Brother, Can You Spare $500: A Guide to Individual Fundraising for Composers



Ian Moss
Photo by Randy Nordschow

So here’s the deal: Let’s say you’re what they call an “emerging composer,” which is to say a composer that nobody has ever heard of. You’ve been through school, maybe have a few live recordings of your music, but presenters aren’t exactly knocking down your door yet begging to program it. Wouldn’t it be great if you had a high-quality demo CD of all your pieces? Or maybe if you got together with some other composers and put on a concert with professional musicians? Or what if you went the Philip Glass/Steve Reich route and formed an ensemble dedicated to playing your own music? It does sound great, but all of it requires money, potentially a lot of money—money that you don’t have because, guess what, you’re an “emerging composer”! You’d like to apply for some of these grant opportunities you see listed everywhere, but the requirements seem too specific, the competition too fierce, and half the time you’re not even eligible.

This was exactly the situation I found myself in shortly after moving to New York, when Frank J. Oteri offered to include my music on his monthly 21st Century Schizoid Music series at the Cornelia Street CafĂ©. “Great,” I said, “what do you need, like one, two pieces?”

“No, no,” Frank corrected me, “you get the whole evening to yourself. Two sets.”

“Uh…okay,” I stammered, taken aback, “about how much music are we talking about, exactly?”

“Well, let’s say forty-five minutes per set. Does that work?”

“Sure, sure,” I said, conveniently neglecting to mention that, excluding orchestra pieces and other works that would be inappropriate for the venue, I had written about forty-five minutes of music in my life up to that point. Nevertheless, it wasn’t long before I was hatching grand visions for this concert in my head. Not only would it feature the world premieres of the five or so pieces that I would need to write to fill out the evening, but the performers would include a 13-voice pick-up chorus and the debut of my electric new-music ensemble, Capital M. In recognition of the unusual opportunity and the fact that I had relied on the generosity of performers playing for free in the past, I wanted to pay each of the 24 performers on the concert. But where was the money going to come from? As an individual composer trying to put on a concert, there weren’t many funding programs I was eligible for, and I had already missed most of the relevant deadlines anyway.

Luckily, I had a secret weapon in my experience as a fundraiser for nonprofit institutions, most recently the American Music Center. With a little help from my boss at AMC, I was able to construct a letter campaign that raised more than $3,000 for the concert, 50 percent more than my initial goal. The money not only helped me pay the performers, but paid for rehearsal space, purchased necessary equipment, and gave me a launching pad for subsequent musical activities. What’s more, many of the smiling faces who were in attendance that night at the club were people who had supported me and wanted to see the fruits of their contributions. It was one of the musical highlights of my life, and it all became possible with an investment of $51 and about a week of my spare time.

Wondering how individual fundraising might work for you? Here’s a step-by-step guide to making it happen.

Step 1: PLANNING

Choose your battles wisely. Anytime you approach a potential funder, there should be a clear rationale for doing so. How important is this project to you? Could its success have a substantial positive effect on your career? Will it provide you with new connections, a document of your work, a quote in the local paper? It’s important to gauge the maximum benefit that this opportunity could realistically provide you, and proceed accordingly. In addition, be sure that you are ready to take on the project for which you are seeking funds, on both logistical and artistic levels. There is no surer way to alienate first-time donors than to present them with a poorly executed realization of your proposal, or worse yet, to have the project never reach fruition at all. Remember that even though it’s not your own money, a fundraising campaign still represents an investment. It’s an investment of your time, your energy, and most importantly, your reputation and your name. Especially if this is the first time you’ve reached out to your prospects, you will want to choose a project and a goal that you can stand behind with pride and without reservation.

Identify your prospects. Most early-stage individual fundraising campaigns start with people that the fundraiser already knows quite well. This means family and friends (and—don’t overlook this one—friends of the family). Did you recently graduate from high school or college? Did people give you money as a graduation present? Who gave you the most, and did anyone surprise you with their generosity? Are there any music-lovers among your acquaintances who are well-off enough to help you out substantially? These are good people to start with. Don’t end with them, though: once you get them on board with your artistic goals, some will likely be more than willing to introduce you to others who could potentially contribute their resources. Remember, this is a networking process, and people tend to socialize with members of the same socio-economic class.

There are two components to determining the value of a donor prospect: their ability to help; and their willingness to help. The former you do not have control over, the latter you do. Keeping this in mind, you are best served by first identifying prospects who score high in their ability to help—in other words, people who are rich. Especially for a cause like ours which does not have the universal appeal of breast cancer research or world hunger relief, a single donation from a well-heeled individual can have an exponentially greater impact than several smaller donations from your musician buddies. This is not to say that you shouldn’t approach your musician buddies, but pure common sense dictates concentrating the bulk of your efforts on the people who have the resources to help you the most.

Finally, depending on the nature of your project, you may be able to tap some unusual funding sources with a little creative thinking and a lot of chutzpah. Do you think a local winery would donate the beverages for your post-concert reception? You won’t know unless you ask. Guggenheim-winning composer and former AMC staffer Yotam Haber was able to raise about $10,000 for a performance of his chamber opera in part by approaching local restaurants and offering them product placement in the piece (the subject of the opera was food). When you believe in your work, all manner of crazy things become possible.

Develop realistic expectations. Before you talk to anybody, work up a detailed expense budget for the project for which you are seeking funding. It wastes everybody’s time if you start the fundraising process without a clear idea of how much you’re going to need. Then, consider your list of prospects and guesstimate how much you might expect from each of them. Throw in ticket sales, CD orders, and other “earned revenue” as appropriate. Does it all add up? If not, you might need to reevaluate your budgetary demands or look into additional funding sources, or be prepared to pony up some of the money yourself.

You should know that unless your proposal is on behalf of a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, your donors’ gifts to you will not be tax-deductible. If you want your donors to be able to take a tax deduction for their contribution, and you don’t have the time or inclination to apply for nonprofit certification yourself, you should apply to an organization that helps individual artists and/or emerging organizations by providing fiscal sponsorship. Once you have an arrangement with a fiscal sponsor, donors can contribute to the sponsoring organization, making their gifts tax-deductible. There is typically a fee (usually 7-10 percent of contributions to your project) for administrative expenses. Organizations that have fiscal sponsorship programs include The American Music Center, The Field, Fractured Atlas, Harvestworks and The New York Foundation for the Arts. Each organization has different guidelines and pricing structures which can make them more or less suitable depending on the nature of your campaign.

Step 2: EXECUTION

Okay, you’ve chosen your project, you’ve identified your prospects, and you’re ready to get started. For the purposes of this article, we’re going to assume that you’re using a letter campaign for your approach. A basic letter campaign consists of up to five components: the letter itself, an insert or flier giving more detailed information about your project, a pledge card, a return envelope, and an outer envelope. Presumably you’ve received a few solicitation letters from arts organizations in the past—take a look at a few of these to get an idea of what’s standard.

Gather your materials. Most arts organizations spend thousands of dollars printing the materials that you receive in the mail, but thanks to the magic of 21st century technology, you can create a simple but attractive package for a pittance. Head down to your local stationery store and pick up some resume paper, matching envelopes, some cardstock in the same color (for the pledge card), and some smaller envelopes that you could use for RSVP purposes. Make sure the sizes are such that the different pieces will fit in their respective envelopes with minimal folding.

Each of your documents can be created without the benefit of expensive software; Microsoft Word or a similar product is all you’ll need. The actual process by which one creates the pledge card, envelopes, and so on is a bit beyond the scope of this article, but here are a few tips to get you started:

  • You can create a simple letterhead for yourself by using Word’s Header and Footer option from the View menu before you start writing your letter.

  • The flier can give the reader information about the project that might not fit into your fundraising letter, or you could use the space to insert an existing brochure about your ensemble, season, record label, etc.

  • Don’t overlook the power of Word’s extremely nifty Mail Merge function for printing envelopes and dealing with personalized form letters.

  • If your envelopes are not plain white and you don’t have a printer capable of printing directly on them, you can get clear labels which actually look quite classy.

  • Make up different names for different giving levels on your pledge card, such as “Patron,” “Donor,” “Benefactor,” etc. You can also provide a “shopping list” of sorts that corresponds with the nature of your project. When I was putting together the pledge card for my debut concert in New York, I assigned meaningful terms to the lower categories such as “sponsor a musician” and “sponsor a world premiere.” I was surprised by how many $50 and $100 donations I received as a result of using these terms.

Write the letter. The fundraising letter is the meat of your campaign. It is here that you will do most of your convincing. While it is very simple to write a passable fundraising letter (all you are doing is asking for money), it won’t get anyone on your side who wasn’t already there in the first place. A truly well-written and well-thought-out letter can make all the difference, not only for this campaign, but also for the purpose of establishing your long-term reputation as someone whose work is worth supporting.

Before you start writing, think about the larger picture with regard to your work and the project at hand. What is it that’s unique about what you’re doing, musically or otherwise? What aspects of your proposal will benefit other people besides yourself? What successes have you had in the past that show your worth or potential as an artist?

Any good proposal has to have some sort of statement of need. Otherwise, why are you asking for money? However, the key here, and this is a classic rookie mistake, is not to focus too heavily on your own need for the funds (though this is important too), but rather on the larger need for your project and projects like it. Taking the former approach all too often makes your letter read like a sob story: “with rising costs of living, it’s all I can do to stay afloat…your contribution would give me the peace of mind I need to continue going about my work.” Donors generally do not respond well to this type of approach because it’s too negative and sounds unprofessional. Instead, focus on the positive: talk about what the success of the project would mean to you; about how it fits into your larger goals as a musician; about how their contribution is going to serve a larger purpose. Try to frame the discussion from the angle that highlights the project’s greatest impact, whether that impact is artistic, educational, social (community-based), economic, political, or some combination thereof.

You’ll also need to discuss some specifics in your letter in order to assure people that you actually know what you’re doing. No need to get into the numbers beyond a mention of your overall campaign goal, but do provide a summary of your plan. How will the money be used? Over what time period will the project take place? What will be the final result? How will you get there? The point is to answer any obvious questions your prospects may have so that no one will doubt your ability to carry out your proposal. Through it all, keep your message short and sweet. One page is standard for a fundraising letter—more than that and you will risk losing your prospects’ attention.

Most of all, dig deep and ask yourself why it is that you want to do this, what makes you so excited about the possibilities offered by your project or your work. If you’re devoting your life to this difficult, unglamorous field, chances are you have a pretty good reason. The degree to which you can articulate your passion will have a huge effect on your donors.

Everybody likes attention. In my experience, one of the most effective ways to increase donor return is to make each donor feel like it means a lot to you if they contribute to your cause. If your list is small enough, it’s a great idea to include a personal, handwritten note with each letter in some form, whether it’s a separate card or written directly onto the letter itself. It not only frames the formal letter (which is by nature an impersonal document) within the context of your personal relationship with the donor, it also gives you an opportunity to highlight aspects of your project or your history with the donor that may seem especially compelling to that person. Make sure you place the note in such a way so that the recipient will see it!

If there’s someone on your list who you don’t know that well, but a friend or associate of yours does, consider asking your friend to serve as a go-between by delivering your letter to the prospect or bringing it up in conversation. That way you can still enjoy the benefits of a personal approach even without a strong personal relationship with that prospect.

Step 3: FOLLOW-UP

Now it’s time to sit back and watch the money roll in! As exciting as this stage can be, the process of cultivating donors does not stop once the cash is sitting in your bank account. The people who contribute to your campaign are not check-writing machines who only exist when you need them. They supported you because they care about you and what you’re doing. It’s not only to your advantage but a matter of common courtesy that you follow up with them and involve them in what you’re doing.

Acknowledge your donors. Everyone who contributes to your campaign should receive an individual acknowledgement letter that mentions the date and amount of his or her gift. Send these as soon as the check is cashed. The acknowledgement letter doesn’t have to be complicated; just reaffirm what the money is for and how it will help you achieve your goal. If your organization is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, be sure to put language in the letter to the effect that “no goods or services have been provided in exchange for this contribution.” If your list is small enough, consider handwriting the notes for greater effect.

Your donors also need to be thanked in your concert program, CD booklet, website, or whatever forum is most appropriate for your project. A simple “thanks to…” list can suffice or, if you like, you can break down the donors into categories according to who has supported you the most. Look at the acknowledgements page in the program at the next concert you attend for ideas on how to go about this.

Maintain the campaign. What happens when the money doesn’t come in as expected? In general, it’s best to be patient with donors who pledge to give money—they usually come through eventually. Some people, however, can use a little nudging here and there. If you were really counting on someone’s support and they are dragging their feet, by all means feel free to ask politely if they have had a chance to read and think about your proposal. Sometimes a single email or phone call can help you avoid last-minute scrambling to find alternate means of support.

When your project has reached completion, make sure that you offer your donors an opportunity (at no charge) to experience the direct, tangible results of your work. This could mean sending them a copy of the CD you just recorded, giving them free tickets to your concert, inviting them to sit in on a workshop that you’ve organized—whatever you need to do to give them an opportunity to see their money in action. If someone has provided truly major support or footed the entire bill for one of your activities, it’s also a good idea to supply them with a brief (1-2 page) report showing how the money was used, how the final expenses compared with the original projections, and what has resulted from your efforts.

Keep in touch. Individual fundraising, at its core, is about relationship-building. They call the process “cultivation” for a reason. It requires nurturing, knowledgeable care, and regular maintenance. Remember this: anyone who makes a contribution to your campaign, or gives you any kind of positive response at all, has expressed interest in what you’re doing. They are reaching out to you, and it’s up to you to repay that interest with interest of your own. Put them on your email list, give them special discounts on your CDs, give them “backstage passes” or a chance to meet some of your collaborators, take them out to dinner to talk about your future plans. Make them feel special and involved in your work. Obviously, you don’t want to involve people so much that it becomes a problem (whether because of issues of artistic control, administrative overload, conflict-of-interest concerns, or anything else), but there are plenty of ways to show your appreciation to your supporters without compromising your integrity—and if they are true supporters, that’s what they’ll want as well.

Many people are uncomfortable with the idea of fundraising. No matter how noble or high-minded your purpose is, the feeling is that every time you ask for money, you are violating subtle social codes ingrained from birth governing privacy, self-sufficiency, and open admissions of need. I’ll be honest—when I first started out in arts administration, I didn’t want to touch fundraising with a 10-foot pole. I personally hated being asked for money and fundraising was hopelessly wrapped up in my mind with shameless guilt-trips, teary-eyed begging, and all manner of other coercive tactics.

The turning point for me came when my former roommate and one of my closest friends in Philadelphia each sent me solicitations within a couple of months of each other for various “Walk for Hunger”-style fundraising campaigns. They each wrote a nice personal note along with the card. Suddenly, the cause itself didn’t really matter so much—these were people who were important to me and I wanted to support them. In the case of my former roommate, she knew that I didn’t have a lot of money to spare (and said so in her note to me), but I sent her a donation anyway at the lowest rung. Sure enough, she appreciated the gesture and contributed much more substantially to my own campaign when the time came. I realized that fundraising doesn’t have to be about twisting arms and getting results at any cost, including the cost of friendships. I also realized that while I may be as cheap a bastard as they come, not everybody is like that. Some people genuinely enjoy the thought of their money being used for a noble purpose. Some people have more money than they really know what to do with, and would rather see it in action than have it sitting in a bank account somewhere. Some people used to be young artists or musicians themselves, and relish the opportunity to be directly involved with the ongoing development of the scene even though their current lives have led them elsewhere. Some people were never artists or musicians, but find the whole concept so impressive that they can’t help but want to support it. Some people, for whatever reason, would love nothing better than to give money to someone like you. It’s your job to figure out who these people are and help them understand why you are that person. Good luck, and save some for the rest of us!