To the Charlotte cultural community’s biggest donors:
Charlotte’s reputation as a vibrant arts community is at stake and sadly, our community’s wealthiest are at fault.
What many of you fail to appreciate is that donors of average means are watching what you give, how you give and which organizations you support. Given your capacity, your approach is more dutiful and miserly than generous and capacity building, and hence donors of more modest means are less likely to make significant gifts, believing you know more than they do.
Many of you prefer to dribble your support across a broad group of cultural organizations in amounts that are hardly game-changing and yet you simultaneously complain about their lack of creativity and vision, even wondering out loud if your gifts made a difference. Your approach leaves some of our most thoughtful nonprofit leaders exhausted and depressed, since making payroll was never their chief ambition. Your shallow giving creates an artificially low ceiling of giving for individual donors, retarding the growth of our arts community.
You pretend to understand what it takes to build an extraordinary regional symphony, and yet rail against the union of musicians, argue about business models and focus on efficiency metrics, rather than imagine the long term impact of a strong regional symphony on the Charlotte community. You prefer to measure the ROI on your philanthropic capital quarterly than make big bets on the future. Your intermittent gifts of $100,000 fail to answer the question of viability and undermine the work of many talented leaders, prolonging the death march rather than making the needed game changing investments of $5 million and $10 million. Your preference for “lean and mean” leaves most nonprofits little choice but to run a marathon on 800 calories a day.
Your tepid giving does not communicate confidence in the future of these organizations or their leaders, leaving someone as talented as Jonathan Martin little choice but to leave for Dallas Symphony where community leadership is influenced by oil company execs who recognize big bets yield generous returns long term. You fail to recognize that every time Charlotte loses a leader like Martin, it only gets more challenging and expensive to attract future leaders.
Many of you would rather give through community wide efforts such as THRIVE than directly to the organizations, to protect yourself from failure and preclude difficult conversations about what it would take. It is not your fault. You built your company and your wealth cutting margins, measuring profit quarterly and building on the efficiencies that mergers and technology offer. You fail to recognize that your approach won’t work in the arts community, where people are motivated and inspired by things other than money and golden parachutes.
What Charlotte’s arts community needs are passionate donors who live and die for the Opera, Charlotte Ballet and Charlotte Symphony and possess the courage to make big bets on the long term to help these organizations reach their full potential. And they need donors committed to Culture for All. Charlotte’s future and reputation as a New South City is at stake. My prediction is that it going to take some bold leadership from the sidelines, maybe from some of Charlotte’s newest residents who can show us “how it’s done up North.”
Chris McLeod is president of GIVING MATTERS INC., which advises individuals and foundations about giving. Email: email@example.com