Focus, Arts & Entertainment, and Nonprofits

Arts organizations cultivate millennial philanthropists

October 23, 2015
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The millennial generation is changing the game when it comes to philanthropy, and local arts organizations are finding they have to make some changes to accommodate this more engaged generation of donors.

“The younger generation is taking a different tack toward philanthropy,” said Mark Warner, development director for Grand Rapids Ballet. “They are more engaged in their philanthropy and they want to see real impact.

“That’s a big difference from their grandparents, where it’s more about tradition and giving back to their community. They really left it up to the organization, where the younger generation wants to see the impact.”

Warner said Grand Rapids Ballet is focusing a lot of its efforts on meeting the needs of the millennial donor, both within family foundations and at the individual donor level.

“Many of the families are going through a generational change right now in the foundations, so it’s essential for not-for-profits — not just the Grand Rapids Ballet, but all of us — to understand those family dynamics,” Warner said.

Warner said it’s important not to limit conversations to the patriarch or matriarch of a family but rather to engage the whole family, “so that the whole family is included in that process as early on as possible, so when that generational change happens, the ballet is included in that,” he said.

Warner said many family foundations already have begun doing the work to create a relationship between their next-generation leaders and the arts organizations they currently support to ensure continued support in the future. That can take the form of annual conversations about philanthropic giving, or even allowing members of the younger generation to participate in choosing the organizations that will receive support.

“When talking about next-generation philanthropy, the most powerful influence is the parents,” Warner said. “So we need to think of the families as a whole.”

Warner said the Nutcracker gala last year highlighted the importance of a cross-generational focus in building future donors.

“You saw grandparents bringing their grandkids to the Nutcracker gala,” he said. “So we are actively looking at opportunities to fill those cross-generational fundraising opportunities.”

In addition to focusing on family dynamics when it comes to giving, Grand Rapids Ballet also is courting the millennial generation by providing unique experiences at the individual level.

“We are expecting much more individual giving this year and in the future,” Warner said. “What we are doing, particularly with high-net-worth individuals, while they can buy everything, they can’t buy experiences, so we want to create special experiences for those individuals that will create a deeper relationship with the ballet,” Warner said.

Grand Rapids Ballet’s community engagement committee also targets those who might not traditionally attend ballets and introduces them to dance.

“We have the ballet school, and that is a way of engaging young parents in ballet,” Warner said. “They know it’s an alternative to organized sports. Dance instills self-discipline, exercise, coordination and provides structure for children.”

Grand Rapids Symphony also has created a program designed specifically to attract the millennial generation and cultivate their support.

“The MySymphony360 program started in November 2013 with the goal of engaging a younger audience, ages 21-35, specifically,” said Samara Napolitan, patron engagement and communications coordinator for GRS. “It is designed for professionals who want to engage with the symphony, the arts and the greater community.”

MySymphony360 members pay an annual $40 fee and, in return, they are able to purchase tickets for some of the symphony’s performances for a discounted rate of $15. They also can take advantage of deals at partner restaurants before and after concerts.

Napolitan said what makes the program unique is it provides a lot of networking opportunities for its membership.

Cultivating a younger audience now is important for the symphony’s future sustainability, Napolitan said. The strategy seems to be working; the MySymphony360 program grew by 25 percent last season.

In addition to family foundations and individual donors, arts organizations also have to consider the changing needs of corporate sponsors, as millennials are recruited into companies and join the leadership ranks.

Warner said corporate sponsors are looking for tailor-made experiences that fit their marketing needs.

“It takes more research and conversation on our end to find a way to formally approach a company,” he said. “We need to learn about what their marketing goals are because it could range from recruiting, executive retention or client development.”

He said “The Nutcracker” offered a great opportunity for the ballet to create unique experiences.

“I call them ‘client development packages’ — not only getting tickets, but having a box, parking passes and a separate check-in so these companies can entertain their clients in an exclusive way. All of our sponsorship packages are very customized.”

Warner said creating client development packages are beneficial because they create a deeper relationship with the organization.

Warner said one benefit to being an arts organization in Grand Rapids is the philanthropic culture already exists. He expects that culture to continue with the next generation.

“The millennial generation does have a deep sense of philanthropy, particularly in a community like Grand Rapids, which has a culture of philanthropy,” he said.

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