FYI Blog

What’s in It for Me?: The Real Motivation of Performing Arts Donors

Last year, I wrote an FYI post on what motivates performing arts donors to give. My primary point was that, although arts organizations are passionate about their missions, what really motivates donors to write checks is benefits. Like it or not, “what’s in it for me?” is top of mind for performing arts donors.


Avalon has tested and tested this premise – both because it is so fundamental and because arts organizations still need convincing. Anecdotal research like focus groups often highlights arts donors who recall how important the arts were to their childhoods and who pledge to pay it forward. What’s more, arts staffers tend to believe that their donors are more motivated by altruism than by self-interest – an assumption upheld by those staffers’ own (and admirable) commitment to the arts.


But the numbers don’t lie…


Arts donors are primarily benefits-motivated. Our testing proves this time and again – take away the benefits and watch both acquisition and retention drop. For example, Avalon has tested a philanthropically focused ask for several performing arts centers, and, due to weaker response, the cost to acquire a philanthropic member is, on average, four times higher – and it is unsustainable. Similarly, renewal testing has resulted in 48% less revenue from philanthropic packages.


How should performing arts organizations respond to this? With strategic messaging. Even the smartest direct marketing tactics are ineffective without it.


Messaging is a labor of love – it is always a hard work in progress, supported by controlled testing with statistically valid, analyzed results. However, done well, messaging achieves the ambitious goals of both securing the financial support your organization needs today and strengthening the donor relationships that will fuel your program for years to come.


For performing arts organizations, the main challenge is to make meaningful connections between benefits-based and mission-based messaging.

Based on our testing, Avalon recommends that performing arts organizations put the primary focus on benefits in acquisition and renewal outreach, and then emphasize a mission-based case for support in additional gift appeals. That way, donors continue to be educated and feel good about the impact of their gifts, while still appreciating and valuing the personal benefits that come with giving. When it comes to upgrade appeals, however, a benefits-based ask will produce stronger results by selling the new experiences that a higher membership level makes possible.


The good news is that benefits and missions are mutually reinforcing in arts organizations. Donor engagement deepens when meaningful benefits enable donors to experience the art forms they love in more profound ways, which in turn reinforces their philanthropic commitment. We see this as a cycle of engagement:



Motivate Art Donors to Give



Performing arts organizations have a great sales pitch and a compelling case for support. Because you have just what these donors want – benefits! Make those benefits meaningful, and your benefits-based program will both support and enhance what really matters – your performing arts mission.