A Deer in the Headlights: A New Executive Director’s Journey of Fundraising in a Pandemic
In a recent talk to NAACBoston, I outlined what I learned in my first year as the Executive Director of Boston Children’s Chorus (BCC), a job that comes with responsibility for raising large amounts of money. While I’ve had leadership roles at previous jobs, they’ve been more on the artistic and artistic operations side, and only tangentially involved in fundraising.
As the humorous title of my talk indicates, when I joined BCC in July 2020 I was something of a deer in the headlights of philanthropy. Despite beginning my learning journey about the practices of fundraising ten years ago – in a well-designed, well-resourced internship at University of Michigan that gave me real-world experience – I knew I would be feeling my way through the first 12 months at this new job. I couldn’t fully know how much having a pandemic raging in the world around us would add extra stress and complications. With so many other challenges, how would I find time to learn the mechanics of fundraising?
Arriving in a new city during a pandemic meant that I couldn’t take part in all the pageantry that accompanies getting to know the most ardent supporters and stakeholders at BCC. I am lucky to have had a wonderful Director of Development guiding me through those first few months…before sharing that their family was moving to California. Suddenly the responsibility for making the large fundraising goals was mine and mine alone. Luckily we also have a great Board of Directors and a great staff who really stepped up. And Boston Children’s Chorus has a reliable wind in its sails – an impact that I call “the Hubie Glow.” Our founder Hubie Jones is a legend in Boston. His dedication has imbued us with a great reputation and some big shoes to fill.
Here are a few of the things I learned about fundraising in year one:
Get familiar with the analytics of your donor base. From knowing who your givers are, to understanding their capacities for ongoing support, it’s crucial to have data on who support your organization. It’s a worthwhile exercise learn as much as you can about your donors. The more you know about them (e.g., who else they give money to, their philanthropic priorities), the more strategic you can be in bringing them on your organization’s journey and targeting future requests for their support.
I like to start this process by breaking down the donor pyramid – learning who comprises each layer and assessing why they give: the major donors at the top of the pyramid who give the most; the recurring donors who give annually; and the occasional donors or event attendees. Each of your supporters has specific reasons why they give as they do.
Have a fundraising strategy and a way to measure results. A new person in the top chair at an organization must respect and understand what’s happened before in terms of strategy, but also make a plan that fits their own style and priorities. With so many new people to learn about and engage with, it was important to me to know how to prioritize my time.
And similar to the individual donors, it’s important to assess the overall pipeline of support including government funding, corporate philanthropy and other sources. Learn how your funding mix has worked in the past, how it’s doing now and how it might do in the future. If you understand how it all breaks down, and if you measure the process consistently (weekly, if you can), you can more aptly manage and prepare for the unexpected.
Based on those metrics and measurements in my first year, I made the decision that given the realities of the pandemic, we needed to focus on retention…keeping the fundraising goal stable by retaining the reliable donors who give at least yearly. It was more economically feasible to retain who we had in our support pool versus reaching out to new donors.
Prepare for and manage the unexpected changes. We had two windfalls during the 2020-2021 season. An influx of PPP and other government funding designed to help organizations stay afloat during the COVID crisis helped us reach our first end-of-year surplus in three years. We had a plethora of new names to our donor database from people who watched our virtual programming (including an online version of our popular MLK Day concert) during shutdowns. In a typical year, we might get 100 new gifts, usually small; in 2020-21 we received 700.
I’m now in my second full year as Executive Director and I often wonder, can I replicate the “magic” that happened last year? What I can say is we are planning for a more “normal” year in terms of government funding, and we have the structures in place to plan our short- and long-term strategies. And that feels good. Stay tuned…
On February 16, 2022, NAACBoston presented A Deer in the Headlights: A New Executive Director’s Journey of Fundraising in a Pandemic webinar facilitated by Andrés Holder (he/him/his), NAACBoston Sponsor and Executive Director at Boston Children’s Chorus as a part of its Mentorship & Sponsorship Program 2.0.
The Network for Arts Administrators of Color (NAAC Boston) is a program that enhances the visibility of professionals of color in Greater Boston’s arts and culture sector, as well as widen the leadership pipeline and highlight opportunities for professional and personal growth in the field. NAAC Boston offers participants the opportunity to connect, network, and share learnings with the intent to empower, elevate, and retain talented professionals of color in the sector. The creation of this network reflects the importance of visibility for professionals of color, and the value that diverse perspectives contribute to an enhanced workforce and culture.