Let’s Get Real With Our Donors About Our Diversity Engagement Efforts


By: Sarah Marczynski

The end of the fiscal year is looming for many arts organizations and Spring “We do good work, Give us your money!” letters are being written now. I’m sure many of those letters highlight sell-out shows and performances or exhibits with renowned guest artists. I bet most of them also highlight your organization’s education and community engagement programs.

Our elevator speeches that make it into these development letters include facts and figures of the programs: “25,000 kids in 12 counties heard one of two ensembles over a nine month period.  67% were from a Title I school, 34% were minorities and 8% were atypically developing kids.” We can ramble those numbers off in our sleep and they look impressive in the required boxes on grant applications.

The problem with numbers, though, is they don’t tell the whole story. They are, by their nature, quantitative, not qualitative data. Important, but not likely to tug at the heart of a donor or open the purse strings.  Real life stories of how someone has been affected by your program are much more likely to do that.

Diversity Engagement Efforts

A great example of this comes from a phone solicitation of a donor in Seattle.  The donor, Erica Gomez, an admitted fan and donor of the symphony, challenged the Seattle Symphony caller about their engagement programs: “So does this outreach affect communities of color at all? Who gets access to this work?” Instead of rattling off the numbers, the caller relayed her family’s personal experience with the symphony’s education programs, which in turn led them to, what I assume from Gomez’ post, was a very frank and honest discussion about the arts and the need for communities of color to have equal access.

I wonder what the results that including real life stories of the effects of our community engagement programs would yield.  The CSO is including the story of a kid who came to our Young People’s Concerts in our spring mailing, so one case study results to come.

As an organization, we don’t do enough to make our organization accessible. Don’t get me wrong, I think we do a lot. But, many challenges and realities affect our ability to do a better job.  Diversity, particularly in areas of the country still facing the hangovers of segregation and those facing new realities of race equality, is not an area that we are going to solve overnight or in one season.  There is not one solution or strategy that will work across the board.  So, what if we told that to donors? If we said “dear donor, we know it’s an issue that our audience doesn’t look like the community it serves.  We’re working hard at it, but it is not a quick fix.  We could use your mental, physical, and yes, financial support to help us.” I wonder if that frankness and honesty, challenging your supporters to help you in more than one way, would yield even bigger results.

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Sarah Marczynski
Sarah joined the Chattanooga Symphony & Opera in 2010 working with the Marketing and Development staffs and quickly became interested in community engagement and education. She holds a Master’s of Public Administration focusing in Nonprofit Arts Management from the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga where her capstone and other work under Dr. Christopher Horne examined attendance patterns in high-art cultural institutions and network relationships between local arts agencies and cultural partners. She also holds a Bachelor’s of Vocal Music Education from UTC, where she studied under Dr. Kevin Ford and Ron Ulen. Sarah has been active in the Chattanooga arts community, serving as the founding chair of the Chattanooga Young Artistic Network (CYAN), graduating from the Holmberg Arts Leadership Institute, and working with the Chattanooga Boys Choir, the Choral Arts Society, the Hunter Museum of American Art, the Chattanooga Bach Choir. Outside of the arts world, Sarah pretends to be an excellent cook (but she's broken 2 ovens), reads Jane Austen novels, and watches way too much House of Cards.
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