FRANKIE: Joe Golding of Advancement Resources has a vast amount of evidence-based research regarding what unlocks people’s passions. He asks: “what’s your strategic plan, and where does philanthropy fit in?” His workshops approach the subject entirely from the donor’s perspective, so organisations can extrapolate how to set up their internal systems. A lot of the training in Australia starts the other way round – internally, reaching out and saying: “we need money, let’s go and look for it.” Joe also says that if you can unlock a donor’s passion, finding a connection between what you want to achieve and what donors want to achieve, then that’s where the magic happens. Basically, you really have to listen to what the donor wants.
So in that context what I’d like to ask you is: what do you know now about philanthropy that you didn’t know ten years ago? What have you learnt about it and making it work in an organisation like this?
MARY: For me, the most important thing is being able to be personally passionate about what we, as the Melbourne Recital Centre, are trying to achieve, as that is the passion we’re trying to unleash in our donors. I also think that it’s important to have a suite of different options that make up your strategic plan so that donors can engage in whichever areas appeal to them. The donor program pillars we set up have been very useful in focusing people’s attention on those areas that are available for their endorsement. It’s all about transformative experiences; whether by supporting Young Artist Masterclasses, or creating social impact via a ticket/transport subsidy scheme, or funding our work in aged care facilities with people who are not able to access the Centre live.
It’s all about transformative experiences; whether by supporting Young Artist Masterclasses, or creating social impact via a ticket/transport subsidy scheme, or funding our work in aged care facilities with people who are not able to access the Centre live.
FRANKIE: the MRC is seven years old now. How have you seen donors grow with you on that journey?
MARY: We were blessed with a number of initial donors to the Public Fund – the Kantor family primarily, and others – which enabled us to have some programming reserves.
But we didn’t develop a philanthropic strategy until a full time Director of Development was appointed. We found a deep well of interest from individuals who are passionate about music. The growth of PAFs and individual foundations is particularly strong in Melbourne. So I think that, as compared with corporate sponsorship, philanthropy is the most promising area for us as we are focused on presenting music in the best possible circumstances for the audience, the performers, the composers and bringing new works into being. This is something that really speaks on a personal level. The experience is intimate and direct. The facilities enable a really close encounter with the musicians.
I think you and Joe are absolutely right that it’s important to start with the strategy – what your actual purpose is. Donors would know, then, that you need support in order to fulfill that purpose which is, broadly, to make the music as accessible as possible.
FRANKIE: My first job in Australia was at the Arts Centre, and I often return to the manifesto that George Fairfax wrote when the Centre first opened. It contains a lot of “motherhood” statements that we avoid making today but that actually apply equally to the MRC. It talks about having a centre that can “lead taste as well as follow it”…
MARY: I think that’s important.
FRANKIE: …and that the commercial and elite activities should fund those things that “cannot, should not, and will not make a profit”. That big picture thinking is what donors respond to.
MARY: I have a particular interest in commissioning and bringing about new work, which is often risky. We don’t know how it’s going to engage the public or how long a life the work might have. But it’s important with work like this to enable multiple performances, which is why we’ve moved outside the MRC venue into the digital realm and into regional areas.
Anything to do with regional work or education also requires either cross- subsidy or direct philanthropic support. I think also that it’s very important to be able to say to philanthropists that the entire programming output by MRC is supported by ticket sales and philanthropy. It’s not being propped up with Government support, which looks after the infrastructure and the salaries. No direct individual support goes towards administration.
FRANKIE: What kind of questions do prospective donors ask you when they’re considering a major gift?
MARY: They want to know where the money is going, why we need it and what our performance record is in terms of financial sustainability. They want to know there’s a commitment to ensuring that what they’re supporting will continue after the current people depart. It’s also hugely important for donors that the organisation has a purpose and a really strong, singular focus.
I’ve had many people say that they’ve had such joy from music in their lives. Often they’re not rich – most of the donors in music aren’t wealthy but are driven by a serious passion to pursue their joy. One woman came to me and said: “I’ve got $200, what would this enable you to do?” And I said, “It could bring in 20 kids from an outer regional area to attend a performance,” and she said: “That’s what I’d like to do! Music has been so important to me in my life, I’d like to provide that opportunity to others.”
FRANKIE: What a nice story!
MARY: It is. I was profoundly affected by it. She sat down with a shaky hand and wrote a cheque for $200. Some people give $10, and that’s absolutely fine: I suppose then the strategy is to talk to them about life after them, and how can the music live on. I guess that’s why the older organisations have been so successful at building their own foundation or capital funds through bequests. The big example of that is the Felton Bequest at the NGV. It just arrived in the 1920s and was probably the biggest any Australian or international organisation had received at that time. And it’s absolutely underpinned the acquisitions fund, and provided an opportunity for many people to join that group of donors.
FRANKIE: What do you think is the difference, in philanthropic terms, in the proposition between the visual arts and the performing arts?
MARY: It’s harder with music, I believe, because you’re actually selling an experience. You’re trying to say: “This is transformative. You’ll come into this Hall and you’ll experience something.” Whether it’s a Musica Viva concert or a small-scale Melbourne Symphony Concert or the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra – we believe MRC is the best place to hear it. That’s what we’re selling. It’s really intangible in that sense. I think it’s harder to sell an experience than it is to say: “look at this beautiful painting…here it is! Contribute to this”.
FRANKIE: I once read a book about why music matters and the premise was basically that music is a kind-of aural emotion – music is emotion.
MARY: I think that’s absolutely true, but I don’t think it’s exclusively that. For a lot of people, there is the sense of unraveling the intellectual and the cerebral, particularly when you hear a new piece of music and you’re trying to work out what it is, and how it’s actually put together. But for the majority of us, it is that emotional impact of being just transformed. People often refer to how they get into the Elisabeth Murdoch Hall, the doors are shut, the mobiles are off, the kids aren’t making a noise, there’s no traffic, and you’re completely focused for the next forty-five minutes or hour on this experience, with a group of likeminded people who are seeking the same thing.
FRANKIE: What role does the CEO play in making philanthropy work for the organisation?
MARY: It’s a much bigger role now than it ever was, mainly because we rely on philanthropic support to a much larger extent. Various board members are engaged at various levels, but it’s the CEO and Director of Development who actually work on engaging with donors and potential donors. And for that reason I think it’s incredibly important that I’m a donor, that I’ve made a bequest to the MRC. It’s not a cynical exercise; it’s something I believe in profoundly, because you can talk, in a way, as a donor, to prospective donors. And for me that has made it much easier. It’s easier to be passionate about things you’re actually passionate about and that you’ve acted on yourself when you’re trying to convince others that they should share in this passion.
FRANKIE: Well this is about sharing passion, whereas corporate is a trade.
MARY: That’s right, there’s a quid pro quo, but this is really personal and I feel a great empathy with the people who support. That’s the thing that draws us together. I think there’s also something particular that brings individuals together to support music. It’s one of those areas that deal with the intangible. I compare it in my own mind to the role that churches once had in communities – they offered an opportunity to share faith and music. Now it’s concert halls that have that particular role of transformative, shared experiences.
I compare it in my own mind to the role that churches once had in communities – they offered an opportunity to share faith and music. Now it’s concert halls that have that particular role of transformative, shared experiences.
FRANKIE: The modern-day cathedral!
MARY: Yes: you can’t confess, but you can come as near as you can!
Blog postscript: Mary Vallentine served as CEO from 2010 to 2016.