaster reality of Development).

But we wondered. Is it just us? Is it something we said? Something we did? So we reached out to a network of fundraisers – many who focus on corporate giving — at arts organizations across the country. Some are in dance, some represent other parts of our arts family. 

We quickly learned we’re not alone. 

As we heard from the corporate development staffer at a Midwestern orchestra (we’re keeping all names out of this for the obvious reasons): “Corporate is always a challenge. Priorities change and budgets get cut. My takeaway from a recent seminar: ‘flat is the new up!’”

And this, from a dance company in the eastern U.S.: “It’s been a tough year and we are way behind in corporate renewals. Some of our bigger partners have really cut back. I feel like I’ve been in a bit of tail spin.” 

To keep things in perspective, corporate giving nationally typically represents about 5 percent of philanthropy, according to the most recent Giving USA statistics. It’s a number likely similar at many dance companies around the country.

It’s an important 5 percent, of course, but a comparatively modest part of the overall picture for most. Individual giving still holds the lion’s share according to the Giving USA research — 72 percent of all philanthropy. 

Coincidentally, after this column was written, The Atlas of Giving, which provides regular forecasts and measurement of charitable giving, published its monthly report. The main takeaway: 2016 is off to a rocky start for many U.S. charities. Giving through the end of February was down 1.4 percent from the same period in 2015, with a 2-percent drop in giving forecast overall this year compared to last. And, to put a fine point on it, corporate giving is projected to drop 2.7 percent in 2016.

The reasons? The same economic and political uncertainty we described above.

It’s hard to predict where this is headed. Competition for business support is stiff and getting more so. We know corporate marketing and philanthropic dollars are in play. It certainly remains incumbent on all of us to keep our attitude positive, our relationships strong, our value proposition relevant and our ROI (Reach Opportunity and Impact) top of mind.

Ron Fredman, chief development officer at Kansas City Ballet, is well known for beyond-the-horizon thinking, deceptively tough questions, nurtured expectations and enthusiastic partnership. He is a passionate fundraiser and dedicated relationship builder. He has enjoyed many years in arts fundraising, including record-breaking seasons as the chief fundraiser for the Kansas City Symphony and Houston Symphony. He joined the Kansas City Ballet as chief development officer in the fall of 2012 and has continued the string of fundraising successes. His background includes more than a decade as a national fundraising consultant with Hartsook Companies, where he last served as executive vice president. He has guided arts and cultural organizations, social services, youth organizations, schools, religious institutions, health care, professional and trade associations, foundations and more. Beyond solid fundraising leadership, he also provides senior-level expertise in management, strategic planning and marketing. 

Ron is a frequent speaker at national, regional and local fundraising and business conferences, where his energy, interactive style and common sense draw strong reviews. He has designed and taught business courses at the corporate and community-college level, and has written for many publications. He began his career as a sportswriter at The Kansas City Star. Ron studied political science at the University of Missouri-Kansas City and served as an adjunct faculty at Lansing (Mich.) Community College. Ron is chair of Dance/USA’s Development Directors & Staff Affinity Group.

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