Merce Cunningham Trust Gift Underscores the Rise of the "Grateful Alumni" Donor

We recently posted seven trends in philanthropy to be thankful for. Today we'd like to propose an eighth: Generous giving from the "grateful alumni."

To set it up for you, let's quickly turn our attention to baseball. For those of us who follow the sport, there's an inside joke regarding the slugger Sammy Sosa. Sosa was famously implicated in the 90s steroids scandal. When asked about his time in the game, he noted, "Baseball has been very, very good to me." (Go ahead Google it — making fun of his quote is a cottage industry in and of itself.)

Sosa's phrase has since become a kind of running punchline, especially considering he made millions with the alleged help of chemical enhancements.

Sosa almost reminds us of Merce Cunningham, the avant-garde choreographer and dancer who passed away in 2009. The Merce Cunningham Trust recently announced unprecedented grants to two organizations that proved pivotal to his development as an artist: $250,000 to the Baryshnikov Arts Center, and $375,000 to the Foundation for Contemporary Arts.

Both organizations, according to Trustee Allan Sperling, proved crucial to Cunningham by staging his work and helping with fundraising. So when we came across this news, we couldn't help but hear Sammy's grateful voice echoing in our ears. "The Baryshnikov Arts Center and the Foundation for Contemporary Arts have been very, very good to me," the trust seemed to be saying. But unlike Sosa, the trust showed its appreciation by shelling out over $600,000 to the objects of such gratitude.

The trust's mission is to support Cunningham's work by encouraging the licensing of said work and the teaching of his technique. So will this grant come with strings attached? In short, no. "With these awards, we have not specified any criteria," Sperling noted.

The Foundation for Contemporary Arts will use the grant to establish a biennial Merce Cunningham Award. The Baryshnikov Arts Center, meanwhile, has been in full-blown fundraising mode to establish a Cage-Cunningham fellowship. It also plans to rename its largest rehearsal space the John Cage and Merce Cunningham Studio.

Taken in total, it's the first time the trust has awarded cash grants, and according to Sperling it will likely be the only time.

So what can arts nonprofits take away from this news? In short, don't forget to cultivate the "grateful alumni." Just like Cunningham, who received invaluable support from these two recipient organizations, these would-be donors have direct knowledge your organization's mission and value to the community.

You've been "very, very good" to these individuals. Perhaps it's time you remind them.