It’s time for cultural institutions to rethink the role of their auxiliary groups

This is the third article in a three-part thought leadership series that is focused on volunteers. Click here to access the first article, which focused on how members of arts boards can best support the organizations they serve, and here to access the second, which examined how to leverage volunteers in tumultuous times.

Friends groups are a common topic when development directors of cultural institutions get together. Comments range from, “They take so much time!” to “Our trustees love them so how do I make any changes?” to “We would love to spend more time on major gifts but all my staff resource goes to stewarding our auxiliary groups.” Sound familiar?

Most institutions would tell you that auxiliary and friends groups are there to deepen relationships with donors and increase fundraising for both the programs they’re associated with and the institution overall. Yet, these groups–the time it takes to manage them, the resources they require to steward, and the perception that they may not actually help build deeper relationships–are often a source of frustration for fundraising staff and leaders. Too often it is unclear whether these groups are delivering on the goals.

With growing pressure to increase philanthropic support without additional resources and the need to rethink old models of cultivation and stewardship, now is an ideal time for cultural institutions to take a fresh look at their existing groups.

Verify and communicate the goals

Institutions should begin by making sure that there is agreement across leaders and development staff about the purpose of the groups and their unique role in the fundraising process. Are they primarily meant to provide current use dollars for specific programs? Are they a means of building a pipeline of future major gift donors? Future board members? Once the purposes are clear, then your institution can begin the work of evaluating how successful the groups are in meeting those goals. Too often institutions form donor groups with a particular goal in mind but don’t have a system to regularly evaluate whether they are effectively meeting those goals.

The purpose of the groups should also be reflected in clearly articulated, consistent messages across your organization and should be woven into communications to, and about, the groups themselves.

A financial analysis

Once you have clarity and agreement about your goals, then you can begin to test them. Among the questions GG+A has been asked to help evaluate for clients are:

  • What happens to group members’ behaviors over time? Does joining a group make them more philanthropic to the department with which they are affiliated? To the institution?
  • Do the people who join our groups have the capacity to make major gifts to the institution?
  • Do these groups engage new people or are they populated largely by board member families and others who are closely affiliated?
  • What is the real cost to run these groups, factoring in both staff time and other resources?

Each institution will have its own list of questions, depending on the goals of its program, but the key is to make sure you are using a clear-eyed, data-driven process to assess whether these groups are meeting their goals–and if they aren’t, why not?

Operational analysis

After that financial analysis, institutions can evaluate how existing groups align with the institution’s fundraising goals and resource allocation and how well groups are managed relative to these goals. Among the questions an institution might ask are:

  • How much of our overall staff time is devoted to these groups? Does that reflect their importance to our overall fundraising strategy?
  • Is our investment of time commensurate with the support generated by these groups? Is there a different way to deploy the staff that might result in more philanthropic support?
  • Are we providing a consistent experience for donors across these groups, relative to the size of their gift to the institution?
  • Is there parity in the benefits offered to members across auxiliary groups and across the institution as a whole? In other words, are we providing a very different level of benefit for a similar-sized gift, depending on how you engage with the institution?
  • Are we able to meet–and manage–the expectations of group members and curators or other program partners?
Shifting the message

As part of this process, institutions should also review the materials they’re using to speak to, solicit and steward donors. Zero in on the question, “What is the overarching message that you’re trying to convey?” Ultimately, the goal should be to develop messaging that emphasizes the impact donors have on the mission of the institution and that reinforces the goal of the group. A few points to consider:

  • Do solicitation and stewardship materials focus on philanthropy? Too often, institutions focus on the transactional nature of these group—the benefits of membership—rather than on the impact of philanthropic support
  • Focus materials on opportunities for engagement and deepening the relationship with the institution. You want to set donors’ sights on the next stage of the relationship.
  • Be clear and be consistent in your messaging.
  • Don’t forget to include comments about the impact of donor support in talking points for every event.
Developing a plan

Armed with this analysis, chief development officers can begin to engage directors, board members, program staff and other key volunteer leaders in updating and refreshing these groups in ways that will ensure that they realize their goals and offer an interesting, vibrant way to engage with the institution. Understanding that making these changes is likely to be challenging and may be fraught because of the emotional and historic issues that sometimes surround these groups, we recommend you develop a plan that reflects the following:

  • Keep your goals for these groups front and center. Every decision should reflect these goals and every communication should reinforce them.
  • Engage the stakeholders who care the most and will be most impacted by change, including volunteer leaders, curators and program staff and some key donors whose affiliation with your auxiliary programs may be a driver of their love of your institution.
  • Develop a timeline for making decisions and implementing any changes and stick to it–too often these conversations linger–sometimes for years!– and the uncertainty and lack of any real change can be frustrating.
  • Make sure you have a strong communications plan for helping everyone who is affected, internally and externally, understand what changes you are making, when and why.

Auxiliary groups can be a very powerful and effective tool in engaging donors but too often institutions report that they feel like an enormous investment of time and resources for not enough return. Through thoughtful evaluation and careful planning for the future, you can ensure that your institution is using these groups as an effective, dynamic tool in its cultivation and stewardship plans.

Many institutions find it difficult to conduct an analysis of their auxiliary groups on their own, and benefit from outside counsel providing an objective viewpoint. For more information on how GG+A can help you think about your own auxiliary groups or donor stewardship strategy, contact Suzanne directly at shilser-wiles@grenzglier.com.

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About the author

Suzanne Hilser-Wiles


Suzanne Hilser-Wiles, President, partners with GG+A clients around the globe to help them elevate their fundraising by offering more than 25 years of experience in advancement, program building, and campaign planning and implementation. Throughout her career, she has helped design, rebuild, and reimagine programs by applying her experience with a…