Fundraising for Social Justice: 5 Keys to Success for Museums and Arts & Cultural Organizations

Fundraising for Social Justice: 5 Keys to Success for Museums and Arts & Culture Organizations

Museums, like all arts and culture organizations, have increasingly sought to center social justice in their strategies, organizational structures, and programs.

In the summer of 2020, during the throes of a racial reckoning nationwide, Smithsonian Institution Secretary Lonnie G. Bunch told the New York Times that “museums have a social justice role to play . . . an opportunity to not become community centers, but to be at the center of their community” and use history, science, and education to give the public tools to grapple with social justice challenges. The American Alliance of Museums also emphasizes a commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion as an integral part of its strategic framework.

But how can fundraising leaders across the arts and culture sector generate resources for such mission-critical programs and initiatives? Which institutions are starting to make a real difference, and what can fundraising leaders learn from them?

As we explore examples from several museums that are effectively championing social justice issues, here are five keys I have observed to guide leaders in developing fundraising strategies that prioritize social justice.

1. Understand Where Social Justice Fits into Your Institution’s DNA

At the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, social justice is in the organizational DNA. Its mission and values, which were clarified in 2019 as part of the strategic planning process, state that:

“Creativity is our legacy / Community is our purpose / The Collection is our catalyst / Diversity, Equity, Accessibility and Inclusion are our Commitments.”

The Museum’s namesake, Isabella Stewart Gardner, was a visionary, dynamic patron of the arts. Her passionate support for new visual and performing artists during her time remains resonant with the Museum’s contemporary focus on inclusiveness and social justice.

To reflect on how social justice influences your institution’s mission, vision, and values, determine how closely your mission statement aligns with social justice themes. Are there “founder’s stories” in your institutional narrative that support a social justice focus today? Can you build a strategic plan with diversity, equity, accessibility, and inclusion at the core, based upon your institution’s mission – comparable to the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum?

To start, consider the following steps:

  • Review your existing mission statement for language that might not reflect equity and inclusiveness, and revise with leadership, board, and community stakeholder input.
  • Invite a wide range of staff and community stakeholders to provide input on strategic planning and implementation.

2. Engage with Donors Strategically to Develop DEI-based Giving Opportunities

When the Minneapolis Institute of Art (Mia) wanted to make a strategic commitment to diversity and inclusion, it created a new Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer (CDIO) position and asked for the support of two former board chairs and a trustee. These three museum champions demonstrated leadership by making more than $6.5 million in funding commitments, enabling Mia to endow the position and support diversity, equity, accessibility, inclusion, and belonging (DEAIB) initiatives at the museum.

Now, CDIO Virajita Singh serves on Mia’s senior leadership team and reports directly to the Museum’s director and president. Because she oversees human resources, she can align organizational culture, systems, policies, and practices to ensure DEAIB goals are not siloed, but rather embraced by all teams across the Museum.

Do you have any untapped opportunities to position social justice initiatives to your key donors and prospects? Ask yourself:

  • Can you identify whom among your board of trustees and top donors are both influential and interested in leading on issues of diversity, equity, accessibility, inclusion, and belonging?
  • How can you incorporate a DEAIB approach into your stewardship and prospecting strategies?
  • Can you design a giving opportunity that would appeal to these identified leaders that excites the donors and lifts their sights?

3. Engage Donors in Authentic Ways Based on Science and Scholarship

Use science and scholarship as a starting point with donors who might be skeptical about social justice conversations. In launching its new permanent exhibit, “You, Me, We,” the Boston Children’s Museum sought to offer parents and caregivers thoughtful guidance and tools to engage with children as they begin to perceive, explore, and question topics such as identity, stereotyping, discrimination, and more.

Do you have any untapped opportunities to position social justice initiatives to your key donors and prospects?

Such topics can be tricky to navigate with donors and prospects. So, the Museum looked to leading academic partners, such as Harvard and MIT, to ensure that the most current research and theory about neuroscience, identity, and culture informed the exhibit content and provided donors with a fact-based understanding of the exhibit’s goals.

This also helped the Museum address topics such as community, traditions, religion, food, culture, and justice with sensitivity. “It was important to meet the donors where they are and to work together to unpack the vision for the exhibit so they could deeply understand its concept and impact,” said Vice President of Philanthropy Mike Travis. As a result of the Museum’s diligence, a blue-chip group of companies, foundations, and individuals stepped forward to fund this important exhibition.

When preparing to engage donors in conversations about social justice that they might find challenging, ask yourself:

  • How should we prepare for a variety of donor reactions and questions about a social justice project?
  • What do we anticipate our donors want to know, or need to know?
  • What research and scholarship from key academic partners can help answer these questions, engage donors, and advance their interest with the project?
  • How can community partners (like local nonprofits that serve diverse populations) be engaged to provide input and perspective on the proposed program’s impact?

4. Involve Staff Across the Institution

As Mia innovated in response to the challenges of the pandemic, a museum equity team comprised of staff from all levels and all departments came together. They provided diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) input into the 2021 strategic plan.

“This approach to collaborate widely on DEI issues became an institutional practice and led to the launch of a great community art exhibit,” said Chief Advancement Officer Julianne Amendola. The exhibit, “Racism as a Public Health Crisis,” ran from November 2021 to February 2022 in Mia’s gallery for community art and partnerships and was even featured on the local news. It also attracted sponsorship from Blue Cross Blue Shield (BCBS), and in-kind support from BCBS’ advertising agency.

As you seek to engage with staff from a variety of backgrounds and experiences for key strategic and programmatic initiatives, ask yourself:

  • What was your most recent high-profile exhibit or program, and how diverse was the team that produced it?
  • What structures and processes can you implement to ensure diverse inputs and perspectives into key initiatives? For example, if there is a staff DEI committee, consider inviting its members to also serve on key institutional committees or working groups.
  • Do you have any current or future projects that would benefit markedly from the broad and diverse input that such an approach offers? Consider tapping a person from a marginalized group to lead or co-lead such initiatives to provide growth opportunities on high visibility, mission-critical projects.

5. Collaborate with Community Partners Upfront

“At the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, we involve our community partners in the development of the exhibition from the very start,” said Chief Development Officer Rebecca Ehrhardt.

This early and extensive collaboration provides richer input into the exhibition themes and content and engages the community partners in its success. In fact, this methodology was of interest to the Henry Luce Foundation, which selected the Museum as a grantee for its Museum Partners for Social Justice initiative.

Curation of the Museum’s critically acclaimed exhibition, “Titian: Women, Myth and Power,” included input from artist-in-residence Porsha Olayiwola. The Poet Laureate for the City of Boston, she regularly explores historical and current issues in the Black, woman, and queer diasporas through her work. After contributing to the Titian exhibition, she contributed and performed a newly commissioned poem for a subsequent exhibition of the work of Zanele Muholi at the Museum.

To empower the community partners of your institution, identify individuals with whom you already have a relationship, and see if you can expand it further.

  • Where are there gaps in community relationships that you can proactively seek to fill? If your local community foundation has grantees who focus on arts and culture for underserved populations, perhaps they would benefit from a deeper relationship with your institution.
  • Additionally, look for success stories and testimonials from community members that can excite new partnerships. Consider launching a set of in-depth interviews to seek candid feedback from your community partners on the strengths and opportunities of their relationship with your institution.

Iconic civil rights leader Coretta Scott King said, “The greatness of a community is most accurately measured by the compassionate actions of its members, a heart of grace, and a soul generated by love.” Strong fundraising for social justice initiatives contributes to the greatness of your community.  How do you plan to take on this challenge in the year ahead?

Ed Sevilla, Senior Vice President brings more than 25 years of experience to his work with clients. His background includes senior leadership roles in strategic communications and fundraising within arts and culture and higher education. For guidance in implementing these ideas, as well as developing your institution’s strategic communications and fundraising strategy, contact Ed at esevilla@grenzglier.com.

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About the author

Ed Sevilla

Senior Vice President

Ed Sevilla is a Senior Vice President of Strategic Communications at GG+A, where he partners with clients to develop effective marketing, communications, and messaging strategies to drive support for key institutional programs and initiatives. He brings more than 25 years of experience in public and private sector marketing, branding, and…