News and analysis
June 08, 2010

Giving to Arts Groups Dropped 2.4% Last Year, Study Finds

Atlanta Opera

The Atlanta Opera cut one of its four productions next season because of fund-raising troubles.

Support for arts and cultural institutions shrank last year by 2.4 percent, according to Giving USA, to $12.3-billion. But that drop in donations was much smaller than in 2008, when giving sunk by 10.1 percent.

The tough fund-raising climate continues to prompt many groups to reduce expenses and seek out new ways to earn money and reach out to donors. The Atlanta Opera is cutting one of its four productions next season because it expects to end its fiscal year short of its $3.8-million fund-raising goal, a problem compounded by its budget deficit last year.

Mary K. Roarabaugh, the opera’s director of development, says the group has not lost many donors, but a substantial number of its supporters have found themselves in changed financial circumstances.

“If you’re out of work, you’re not giving the opera $250,” she says. “If you are still affluent, but your portfolio has been cut down, you change your pledge commitment.”

She says many donors have postponed committing to major gifts while others are stretching out payments on gifts over longer stretches.

At the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis, more than 1,000 people are now giving, a healthy sign after the number of contributors dropped to 900 last year, a decline of one-third. In the meantime, the theater has saved money by eliminating the position of special-events coordinator, dropping its annual gala event, and using an outside consultant to run a food-and-wine show that in January raised $161,000 after expenses, $26,000 more than expected.

High Plains Public Radio, which primarily serves Texas and Kansas, is more comfortable this year after last summer, when it faced a $100,000 shortfall and was forced to conduct an emergency fund-raising appeal. This year it has attracted more gifts and many donors who had stopped giving are starting to return. Even so, the organization still faces a challenge because the size of the station’s average donation has dropped by about 10 percent.

Jacob Breeden, director of membership support, says the station has changed its message to donors this year, emphasizing the station’s contribution to the quality of life of its listeners.

“There’s a difference between talking about simply keeping the station on the air and talking about maintaining a cultural institution,” says Mr. Breeden, who works at the station’s Amarillo, Tex., office. “We want to remind listeners how we impact their lives.”

Many museums have suffered a decline in giving, according to the American Association of Museums. A survey in January of 481 institutions found that 35 percent said support from foundations had dropped, 38 percent said contributions from individuals had fallen, and 45 percent faced shrinking corporate donations.

At the Children’s Museum of Richmond, fewer and fewer donors have been willing to help the Virginia institution cover its general operating costs—such gifts have dropped from $815,000 in 2007 to less than $600,000 for the fiscal year ending this month. So the museum decided to change its pitch and ask donors to pay for disadvantaged kids to visit the museum.

“We were swimming upstream asking for operating support so we switched our tack,” says Karen Coltrane, the museum’s chief executive.

In the meantime, the museum has taken a bold step to generate more of its own revenue, this month opening up a second location in a busy retail area of the Richmond suburbs. It expects the new location to produce $100,000 in revenue for the museum in its first year.