Cultivating the next generation of arts donors

Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly said that four donations of $1 million or more have been made since 2008, all to the Kennedy Center, but the Shakespeare Theatre Company and the Phillips Collection also received gifts of more than $1 million in that time frame. This version has been corrected.


Philanthropist Paul Carter poses for a portrait photograph at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. (Astrid Riecken/FOR THE WASHINGTON POST)
October 19, 2012

The names Paul and Rose Carter don’t stick out in the Playbill acknowledgments. On paper, the husband and wife seem like typical arts patrons. Paul serves on the board of the Shakespeare Theatre Company. Rose sits on the board of the National Symphony Orchestra. They serve side by side on the Kennedy Center International Committee on the Arts, giving their time and money.

But the Carters are outliers within philanthropic circles. In their 40s, with four children younger than 13, they are younger than the typical arts patron. Indeed, they are half the age of many National Symphony Orchestra board members, 11 of whom have each served 35 years.

When asked why he gives well before his twilight years, Paul Carter, chief executive of software developer MapHook Inc., gives a simple response:

“At the Kennedy Center, you become to be like a family. . . . It’s not just about the shows. It’s the whole concierge-level experience they provide.”

And that explanation — one that prioritizes the donor experience — is a hopeful sign for arts centers, galleries, museums and theaters, which are competing for donations from coveted younger patrons. “Hook them young and they’ll stick around” is the conventional wisdom. And Washington arts institutions are catering to the tastes of younger donors, just as they’re becoming more important to arts giving.

Still, it’s unclear whether patrons in their 30s, 40s and 50s are eager to give large gifts to the arts. And because donors such as the Carters are so rare, there is cause for concern in the art world. The recent death of philanthropist Jaylee Mead, 83, who with her late husband, Gilbert, donated more than $50 million to area theaters, raises uncomfortable questions about the age of Washington’s big givers. Where is the next generation of arts philanthropists? Will their giving patterns differ from those of current donors?

Younger patrons have come of age in a fast-evolving world, where mobile entertainment rivals the stage, the gallery and the concert hall. And with shifting wealth demographics and the emergence of new technologies, arts institutions in Washington and across the country are evolving to reach an elusive new brand of benefactor, one who sees patronage as an investment, not a gift.

Demographic shifts

Arts fundraising is a competitive business. There are 115,000 nonprofit arts organizations in the United States, according to Robert Lynch, president of Americans for the Arts . These institutions depend on government grants, corporate giving and individual gifts from patrons, and gifts in the tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars are a rarity. According to the the Chronicle of Philanthropy, of the 3,882 gifts over $1 million in the past five years, only 189 were to arts organizations.

Older generations have always been the bread and butter of individual arts giving, but demographic shifts suggest that middle-aged benefactors could become just as important. According to the Federal Reserve’s Survey of Consumer Finances, wealth in America is shifting, with more millionaires in their 50s than in their 60s.

These statistics might suggest that there are now more people who are able to give. But after the economic downturn of 2008, individual arts giving declined, as it often does in periods of economic turmoil. Although arts giving grew slightly in 2011, it is still not where it was five years ago. In 2007, the Chronicle of Philanthropy’s “America’s Top Donors” reported six gifts of more than $1 million to area arts institutions, including the Shakespeare Theatre Company and the Phillips Collection. Since then, there have been only four gifts of more than $1 million in five years, to the Kennedy Center, Shakespeare Theatre Company and the Phillips Collection, from familiar patrons such as David Rubenstein and Adrienne Arsht.

It’s unclear whether economic factors and shifts in wealth will affect how younger people give. “From what I’ve seen, younger generations have less of a financial commitment to the arts,” said Maria Di Mento, a staff writer at the Chronicle of Philanthropy. “They go to the theater, they like it, but they don’t necessarily view it as something that is crucial to the well-being of society, and if they do, they’re not giving [large] gifts.”

But young philanthropists do give widely to education and community development programs; experts are finding that they donate to arts institutions that champion education.

Jean-Marie Fernandez, 41, serves on the board of the Washington Ballet. She said the ballet’s dual mission of education and performance led to her involvement.

“My older daughter is 10, and she dances at the Washington Ballet, and our 5-year-old just started,” Fernandez said. “That alone gave us a deeper connection to the company and the performances, but the educational outreach also appealed to us. We want to help children who might not have same opportunities.”

And most Washington area institutions have this dual mission: The Kennedy Center, Arena Stage and Signature Theatre, among others, all partner with local schools for community outreach programs.

“Arts and something else,” Lynch said of the way to capture new donors. “Community development is what many donors are interested in, and arts are a tool that helps deliver that. That’s the motivation.”

Venture spirit

Arts institutions are also examining how generations X and Y give of their money and time. Since the late 1990s, experts have examined how nonprofit groups are affected by venture philanthropy, a term that describes how technology and business executives make long-term financial commitments to charities and then work with them to meet quantifiable goals.

“Donors in general are making more strategic and targeted donations,” Lynch said. “They don’t just like a cause and give money to it, as they did a quarter-century ago.”

Now, arts institutions must deal with a very present, hands-on donor. Unsurprisingly, arts institutions near Silicon Valley have adapted well to venture philanthropy, with the San Francisco Opera and Ballet routinely raising millions of dollars by accommodating young tech titans on boards and in development initiatives or events. The Exploratorium, the educational hands-on science museum, has perfected its outreach to the young, tech-obsessed venture philanthropist, attracting large donations from young donors for its new six-acre campus.

“We have seven donors who are under 50 who [have given] over $1 million to the capital campaign,” said George Cogan, chairman of the Exploratorium's board of directors. “The younger entrepreneurs have a desire to be more involved. They want to participate in the future direction of the institution and know how to apply the tools of modern technology to disrupt existing models.”

And technology is disrupting the patterns of arts institutions. According to Marie Mattson, vice president of development at the Kennedy Center, new technologies have diminished dependence on the performing arts for entertainment — a cause of concern for arts institutions.

“People of that era, philanthropists over 60, were raised with fewer entertainment options,” Mattson said. “There was the Ed Sullivan factor, three network channels. Everyone in the country knew who Vladimir Horowitz was. Fast-forward to now, and there’s not that much ballet on TV. Not as much arts in public schools.”

But arts institutions are finding ways to incorporate mobile and digital technology into their programming and marketing, doing tweet-ups or simply streaming live shows to make art more accessible to new audiences.

The Kennedy Center was one of the earliest adopters of digital outreach, putting performances on its free Millennium Stage online in 1999, a radical decision at the time. Mattson said those early digital efforts were instrumental to broadening the center’s global reach.

“We spend a lot of time talking about and thinking about changing demographics and technologies,” Mattson said. “People will not walk around with fewer electronic devices in the future. It’s going to be more and more part of the culture, and we have to keep asking, ‘How do we break in?’ ”

Wraparound programming

Local theaters such as Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company are asking the same questions. Woolly Mammoth has worked hard to make its patrons and subscribers feel as though they are part of the theater community.

Three years ago, Woolly Mammoth started Connectivity, what Sarah Slobodien Dovere, development director at Woolly Mammoth, calls “wraparound” programming. The weeks of lectures, post-show talks, trivia nights and dress-rehearsal tweet-ups aim to engage audiences in ways that go beyond the main performance.

“Connectivity started after we stopped our education programming for middle and high school kids,” Slobodien Dovere said. “We realized many of them couldn’t see our shows because they weren’t age appropriate. We started doing a full suite of programming around every show instead, and the audience loves it.”

Many of the theater’s most involved volunteers, called “the Claque,” orchestrate these events. During this season’s run of “The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity,” they encouraged audience members to write on a large graffiti wall in the lower lobby of the theater, which became a crowd-sourced art installation.

Jonathan Zucker, 40, founder of the digital fundraising platform Democracy Engine, has been attending shows at Woolly Mammoth since 1998. A Claque volunteer and fundraiser, he joined because he wanted to read the plays before the performances.

“I’ve long felt that Connectivity is like field organizing,” Zucker said. “It’s person-to-person contact, not mass communication. With the ease of communication, it takes 15 seconds to reach 300 close friends via Facebook to tell them about a show, and 25 years ago you couldn’t do that.”

Although Woolly Mammoth’s avant-garde approach to outreach may not work for more traditional theaters, most experts believe that embracing digital outreach is part of the key to hooking young donors before their twilight years. And despite changing demographics and tastes, many development directors expect that institutions will evolve to meet the needs of new audiences.

“The good news is that there always seems to be a subset of people who understand the value of the arts,” Mattson said. “The arts have always brought people together in ways that nothing else can. Every culture on the planet has dance and music and theater; the arts are clearly holding their own.”

Katherine Boyle reports on arts, museums and culture for the Style section.
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