These Aren't Your Grandparents' Arts Donors. Is That a Good Thing?



Our recent coverage of arts philanthropy keeps returning to a persistent theme—the ever-changing psychographic profile of the arts donor.

The shift is most succinctly articulated in this piece exploring the differences between "Old" and "New" world giving.  In short, "Old World" funders give their collections to trusted institutions and walk away. They sleep soundly knowing their work is in good hands. "New World" donors, meanwhile, are bit more, shall we say, engaged

For further elucidation we turn to Southern California and a piece in the OC Register looking at the county's "next generation of arts donors." Here, as elsewhere in the nation, these donors are highly involved, professional and results-oriented.

"They say, 'I don’t want to just sit on a board, I want to serve,'" says Sharna Goldseker, executive director of 21/64, a consulting group that specializes in next-generation philanthropy. "They still write checks, but they’re more interested in giving their time and talent."

Andrew Low, meanwhile, a vice president with BNY Mellon Wealth Management in Newport Beach, sums up the generational divide accordingly: "I would call it strategic philanthropy. I want to get the biggest bang for my buck. Often with the older generation, they give here and they give there."

Understanding the causes of this psychographic shift can prove illuminating for any arts organization's fundraising team.

For starters, these new donors, more than their predecessors, are metrics-driven. Many come from the world of finance and IT. They expect results. This can prove problematic for arts organizations for whom the "benefits" of such programs can't be efficiently plugged into a spreadsheet. It's also why organizations are having a hard time getting Silicon Valley millennial types to buy in to "highbrow" arts experiences.

Yet younger donors also understand that time and expertise can be just as effective as cutting a check. "I love to use my skills to help an organization," said Jaynine Warner of Laguna Beach. "I like to volunteer and get involved first to decide if it’s where we want to give financially."

Now, you may have noticed that the title of this post alludes to the possibility that hands-on donors could be problematic. But there's clearly a continuum of engagement at play, here. As long as we're dealing the "professional 30-something with moderate cash flow and a thirst for volunteering" demographic, arts organizations needn't worry. In fact, they should thank their lucky stars.

But if we move along the continuum things can get a bit more dicey and more, well, hands-on. For an example, we recently looked at how retailer, philanthropist, and prominent art collector Donald Fisher hammered out a controversial deal with the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art prior to his passing in 2009. The deal stipulates that the museum, among other things, displays no more than 25 percent of works from other lenders or donors in the Doris and Donald Fisher Collection Galleries.

It certainly isn't the first collection that came with strings attached. But is this a good thing? Folks in the Bay Area art world say no. The museum, on the other hand, may politely disagree.

Which brings me back, at long last, to those younger and more idealistic arts supporters down in Orange County. Indeed, they aren't your grandparents' donors. Is that a good thing? Why yes, of course it is. What's more, while this demographic may not have tons of disposable income or a trove of contemporary art now, perhaps they will some day. And so organizations should keep the long-term picture in mind. 

Jeff Swanson, senior vice president of philanthropy at Orange County United Way, sums it up best: "The challenge is if you’re not engaging with them early on, why would they choose you once they have success?"