By Stephanie Johnson
According to the National Endowment for the Arts’ Survey of Public Participation in the Arts, older adults were the only group to show an increase in performing arts attendance 2002-2012. If you are also worried about aging audiences or donors, you’re not alone.
At Washington Performing Arts, one of the country’s leading presenting and producing organizations with concerts and education programs across the nation’s capital, statistics like these were familiar to board, staff, and patrons in 2014, when two board members encouraged us to develop a program to engage the next generation. Previous colleagues had dipped their toes in the water, but understanding the elements of what attracted, and retained, young patrons and donors (under-40) became so elusive that someone gave it the loving nickname “fetch.”
In the movie, now musical, Mean Girls, one of the “plastics” — the nickname for the popular high-school girls — is trying to popularize ‘fetch’ as her own signature word when her friend finally exclaims, “Stop trying to make ‘fetch’ happen! It’s never going to happen!” Back at Washington Performing Arts, instead of being discouraged, it became our battle cry: we were going to “make ‘fetch’ happen.”
Very quickly, we discovered that there is both an art and a science to this process. Through qualitative and quantitative research, constant feedback and adjustment, and some good old trial and error, my colleagues and I built a Junior Board at Washington Performing Arts that now:
- Regularly attracts more applicants than it can accept
- Provides a leadership pipeline for future board service
- Raises a significant amount of money
- Builds a base of new patrons or the organization
Additionally, the learnings in each of these areas are informing wider business decisions as we look to replicate this success on an institutional scale. Now, we’re sharing what we’ve learned and considerations we encountered along the way.
To start, you have to figure out what works for your organization. Our program was successful because we were able to identify some of our organization’s strengths, like an amazing Board of Directors who would want to be actively involved, and interesting and eclectic artists who would be willing to engage with this demographic. We created something unique because it was deeply connected to our identity and our mission, and using that as our beacon resonated with people.
It’s also imperative to get people excited to be part of the process and create an interdepartmental effort. Our efforts not only included colleagues in all departments of the organization, it enrolled the support of our senior staff and board of directors who were thought-partners and mentors from the beginning. Once we had a solid plan in place, it was easy for people to see themselves making an impact. Even on the front lines, three staff members lead different aspects of the Junior Board, and that strength in numbers matters for testing ideas with each other and establishing this as a full-institutional effort.
If you’re considering implementing your own strategy, or are deep in the trenches already, join us for an in-depth look at our journey to building a meaningful engagement program at the 2018 Bridge to Integrated Marketing & Fundraising Conference. You, too, can make ‘fetch’ happen… or whatever your own signature word may be!
Stephanie Johnson, a major gifts officer at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History and the previous associate director of major gifts at Washington Performing Arts, will be speaking on young professional engagement together with Wynsor Taylor, arts manager at the British Council and Nathan Alston, executive assistant at Washington Performing Arts at the 2018 Bridge to Integrated Marketing & Fundraising Conference, July 31-Aug. 2, at the Gaylord National Hotel & Conference Center, National Harbor, MD, (adjacent to Washington, DC).
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