Written by Leah McGurk, Arts Fundraising Fellow and Production Officer for Film and Video Umbrella
I am pretty new to the world of arts fundraising. Fortunately, a few months into the fellowship, Nice White Parents, a podcast series from Serial Productions and The New York Times has given me a slice-of-life insight into how fundraising works, how power dynamics can operate in the fundraising world, and made me think about how this translates to the impact a lack of diversity has on fundraising in the arts sector.
The first episode follows a group of affluent White parents who have recently joined Brooklyn public middle-school I.S. 293 (primarily serves local Black and Brown students), on the promise that the school opens a dual-language French programme. One of the white parents, a father who works in non-profit fundraising, offers his skills to the Parent Teachers’ Association (PTA) (comprised of mostly Black and Brown parents) but then sets up a separate foundation with the white parents to fundraise only for the French programme. Tensions rise, as the new foundation pursues a course of action that neglects the needs and wants of the PTA parents and the students of colour.
In a way, fundraising for a middle school dual-language French programme is much like fundraising for the arts – it can run into many of the same pitfalls. For example, when funding leads the mission, or when the people that lead the initiative represent just one community.
You have to ask the question, who and what is most important here – the kids, some of the kids, the programme, or the funder? Why should this have buy-in from the PTA when they haven’t been considered at all? And how does this benefit their kids? Ultimately, it’s a battle of power – who matters? There is an importance of power and respect in fundraising – the Black and Brown kids that were left behind – how do they feel about themselves and their value? For me, these same questions can be asked about the arts also. When the fundraisers do not reflect the audiences that they are fundraising for, this can distort both the programmes created and the value that the stakeholders attach to them.
In 2015, Yuha Jung wrote a paper about how non-profit arts organisations that focus on traditional, White wealthy patrons are ultimately unsustainable. When arts are only funded by a small group of people, their ideas are preserved and reflected in their services. In contrast, when they are inclusive and sensitive to local arts needs and interests, a wide variety of people will both appreciate and understand the value of the arts. By reframing both their public programmes and fundraising strategy, much of this audience become donors and supporters for the long term. It also ensures that arts spaces can become sustainable, fulfilling their missions well into the future.
For me, what this comes down to is power. The fundraising committee uses fundraising to undermine the PTA, and the racial dynamics are no accident. There is disconnect at every level, how to fundraise, what to fundraise for, who to ask for money, who does the fundraising? Rob and the fundraising committee set this out as a pragmatic issue, saying that the difference between the PTA and the foundation is that there are two branches for fundraising, one branch for ‘community fundraising’ and another for grants and big donors. However, in doing this, this diverts the resources and fundraising knowledge to only one branch, the branch that focuses on the nice White parents’ interests and is then used as a tool against the PTA parents. Setting up a separate foundation keeps PTA parents, and therefore their individual agendas out of it. This power dynamic and minimising of community voice is something that must be kept in mind when fundraising in the arts also – it cannot be enough for a fundraiser to speak on behalf of imagined interests, they need to be fully embedded *in* that community interest.
In the case of Nice White Parents, ultimately these white parents left, and took their money and programmes with them. The programme was unsustainable, as was the fundraising strategy. Would donors have been turned away if the funding was used to support programmes across the school *including* a French programme, rather than just *exclusively* a French programme? Maybe these donors would have stuck around, and the discord and distrust that followed could have been avoided. It raises an interesting question (and one that is ever-present in the arts): if this fundraising programme had been more inclusive, then how successful would it have been?