Fundraising On the Day After

The past decade seems to have had more than its fair share of natural disasters and tragedies. In the aftermath of a major event, how should your chorus approach its fundraising activities? What do you say to those who challenge the idea of funding the arts at a time of great social need? 

Hurricanes, terrorist attacks, earthquakes; they rivet the attention of the world. If there is a silver lining to these tragedies, it is that they inspired an outpouring of compassion and a staggering charitable response. But to some extent that response was at the expense of non-relief charities. If you're a fundraiser for a chorus, you may question whether or not you should carry on fundraising activities as usual in the face of disasters like these or wonder what to say to potential donors who challenge the idea of funding the arts in a time of great social need.

The Voice invited three experienced professionals to address these questions: Paul Hogle, vice president for development of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Chorus; Jane Polin, an advisor to grantmakers and arts organizations; and Cortlandt B. Fengler, canon for development at Grace Cathedral, San Francisco and a board member of Chorus America.

How Hard Hit Were Non-Relief Charities?

The amount of relief funding that has poured in for Katrina and other disasters is historic. Foundations, corporations, and individuals collectively gave:

  • Over $1 billion in response to the 9/11 attacks;
  • Over $480 million in less than one month to American relief charities to aid victims of the Southeast Asian tsunamis;
  • Over $2 billion to the American Red Cross alone for 2005 hurricane relief.

To what extent has that giving lessened support for choruses and other performing arts groups? It would be impossible to measure the number of dollars going to disaster relief that otherwise would have gone to the arts. But it's clear that many foundations and corporations shifted their funding priorities.

"Yet," says, Hogle, "the specific impacts are as varied as those arts organizations seeking funding." And the perception of lost funding in some cases may be greater than the reality. In a December 2005 survey by the Center on Philanthropy, over 71 percent of respondents from arts organizations agreed that disaster-related giving was at the expense of other charities. But only about 35 percent felt that hurricane relief came at the expense of their own organization. In other words, fewer personally felt the pinch than assumed it was out there.

Although many corporations and foundations have redirected some funds toward disaster relief and ongoing social needs in recent years, millions of dollars have continued to flow to the arts. For example, new performing arts venues have recently been started or have opened in Los Angeles, Miami, Philadelphia, and other cities. And in the future, funds going to disaster relief may not have as much impact on non-relief charities, says Polin. "National and international funding organizations are finding that they can't just take disaster relief funding out of existing funds. Rather, they may establish a special funding category for disaster relief."

The greatest effect of disaster relief was on funding from foundations and corporations. But for most choruses, especially the smaller-budgeted ones, their largest funding source is individuals. And with individuals, giving is not a zero-sum game. "For individuals, making a contribution to disaster relief doesn't very often take away from another contribution," says Fengler. "They don't usually have a discrete amount of money planned for charitable contributions. Would someone give $100 to Katrina relief, then say, okay, I'm done for the year?"

"The challenge is not cutting up the pie," says Polin. "The challenge is growing the pie." It's important to keep in mind that it isn't a case of either/or.

Disaster contributions may even enhance some giving to non-relief charities in that, as Fengler says, "Disasters teach people to give." Individuals who are not in the habit of donating money may respond to a disaster relief appeal, then develop new giving habits that extend to other charities.

A Time To Gain Confidence in Your Message

In the weeks and months after a disaster, should a chorus change its fundraising tune? Should it, for instance, delay a fund drive or alter its message?

Hogle, Fengler, and Polin all agree that rather than changing the message, the aftermath of disaster may be a time to look into the heart of your chorus and its role in the community and to gain new confidence in your message. "If our organizations are relevant under everyday circumstances," says Hogle, "then how much more do we have to offer when people are looking for comfort and reassurance? What we do as arts organizations is terribly important. In times of need and tragedy, our underlying value has the opportunity to be magnified."

Rather than changing your chorus' message, the aftermath of disaster may be a time to look into the heart of your chorus and its role in the community and to gain new confidence in your message.

He adds, "There were two venues people turned to for comfort after the 9/11 attacks—places of worship and concert venues. The community the performing arts creates is a place of comfort."

"Choruses represent qualities people are seeking - coming together, finding comfort in music," says Polin. Especially in difficult times, choruses aren't competing with relief organizations for funds, they are relief organizations. Polin worked with the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation's Music Liberty Initiative for New York, which gave financial support to New York City-based music organizations, including several choruses, after the 9/11 attacks. The grants, administered through the American Music Center, helped get the groups through the following months, which in turn allowed them to help get the city through that difficult period. Organizations like the Young People's Chorus of New York City and the National Chorale reached out to audiences throughout the area. The Brooklyn Youth Chorus, with funding from the initiative, performed with the New York Philharmonic in the world premiere of John Adams's On the Transmigration of Souls, a commemoration of those who died in the tragedy.

The nature of choruses gives them a special role to play, even when compared with other music groups. "Every culture has vocal music traditions that also make a chorus quickly relevant and personal," Hogle points out. "Contrasted to instrumental music, vocal music has the power to tell a story and offer hope through its words." And on a practical level, "A chorus has the enviable ability to be easily portable and scalable."

Use Sensitivity and Common Sense

There are, of course, special considerations in the wake of a disaster. Sensitivity to your audience and supporters is your best guide.

"First, use common sense," says Hogle. "Launching a massive calling campaign the day after a disaster like Katrina may not be wise." On the other hand, a funding campaign planned for shortly after the event might not need to be delayed, provided its approach and tone are appropriate.

People you might usually be able to call on as supporters may become temporarily unavailable after a major disaster. "Shortly before 9/11," says Hogle, "an Atlanta-based airline chief executive was prepared to accept a very senior fundraising post for the ASO. Just days later, the world, the company, and his priorities changed. Katrina also affected several Atlanta companies that had major operations in or provided rebuilding supplies to the Gulf Coast. After the hurricane, corporate executives who had been active with ASO were busy addressing employee needs and redirecting distribution channels."

A chorus could be tempted to alter its fundraising message in reaction to a major tragedy, but Hogle, Polin, and Fengler agree that if the message is a compelling one, changing it probably isn't a good idea. A consistent message and a strong organizational identity are what will bring in donors in the long run. And Fengler points out, "You have to be honest." A message that even vaguely appears to exploit the situation will get the reaction it deserves.

It may be a good time, however, to revisit your case for support. "Does it talk about your chorus being a voice, so to speak, in the community, an ambassador, a place of comfort and gathering?" asks Hogle.

The bottom line with post-disaster fundraising is that fundraising principles that applied the day before the event apply the day after. Your message must be clear, simple, and compelling. 

The bottom line with post-disaster fundraising is that fundraising principles that applied the day before the event apply the day after. In order to get funding, your identity as a chorus must be solid. Your message must be clear, simple, and compelling. You must repeat it often and you must get out and ask for support. One reason for the success of disaster relief fundraising, says Polin, is simply that people were asked to contribute. "It's very important to ask, but many arts organizations are reluctant to do that."

It's equally important to keep in mind the role choruses have played during trying times in the past and will play in the future. "The choral world," says Fengler, "expresses the human element." She recalled a colleague's experience with a concert during the 1991 Gulf War in which his chorus performed Arnold Schoenberg's Friede auf Erden (" Peace on Earth"). "It was one of the most moving concerts they ever performed. They reached out and bonded with their audience." In difficult times we can't yet foresee, choruses will continue to reach out and continue to earn communities' support through their efforts.

This article is adapted from the Voice of Chorus America, Summer 2006.