Generational Giving at Arts & Cultural Organizations – A Donor Story

As a kid, I was saturated by symphony performances and choral music. My dad was a conductor and composer, my mom his accompanist. They were also involved in a chorus called the Tanglewood Festival Chorus (TFC, as we referred to it for the next 25 years). Anyone reading this blog that lives in the New England area may know that the symphony I was raised around is the Boston Symphony Orchestra. My youth was flooded by a series of Wednesday night rehearsals, regular BSO concerts, and multiple summer weekends spent at Tanglewood, the summer home of the Boston Symphony in Lenox, Massachusetts.

Fast forward to 2017. I’m looking for a place to donate in honor of my mother’s 90th birthday, and a gift made to the local symphony orchestra in Myrtle Beach seemed like the right thing to do. Based on my upbringing, why wouldn’t I donate to the orchestra, especially in honor of my mom?

As I was discussing fundraising and membership with a coworker, I realized that my emotional connection to one particular type of organization created a foundation on which I base my giving. My upbringing set a basis for my philanthropic leanings. Maybe it’s the same with some of you, too. You gravitated toward the museum, zoo, gallery, symphony, cultural management organization because of your roots. Not only did I gravitate toward a symphony, I am a member of the board now.

So, how can we use family or experiences to get people to donate? How do we get kids to grow up and grow into giving to your organization? How do we make organizations so important that multiple generations of a family are invested? How do we provide value that these multiple generations see? Have you asked yourself similar questions?

If you have asked yourself some of these questions, here are some thoughts about how to build lifelong relationships—starting at a very young age.

  1. Build a membership program specifically for children. Think about what types of activities your organization offers that kids would like. Can’t think of any? Maybe think about activities you could support that would offer parents a place for their kids to go and learn, like a movie series, art classes, or a small-scale concert. If you can manage two to four activities per year, you’ve provided some value to the parents and involved children at an early age.
  2. Instead of an event, create a little scavenger hunt for kids to complete as they walk through your historic mansion or art museum, to make it fun for kids to explore and learn. Engaging kids brings the entire family to your door. Consider an interactive gamified activity that can be completed over more than one visit. Interested in reading about one organization’s way to engage young patrons (or any patrons)? Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh created a Summer Adventure program.
  3. Steward families through engagement with your organization. Once a child “graduates” from your organization’s youth programs, do you forget about them? As kids become teens, encourage them to volunteer with your organization. Do you have a young curator’s program or zookeeper-in-training type of program for tweens and teens? Could your teen volunteers help run the kids programs? Youth leadership and volunteerism is a great way to keep families involved. Want to see what the Boch Center in Boston, MA has for a leadership program?
  4. Do you offer a student membership discount? Discounts for college students provide a path to permanent connection with your organization. While a student discount on admission helps encourage attendance, low-price membership for students keeps them coming back while they attend school.
  5. Offer a loyalty program—it’s all the rage nowadays. Ebates®. Rewards programs. I get “perks” for spending too much money at Ulta® and Lucky Brand Jeans®. Why not offer some form of perk to those who have been involved with your organization for a certain amount of years? Use the concept of getting “something for nothing” to your benefit, which can be especially beneficial for any recent college graduate who is also a “graduate” of your other programs. Maybe if a college student volunteers 100 hours in a year, they get two free guest passes they can give to their friends (and you can recruit the friends too!). While you can target recent college grads by appealing to a financial incentive, loyalty programs can benefit every patron, donor, and member. Individuals with a giving history spanning five years get 10% off a membership for two years. Members who bring in five new members receive free parking for a year. Be creative. Loyalty gifts can work in your favor. A special shopping day at the gift shop for recurring givers. A guided tour specifically for long-time members. A mention in the program for young adults who have graduated from your docent-in-training program in a newsletter or the local paper.

While these are all stand-alone ideas that would work for any organization, consider stringing them together so that you are graduating young children into the young adult program, and then stewarding them into the adult membership.

I know as a child of the 70s, I had no thoughts of how I’d donate my money when I got older. I probably didn’t even understand philanthropy was a thing. My inclination toward the arts and cultural world was naturally occurring. I often say it is in my DNA. Maybe a great deal of people are like me, but why not start now to build a culture of continued family giving—and make generational giving second nature, growing your donor base as it matures.