Millennial philanthropists stepping up to the plate for the arts

| July 21, 2016

How can we inspire a young generation of philanthropists to secure the future of Australian arts? Clare Ainsworth Herschell shares ten things she’s learnt as Next Generation Development Manager for the Art Gallery of NSW.

It’s hard to imagine a world without the arts. But the current climate of austerity around arts funding poses a very real threat to the Australian cultural landscape of the future.

Our future.

I graduated from high school in the year 2000, and it was our class that defined the beginning of the ‘Millennial’ generation (otherwise known as Gen Y).

With massive government funding cuts to the arts and corporate sponsorship moving away from it, the imperative is stronger than ever to capture the Millennial philanthropic dollar.

Since Medici, philanthropy of the arts has been considered the noble endeavour of the wealthy individual. It has been somewhat taken for granted that previous generations of wealth holders would make large gifts to museums and galleries alongside other traditional philanthropy to public institutions like universities and hospitals.

However, evidence such as The Millennial Impact Report suggests that Millennials are more interested in supporting social causes and people than arts and institutions – which is true to my experience within my peer group.

So how do we re-imagine this space and inspire a new generation of philanthropists to steward and safeguard the future of Australian arts?

For the past 12 months I have been exploring this in my role as Next Generation Development Manager for the Art Gallery of NSW with our recently launched Atelier program for benefactors aged in their 20s-40s.

Here are 10 of the things I’ve discovered that make the Millennial donor tick to mobilise them within the arts space…

  1. Make the arts feel accessible again. Even some of the most intelligent people I know feel intimidated by the arts and concepts around high art. Millennials are keen to broaden their cultural understanding, so offer material that is appealing, innovative and digestible. And you don’t have to compromise artistic integrity – just get creative! I will never forget seeing Nirvana’s Teen Spirit being thrashed out by Sydney Symphony Orchestra strings players at a Vanguard young benefactors event set in a warehouse. Then they backed it up with some Bach!
  2. It’s definitely a plus if you can find a charismatic figurehead that people gravitate towards, putting a face to your organisation and cause. It’s fair to say that we hit the Patron jackpot with Ben Quilty fronting the Atelier movement at the Gallery. He is a powerful public speaker and galvanising force, but he is also charming, humorous, energetic and personable. His passion for the Gallery is infectious, and you just want to be part of it. His presence in the Atelier program is invaluable.
  3. Gen Y is often referred to as the ‘experience generation’ so arts companies need to look at engaging Millennials through unique experiences that are both memorable and meaningful. Our Atelier events at the Gallery seek to take the art off the wall, so to speak, to give a more fully engaged and dynamic experience… and sometimes we like to literally take the art off the wall too! Our new acquisition Disarm by Mexican contemporary artist Pedro Reyes consists of a suite of musical instruments remodelled from firearms seized by Mexican police from gangsters. For the Atelier event, the instruments were deinstalled and performed for the young benefactors by acclaimed jazz musician Stu Hunter and his friends.
  4. It’s also important to give special access. Millennials crave authentic experiences, so peel back the layers and offer the behind the scenes views of the arts – previews, readings, rehearsals etc – to foster an appreciation of what happens behind the curtains. Make them feel like they are part of the team and an important part of the fabric of the organisation. This helps to nurture a personal and emotional connection (where the most generous philanthropy is born from) as the donor becomes part of the ‘organisation family’.
  5. Demonstrate that the Millennials’ preference to support social causes is not mutually exclusive from the arts. In fact, the arts are an important platform for advocacy and exploring social issues and can have a significant social impact. They have the potential to be important agents of change that shape culture, society and thinking. I can think of numerous powerful documentary films and pieces of writing for example, which have been the catalyst to a change in government policy.
  6. As you remind Millennial donors of arts’ service to society, also remind them of what it brings to them personally. One thing Gen Y lacks is room in their frenetic lives for stillness. With Atelier, the Gallery provides its supporters with a place of inspiration – a sanctuary, and a place of contemplation and introspection. We remind them that while the Gallery is a public collection that belongs to the people of the State, it depends on private support to survive. We aim to instill in our young supporters a sense of pride, ownership and belonging to want to safely steward its future.
  7. Demonstrate a tangible outcome for their investment, something specific that they can have ownership of and say ‘I achieved this’. If you can also demonstrate a social impact, that’s even better! It is also helpful to find a Presenting Partner to sponsor the program if you can, to cover your overheads. Millennials are skeptical of how much of the dollar actually goes into the causes they support, so it is far more compelling call for support if the potential donor knows that every single dollar they donate goes directly into the program or cause. Companies are all competing to capture the Millennial market, so arts organisations are in a good position to pitch to them for support.
  8. Make the contribution of support that you are asking from Millennials achievable. It needs to be accessible enough, but also significant enough that they really feel that act of investing support and parting with money for the cause. It’s important to grow a culture of philanthropy in young people and help them realise you don’t have to be old and rich to be a philanthropist. Generosity feels so good it is addictive! Give the millennial donor a lot of personal appreciation and attention – in a world that lacks authenticity, this stuff is very powerful.
  9. Don’t limit your focus to cultivating the Millennials with major donor capacity and high net worth. You need support at all levels, from various streams. The Millennial Impact Report found that they regard their assets (time, money, network) as having equal value – so it is important to engage across these things, and not solely on their donation. Celebrate the opportunity to bring together like minded people and the wonderful connections and friendships that will grow amongst your supporters. Foster loyalty to both the supporter group and the organisation. It is also valuable to cultivate the next generation of your existing major donors, as the family loyalty to your arts institution will likely have the potential be passed on.
  10. Collaborate with other arts companies to deepen Millennial interest and investment in the broader arts. As art forms are dynamically interlinked, as you expose Millennials to the broader spectrum it will also strengthen their appreciation of your own organisation’s art form.

In conclusion: It is unrealistic for the arts to hope to continue the tradition of private philanthropy without actively cultivating it in the next generation now. It is important for arts organisations to mobilise together to engage a Millennial audience, foster their understanding and appreciation for the arts and to grow a culture of philanthropy amongst them. What Millennials do not value they will not protect, and what they do not protect they risk losing for generations to come.