Raising Donations in a Crisis: Q&A With Karen Brooks Hopkins

Recently, Jim chatted with fundraising expert Karen Brooks Hopkins to see what live events organizations can do to raise funds when they can’t produce in-person events. You can watch the full conversation here, or read on for an excerpt of their conversation (which we’ll post in three parts).

First, a little about Karen: The Brooklyn Academy of Music President Emerita has more than 30 years of experience in fundraising and is the author of Successful Fundraising for Arts & Cultural Organizations. She served as President of the Brooklyn Academy of Music from 1999 until her retirement in 2015 and was an employee of the institution since 1979. Hopkins served as the chair of the Cultural Institutions Group from 2002-2004, a member of the Mayor’s Cultural Affairs Advisory Commission and as a participant on Mayor de Blasio’s transition committee. From 2005-2010, she served as the Brooklyn Regent for the New York State Education Department. In 2013, Crain’s named her one of the “50 Most Powerful Women in New York,” and in 2014, she was one of 10 selected into its inaugural “New York Business Hall of Fame.” From 2015-2017, she served as the Inaugural Senior Fellow in Residence at the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation where her research focused on the impact of anchor cultural institutions. Columbia University conferred upon her an honorary Doctor of Laws degree on May 22, 2019.

Selling Out: What’s the situation now for the typical arts organization? 

Karen Brooks Hopkins: The most sobering statistic I heard last week from SMU dataarts (the largest think tank for arts in the country) is that the majority of arts organizations have about 5 weeks of available cash. Some larger organizations have more, maybe two months, but the crisis has pointed out the hand-to-mouth nature of the field in a really big way. 

SO: What’s the first thing you should do when fundraising during this crisis? 

KBH: We need to take a hard look at where the institution really stands. So you’re going to be starting with your annual operating budget, you’re subtracting your earned income out, you’re probably going to lose a significant portion of your project-based fundraising revenue, money that you were raising for a project you may not be doing, and I think you have to assess every donor of reasonable size. Go through each one of those donors and assess what you know is going to hold up, what you think is going to hold up and what you seriously question. 

Then, of course, you’re looking at every possible expense cut you could make. How will you deal with your staff, how will you deal with health insurance, facility expenses, etc. Every single expense needs to be reviewed so that you’ve absolutely cut it to the bone. 

And then when you look at all of the savings, against all of the lost revenue, both earned and fundraising, then you have a sense of how deep the hole is. And then you begin to decide how you cover it. 

I want to be clear that you need the whole institutional picture on the table before you start, because then you can answer with authority when people ask you questions. 

SO: Once you have a clear financial picture, what’s next? 

KBH: Segueing to the fundraising, the first thing to consider is your board. Have you drawn your board close in this particular crisis? Are you talking with your chairman, do they understand your plan, who are the key players and have you gone through the whole story with them? 

Then look at the board gifts you’re expecting, make sure you can hold onto them and then see if you can tap some people who might be able to do something additional. 

If you’re in a multi-year deal with a board member, are you able to accelerate some of that now, are you able to create more opportunities with your board members to start? 

It’s very important to have the full commitment of your board, because that sets the table for everything else. 

You want them to help you formulate a plan and then own that plan with you. Because people who go through a crisis together feel bonded on the other side. 

When you pull people in on this, and they’re part of solving the problem, generally they will be there for you in an even larger way when you get through it. So this is why you really want to engage the people you already have. 

Check back soon for Part 2.

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