Valerie Wilder, Former Executive Director, The Australian Ballet

FRANKIE:  We have spoken often about the importance of leadership in driving development within an organisation: you can’t just hire a fundraiser and expect them to do everything.  The underlying values of the leadership actually drives the outcome – that is, if leaders don’t believe fundraising is a collective responsibility then they’ll in fact set it up to fail.  Simple, right?

VALERIE: Yes, that’s so true.  Another way to put it might be that good fundraising is an integration of mission vision, strategic plan, and leadership at Board AND Executive level.  It doesn’t make it that far in many Australian organisations. Certainly in North America the university president or non-profit CEO would expect to spend about fifty percent of their time making those connections in the community, validating the importance of what you’re trying to do..

Too often in Australia, philanthropy is relegated to a single manager or philanthropy department when it really needs Board level leadership.  There tends to be a naïve belief that philanthropy is about raising money from rich people in general and not from people with some capacity who actually care about the organisation.

Too often in Australia, philanthropy is relegated to a single manager or philanthropy department when it really needs Board level leadership.

FRANKIE:  I remember working with one of the Queensland arts organisations and in interviewing the board members, every one of them said, ‘Well, of course, if Clive Palmer gave then we’d be sorted.’  I asked, ‘Has he ever been to any of your shows?’ And not surprisingly the reply was, ‘I don’t think so.’  So I said, ‘Why mention Clive Palmer at all?’

VALERIE: Exactly.  The focus should not be just on people as cheque-writers, but also as community leaders who can help ensure that what you’re intending to do resonates with the broader vision, both from your organisational point of view and also from the entire community’s point of view.  Donors become your ambassadors.

So the goals and effort must be tied to the long-term strategies of the organisation.  At the end of the day it’s not about raising money but raising commitments to a shared path forward.  In constructing philanthropic partnerships, then, you have to be specific and tie the objectives of that partnership incredibly tight into to the strategic plan.

FRANKIE:  The Australian Ballet has long been, and continues to be a leader in private giving in the artsBut philanthropy sped ahead as a result of the shift in organisational perspective developed during your tenure.  I’d like to hear your take on the Ballet’s journey in this light.

VALERIE:  We have a tremendous philanthropy team, of course, but in the last few years the Ballet has crossed the bridge towards CEO involvement in philanthropy, which has been hugely important.  As Executive Director, I treated Major Gift donors as supporters, as investors, as mega-shareholders who have an intense interest in not just the specifics of the artistic vision but in the business platform.  No sophisticated philanthropist would want to be engaged or invest greatly in an organisation without that linkage to the very heart of what the organisation is trying to do.  And that is very unusual in Australia.

Recently, another unnamed arts organisation posted a Director of Philanthropy position that reports to the Director of Development and Sponsorship.  This is not even a direct report to the CEO, let alone the CEO being involved in philanthropy.  I think that is a risky organisational perspective.

The key factor that has allowed the Ballet to speed ahead is the focus on meaningful relationships and engagements with donors who are, as a result, quite excited about being at the heart of what matters to the organisation.  Now a whole series of people understand what’s driving us and why we’re trying to build our assets, and why it’s important to the future of the company.  All of these linkages are made by and with the person who’s actually responsible – the “Chief Executive”.  Now that’s unusual.

We are working towards establishing this same perspective at Board level.  We’ve achieved this at The Australian Ballet Foundation where members have by and large embraced donor ‘moves management’ – they really understand when and how to bring me, as Executive Director, into the cultivation process with their connections as they see fit.  Foundation members have seen the impact in action of connecting philanthropic partnerships and organisational outcomes.

FRANKIE: How have other, non-fundraising Executives (artistic, production, marketing, finance) responded to you putting philanthropy out front and centre?  There would be pressures and resistance to introducing an organisational approach to fundraising at this level too.  So how have you approached this dilemma?

VALERIE:  I think the source of that is a deep-seated concern and outright terror that donor engagement is going to make the company appear too self-sufficient, too rich, too successful, and therefore not in line for government funds.

My answer to that is – If you look at any trend lines around government funding as the answer to achieving organisational potential, I’d say you were dreaming in technicolour!  Everything is telling us that government funding as a percentage of total revenue is declining – even if in absolute numbers it hasn’t dropped at all.  Government funding will not keep up with organisational growth.  Even if it’s not cut outright, it won’t keep pace with what organisations are capable of doing.

It’s changing by now, but I think there has been a real lack of appreciation of the fact that in the long run donors, government and sponsors all want to support success.  In the short-term you can do quite well getting bailed out from a specific crisis by government support or even donors.  You can certainly go out in micro-fundraising terms and say, ‘My hair’s on fire, quick, bail me out!’ and receive some funds.  You’ll be successful; you’ll get that emergency money – once.  No sustainable income will come out of it.

Organisations need to articulate what success in attracting philanthropy means for them and for their communities.  It means growth, confidence.  In the long-term companies like the Ballet need a mix of income streams and philanthropy is probably one of the few streams with real potential for growth.

FRANKIE:  Growth is one thing, but true sustainability comes from having a healthy endowment.

VALERIE:  Yes.  And having a pile of confirmed bequests to grow the endowment over time in fact inspires stakeholder confidence – rather than being a disincentive for current giving.

I’m sure I told you the story of the New York City Ballet endowment, which at its height was just shy of two hundred million?

Lincoln Kirstein was a wealthy department store kid and back in the thirties and forties he went around to all of his wealthy friends and contacts and said, “Please include the Ballet in your will” and scores of people were influenced to support.  Initially, of course, that meant nothing to the Ballet’s bottom line but as the years rolled by more and more of the funds were realised.  This hasn’t stopped anyone from giving more.

FRANKIE: It’s hard to get across that engaging donors is a slow burn activity.  Sometimes I think organisations want the $100m but don’t want the 10 years it’ll take to get it!  And often therefore don’t start the ball rolling.

VALERIE: Absolutely!  A major gift, or a bequest, is really closely tied to values and the donor’s other philanthropy endeavours.  Of course, you’d like to be the first, most important philanthropic area for the donor after family, but sometimes you’re not.  This means your organisation has to fit into this mosaic of giving.  Understanding this mosaic of interests and values takes time and opportunities for conversations.  If organisations take the time to learn about their partners’ values, they might be surprised at where this understanding leads.

FRANKIE: So what’s next for the Ballet?

VALERIE: The Ballet has some decisions to make.  My mandate was to clean up the organisation’s financial system and to put in place a fundraising platform geared towards ongoing support.  I’ve achieved both.  My successor is Libby Christie, Executive Director of Arts Funding at The Australia Council. Her background is in management and business development and I’m sure she will do a wonderful job taking philanthropy at the ballet to a new level.

Enlightened philanthropy has certainly been introduced but needs constant attention to become embedded in the culture, otherwise the organisation can, like so many others, revert to being a more staff-driven philanthropy-department issue. The Board and others in the company do not have a complete understanding of how difficult it has been to achieve this success.  Meanwhile, every donor I’ve spoken to in the last weeks and months has said they got as much out of the partnership as they gave – that for them the experience of giving has been as rewarding as it has been for the Ballet.   Now that’s a real exchange – not a supplicant relationship, and the biggest success factor of all.

Blog postscript: Valerie Wilder served as Executive Director from 2008 to 2013.