Toward the end of last year, I began to get a series of emails from theater companies and arts organizations I’ve worked with in the past asking me to consider making donations in support of their efforts. This has become a late-December custom for me; I’m sure you experience the same thing.
In previous years, I simply deleted them all as they came in. I know that a great many people whose professionalism I respect put a lot of work and thought into those emails, so it pains me to admit that publicly, but it’s true.
The simple fact of the matter is that my wife and I make a careful determination together about which organizations we’re going to support each year, then make our donations as we can afford them long before December arrives. No manner of emailed appeal – save for one relating some unique and special tragic circumstance – is going to move us to make a new decision. And no, you falling short of your fundraising goal is not a unique circumstance. An unexpected tsunami killing hundreds of thousands of people in Indonesia, on the other hand…
This year, for some reason, the donation request emails started to get under my skin a bit. With the addition of a baby to the family and the loss of my wife’s income, our financial picture has changed drastically, so I attributed my annoyance at first to a general worry about money… but the more I started to think about the question of these organizations asking me for donations, the more confused I became.
For example: Theater X (name, of course, redacted) produced a play I wrote some time ago. We had a great time working together, we built a great rapport, and I earned a small royalty from the collaboration: a very small royalty, in fact. So small that if I’d given them a donation equal to the suggested amount in their email solicitation, I’d have essentially been giving half of what I earned right back to the theater.
Should they be asking me to do that? Is it okay? Does it strike you as tacky? Is it a natural evolution or continuation of our relationship?
The answers to those questions seem to me to hinge on whether I want my connection to Theater X to adhere to market norms or social norms. If it adheres to market norms, then I was effectively a temporary employee, paid by Theater X for my work, and to ask me to return my paycheck is definitely not appropriate. If our relationship adheres to social norms, however, then it’s based around a mutual support of each others’ artistic goals, and money changing hands is simply a reflection of that support.
I haven’t seen messaging like that in even ONE of the donation-appeal emails I’ve received, however. Nobody says “Because we’ve worked with you before, and because we feel like your personal artistic mission overlaps with our organizational mission, we thought perhaps you might care to support our upcoming season.” My inbox is filled with one-size-fits-all generalized appeals that make me feel as if my contributions as an artist are undervalued and that the organization doesn’t understand how hard it can be financially for artists to make ends meet.
Is it too much to ask that an arts organization segment its email list – artists in one category, subscribers in another category, and former donors in a third – and create unique emails for each segment? That’s standard fundraising practice for a non-profit organization. We should expect that much from theaters as well. We should expect them not to take us for granted.
The truth is that if I had enough money not only to support my family solely by writing plays, but also to support the organizations I work with, I gladly would… but I don’t, and I don’t know how many artists do. I’m genuinely surprised, in fact, that appeals to artists for donations actually work… but I know from asking around in researching this blog post that they definitely do. My theory is that we’re sensitive to organizations needing money because we usually need money ourselves, so we know what it feels like.
Ultimately, I’ve decided that except in rare instances, an arts organization really ought not to be asking for donations from artists unless there’s clearly a special connection at play. This has only been true, incidentally, of a small number of the requests I’ve gotten. In many instances, in fact, I’ve received requests from theaters I’ve never worked with at all: those to whom I submitted plays for consideration, who really ought to be embarrassed for emailing me to ask for money.
Even when a strong bond exists between an artist and an arts organization, however, the solicitation ought to at least acknowledge the nature of the request, and the appeal level ought to be set appropriately low: don’t ask for ten thousand bucks, in other words, when you only paid me three hundred for our last project. And when that strong bond doesn’t exist? I think it’s wise to avoid blurring the line between a social relationship and a market relationship, which does us all harm.
Finally, I think it’s worth noting that we should probably be reaching outside our own artistic networks for support anyway. After all, we’re not making theater for each other… or if we are, we shouldn’t be. We’re making it for other people, and it’s those other people from whom we should be asking for donations. (Heck: as long as we provide them with stories and experiences they value, they should be glad to offer financial support.) It’s perhaps more difficult, I realize… but it just makes sense.