Connecting worlds – the challenge for philanthropy in the arts

Throughout the past year, fundraising is a conversation we’ve been having with arts-sector clients more often and with more urgency. 

Before the pandemic, even when charitable giving in general was on the rise, cultural philanthropy had not been following the overall trend.

The Giving USA 2019 report noted that ‘Giving to arts, culture, and humanities is estimated to have stayed relatively flat’ and was, in fact, declining 2.1% when adjusted for inflation.

Of course, the situation is even more critical now. Many institutions across the world remain closed and The American Museums Alliance reports that one-third of US museums are not confident they’ll survive.

There isn’t an easy solution, but we do have some insights about philanthropic motivations that might help.

Our donor research in the US and internationally has highlighted a pattern in how potential supporters, particularly the next generations, see cultural organizations within the wider charitable landscape. 

Understanding these donor mindsets is vital if the arts sector is to create long-term fundraising strategies that resonate with audiences.

The traditional mindset of philanthropists – ‘My world’ tops their list

It comes as no surprise that time and again our research confirms the importance of personal connection when it comes to charitable giving. 

Whether fundraising for cancer charities after losing a loved one, donating to the church or volunteering at your child’s school, it’s contributing to a cause that has made a difference to your life. 

For many, the first place they look when it comes to giving back is local: how can I help to improve ‘my world’?

The advantage of this kind of giving is also that it feels more tangible – you can often see the results of your cash or effort and feel a sense of achievement.

Millennials increasingly see giving in terms of ‘the world’

More recently however, and particularly with younger generations, the thinking is bigger. ‘My world’ may still be a priority but it’s harder to ignore the pressing needs of the whole planet.

At the end of 2019, we asked a representative sample of the US population to select from a range of issues they felt were most pressing: climate change was chosen most often. 

The principles of ethical consumerism apply to philanthropy too. Global causes are top of mind and are therefore donation priorities.

As well as the climate, human rights and social justice are also seen as critical.

Cultural giving falls through the gap

The question is: how does cultural giving fit in to this local versus global picture?

Potential donors are jumping straight from 'my world' to 'the whole world'. They skip right over the idea of donating to museums or performing arts organizations.

According to our studies this is because often cultural organizations are often not considered to be as much in need. 

In normal circumstances, people probably won’t donate to keep the lights on.

We talked to active cultural audiences who believe in the value the arts bring to society; a common gut reaction was that it is difficult to prioritize making sure a theatre can build new sets when it seems like the world is on fire.

Making culture a priority for donors: ‘our world’

Our pre-pandemic findings show that, to bridge the gap, cultural organizations needed to position themselves in our world; to be among those causes that represent the wider public good on a larger scale than local community but smaller than a global crisis.

Our world contains public spaces, national parks, heritage sites and, of course, arts organizations. 

To some extent, the Covid crisis is reversing the public’s earlier complacency on culture.

'Our world' organizations like Chester Zoo (see our chat with them here) have smashed their SOS fundraising targets. 

But for how long? The ‘love us or lose us’ message is going to be a very crowded market for many months to come.  

The challenge for arts organizations is to establish ourselves as an essential part of ‘our world’ for potential donors. 

If museums or theatres are in danger of closing, we need to be explicit about it.

But we also need to remind people of both the personal and public benefit that our sector brings, and frame our asks around a clear, specific and urgent need to continue our organization’s cause.

Simply asking to be saved will not be enough for long. ‘Our world’ means giving a human face, meaningful goals and demonstrable results to the social benefit your organization seeks to provide; enabling your audiences to understand why donating to you should be a priority for the long term.  

If you would like support in articulating your cause or connecting more deeply with donors and supporters, please get in touch with Zoe.crisp@mhminsight.com.   


Lorna is a Senior Consultant and heads our USA team. She has extensive experience on both sides of...

Image for Five reasons Chester Zoo has had an incredible Covid campaign

Five reasons Chester Zoo has had an incredible Covid campaign

Image for Culture Segments and Covid Audience Mindsets

Culture Segments and Covid Audience Mindsets

Image for The 7 Pillars of Audience-focus

The 7 Pillars of Audience-focus

Image for What audiences need from your digital offer

What audiences need from your digital offer