The failure of egocentric fundraising

Classical music audiences have been shrinking for years. There are many explanations for this, but one of them is the way classical music is marketed.

A lot of it is completely irrelevant to almost everybody. An exercise in self-centered navel-gazing that signals to non-experts (that is, almost everyone) that classical music is difficult and tedious.

The same is true for a lot of fundraising, even when it has nothing to do with the arts. It’s created by and for experts. It ignores and excludes everyone else.

Want some perspective on this? Read this important piece from Culture for Hire: 10 signs your classical music organization is egocentric.

It’s about classical music marketing, but I think you’ll see how closely the problem is related to fundraising. (If you are with any arts organization, read this article right now!)

Here’s the main point:

The trouble with classical music marketing is its ever-present subtext: “We are wonderful! Our concerts are amazing! And the more we say this, the more you’ll want to attend!” The end result is an egocentric perspective that infiltrates everything from websites and social media to fundraising and marketing materials.

Then there’s the part that hurts to read. It’s a list of common characteristics of egocentric classical music:

  • Imagery features the musicians, conductors, guest artists, and composers.
  • Language is elevated and descriptive.
  • Copy centers around artists’ virtuosic abilities, the organization’s achievements, and how powerful/beautiful the repertoire is.
  • Musicians, conductors, guest artists, composers are typically shown wearing formal attire.
  • Website buttons, navigation headers, and CTAs reflect the organization’s perspective (i.e., Education, Support Us, Donate Now, Buy Tickets, Follow Us).
  • Program notes feature in-depth musicological analysis and/or music theory
    Website and programming is structured by audience demographic (Young Adults, Families, Teachers, Donors).
  • First-time audiences are welcomed enthusiastically with invitations to subscribe and/or donate.
  • Audiences know not to clap between movements, to put phones away when the concert begins, and to maintain a respectful formality.
  • Repertoire centers around time-tested masterworks that audiences know and love.

Here’s the above list “translated” into general fundraising that fails to meet donors where they are:

  • Imagery features organization staff and leadership.
  • Language is heavy on professional jargon and high-flown abstractions, like “justice,” “community,” and “hope.”
  • Copy centers around the organization’s achievements and unique abilities.
  • Website buttons, navigation headers, and CTAs reflect the organization’s perspective (i.e., Education, Support Us, Donate Now, Follow Us).
  • Newsletters are detailed descriptions of program activities.
  • Donors are expected to shed their “ignorance” about the cause, and insiders are frustrated at the low level of understanding that many donors have.

Like so much classical music marketing, it’s by and for experts and insiders. And it’s ineffective.

The solution for classical music is to talk to non-experts. And to show them what the music can mean for them. (Read the post: it’s an eye-opener.)

It’s the same for fundraisers: talk to non-experts. Use their language, not your organizational insider jargon. Ask them to make specific action possible. Show them what donating can mean for them.

This is not easy. One of the most challenging jobs for anyone is getting outside of your own head — embracing the truth that different people can have different motives for doing the same things.

Just realizing that is a big deal. And it can lead to some amazing discoveries about how other people think. It’s not the way you think!


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The future of fundraising is not about social media, online video, or SEM. It’s not about any technology, medium, or technique. It’s about donors. If you need to raise funds from donors, you need to study them, respect them, and build everything you do around them. And the future? It’s already here. More.

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Jeff BrooksJeff Brooks has been serving the nonprofit community for more than 35 years and blogging about it since 2005. He considers fundraising the most noble of pursuits and hopes you’ll join him in that opinion. You can reach him at jeff [at] jeff-brooks [dot] com. More.


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The future of fundraising is not about social media, online video, or SEM. It’s not about any technology, medium, or technique. It’s about donors. If you need to raise funds from donors, you need to study them, respect them, and build everything you do around them. And the future? It’s already here. More.

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About the blogger

Jeff Brooks has been serving the nonprofit community for more than 30 years and blogging about it since 2005. He considers fundraising the most noble of pursuits and hopes you’ll join him in that opinion. You can reach him at jeff [at] jeff-brooks [dot] com.

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