Lily Kharrazi, Program Manager
February 19, 2015

Consultant Jerry Yoshitomi  leads ACTA's Bay Area Grassroots  Fundraising Workshop as part of ACTA's  Roundtable Series. Photo: Lily KharraziIf you want to get right to the heart of values, the concept of money is a loaded one.

How do you raise funds for those things that are essential to your art- making when asking for money from some cultural viewpoints may appear as “weakness” or can even impugn your character?  On the other side of this attitude, what if donating money to others was an expression of “correcting the world” or a value of our higher selves?  These are two of many attitudes shared by our Bay Area Grassroots Fundraising cohort which, as part of ACTA’s Roundtable Series, brought together a group of artists and organizations to work over a six month period on their own fundraising strategies.  What we worked on was a shift in our own attitudes, and for some participants, their very first attempt at crowdsourced fundraising.

Cohort members were a self-selecting group culled from two introductory workshops held last May.  From over 60 people who attended the intro mini-sessions, the following group committed to five additional workshops through January 2015 and personal coaching in-between sessions: Manilatown Heritage Foundation, Orisha Studies Group with Bobi Cespedes, Theatre Flamenco, International Capoeira Angola Foundation, La Peña Cultural Center, Laga CA Weavers, Filipino American Development Association/Bayanihan Cultural Center, DelinaDream Productions, Sukay/Peña Pachamama, and the North American Guqin Association.  The cohort represented groups with both long histories as performing artists or presenters, a social service agency with strong traditional arts within their programming, independent artists, and volunteer-powered entities with small budgets.  Some of the groups had prior success with grants and foundation support, but most had not considered what creating a donor base would mean for their visions.

Consultant Jerry Yoshitomi and I led the workshops.  Jerry’s area of expertise is strengthening leadership through a cultural lens.  He began one session by giving each participant a gift.  Why?  While fundraising seminars abound, it may seem, the critical difference with Grassroots Fundraising was to place our cultural lens front and center when deciding what constitutes value in the way we work.  Our exercise with the small Japanese bell given to each of us was to examine how we reacted when receiving a gift.  What did this exchange mean?  What made it meaningful and what would we associate with this object in the future?  The bell became a reminder that without meaningful human interaction, the bell is only an object perhaps to be discarded or forgotten.  We want to create a meaningful exchange with the people who donate to our causes and keep that alive.

From our cultural platforms, we began to think about our relationships with the people most impacted by our work, whether that be through a performance or a service provided, and how we might make them into potential donors.  No matter what the amount someone could potentially give to any campaign, we quite simply were learning that soliciting relationships was a better guarantee towards continued support over time.  Our workshops considered the use of culturally meaningful language, imagery, historical meanings, tokens of appreciation, and reflected upon realistic amounts of money to ask for in building our campaigns.  We even did role playing to build confidence on how we presented ourselves.

Perhaps most gratifying was the peer-to-peer learning and sharing of real life stories of our fundraising experiences.  From the terror of asking your audience for donations at a show to the surprise of an unexpected donation from the least expected source, the group was able to reinforce best practices.  One anecdote, shared by master musician Wang Fei of the North American Guqin Association, was about a generous offer she received from someone to purchase an airline ticket for her to continue her research in China on the lineage of her revered teacher.  The offer came from a Latino gentleman who had no direct cultural ties to her work but obviously understood and was moved by the value of keeping a tradition alive far from home.  Another story shared by Bernadette Sy, executive director of the Filipino-American Development Association, was a donation received by a recently widowed mother of young children.  The amount was generous for the circumstances but made clear that the donor placed high value on what she was receiving back from the agency where she is able to participate in cultural events that are meaningful to her at this vulnerable time.  These stories exemplified something that we do not often have access to in the busy grind of our work: a concrete reflection of how our work is impacting others.  Donations can become a way for people to express appreciation for what we do as artists and organizations.

During the six month period, some of our cohort began campaigns on different crowdsourcing platforms, raising between 42 to 100% of their goals; some designed campaigns to be launched in the next quarter, or realized importantly that they were not ready for this kind of fundraising and set other goals more appropriate for their capacities.  The final results were quite unanimous in that a self-deprecating attitude in our work will not serve us and that dependency on grants or outside funders is a tough call towards sustainability.  The cohort has claimed that their confidence level is greater post-workshops and that looking at their constituents as a resource holds many more opportunities than originally anticipated.

The Roundtable Series was generously funded by the San Francisco Arts Commission.  Please check on our website for new Roundtable Series workshops in the near future.  Please visit the websites of our cohort to learn more about their good work and donation opportunities:

Bobi Cespedes / Orisha Studies Group
DelinaDream Productions
International Capoeira Angola Foundation
Filipino American Development Association / Bayanihan Cultural Center
La Peña Cultural Center
Laga CA Weavers
Manilatown Heritage Foundation
North American Guqin Association
Sukay / Peña Pachamama
Theatre Flamenco