In a K-Shaped Economic Recovery, What Does Funding for Dance Look Like?

While the current economic picture is grim for many Americans, the “K-shaped” recovery means high earners may have even more wealth than before the pandemic. For nonprofit dance organizations, this is good news—if they can successfully leverage their asks.

Two dancers—a man and woman—dance on a makeshift stage set up in a grassy backyard, as a group of patrons in lawn chairs look on
Grand Rapids Ballet has brought performances to donors’ homes during the pandemic. Photo by Scott Rasmussen courtesy Grand Rapids Ballet

As the COVID-19 pandemic approaches a year in the U.S., canceled performances have forced dance companies across the country to make painful layoffs and furloughs. The landscape for dance companies mirrors the wider economic picture—uncertain at best and cratering at worst.

But within that picture is some leeway for development teams. The economy is increasingly recovering in a “K shape,” meaning that while 8 million people have dipped into poverty since May, high-wage workers and those with wealth are recovering to pre-pandemic levels, and, for some, beyond.

“Performing arts organizations are butterflies in the chrysalis right now,” says Alan Cantor, a fundraising consultant to nonprofits, including many arts organizations, who laid out his advice in the Harvard Business Review in September on how fundraisers can navigate the changed ecosystem. “Many people who are wealthy and invested have even more money these days, and they want these institutions to emerge strong from the pandemic.”

Asking big donors to step up

Cantor suggests that fundraisers not be afraid to ask wealthy donors for even more than usual—since they are likely to either be unaffected by the economic downturn or more eager than ever to give, or both.

At Colorado Ballet, a six-week matching-grant campaign recently raised $865,000 through 560 unique gifts, with anonymous donors pledging $500,000 to match donations 2:1 up to $250,000—essentially tripling every donated dollar to reach $750,000.

The matching grant was the idea of the anonymous donors, who had originally given $10,000 in March, says managing director of advancement Adam Sexton. “Their message was that the arts have to survive this—and that’s not a given,” he says. Overall, Colorado Ballet found that supporters were willing to give more than usual. “We saw donors who typically give 5 to 10 thousand go up to 10 to 20 thousand,” Sexton says.

Part of the uncertainty around arts groups surviving is that major donors might be stretched by stepping up support to organizations that provide social services, such as food pantries. But Cantor encourages arts groups to see what they provide as essential in a different way.

“People are looking for beauty in dark times, the promise of beautiful art when this is over,” says Cantor. “So, it’s not a competing pitch, it’s a different pitch, and people with wealth can give to both.”

Sexton says that most of the feedback from bigger requests to donors has been positive. “There’s no shame in making bold asks and the case for why it’s worthwhile,” he says. “Now is the time.”

Navigating the sensitive landscape

Fundraising from low- and middle-level donors is a trickier endeavor. Companies can risk turning donors off with an aggressive pitch, or asking them to give more than they are able.

At Dallas Black Dance Theater, a donation of $25,000 is considered a major gift. The company relies on a combination of large and small donors, and the smaller donors may be facing difficult circumstances in the pandemic.

A video still of a dancers in a grassy, tree-lined backyard, leaning back in a chair with her legs in the air. She wears a long orange dress, and has her dark hair in a low bun
From a recent Dallas Black Dance Theater virtual performance. Photo courtesy DBDT

“We made the decision to respond to this as a human crisis first, not an arts crisis,” says Zenetta S. Drew, executive director of the company. “We literally called all of our patrons and donors to ask about their health and families because they’re part of our family. We didn’t solicit in those calls.”

Over time, Drew found that the lack of pressure and show of concern inspired people to come to them and give when they could.

“Individuals sent us money because we didn’t ask,” Drew says. “People give when they feel valued.”

At Grand Rapids Ballet, also a mid-size company, artistic director James Sofranko came up with new ways to raise funds, such as bringing performances to patrons. Dancers would set up a floor in the backyard or driveway of the donors’ homes and perform, followed by a Q&A. The company partnered with a local restaurant to provide food and drinks to enrich the experience.

Sofranko, wearing jeans and a Grand Rapids Ballet tshirt, stands on a makeshift stage in a grassy backyard, speaking to patrons who sit in lawn chairs
James Sofranko at a backyard performance. Photo by Scott Rasmussen courtesy Grand Rapids Ballet

The measure worked to bring in new revenue—and new audiences for when live performances return.

“It was a mix of new people and people we knew,” says Sofranko. “We found that new people were taken with the show and wanted to give us even more financial support. These are people who will come see us again.”

Staying personal and persevering

A community approach has also been important at Pacific Northwest Ballet, which, in pre-pandemic times, has a budget about 10 times that of the Dallas and Grand Rapids companies. With many development staff on furlough, the remaining staff have spent countless hours reaching out to donors to maintain and build connections at every level of giving.

“We normally have a lot of in-person touch points with our donors,” says Carrie Mood Okada, director of Development/Individual and Planned Giving at PNB. “We’ve worked to keep it going through phone calls and sweet notes in the mail.” Like Davis in Dallas, Okada and her team often call without asking for funds—sometimes to see if patrons need assistance navigating virtual content.

Similarly, Colorado Ballet often has dancers record video messages of thanks for certain gifts, which Sexton says has helped replace some of what’s lost without in-person engagement.

Okada has found that the increased digital presence has brought in more millennial subscribers and donors. But she stressed that while PNB’s efforts are working, it’s still a big struggle, even with budget cuts. She says that she speaks regularly to other development directors of dance companies to share ideas and strategies—and keep up morale.

“We encourage each other; we’re all in the same boat,” she says. “To do this work, you have to really be passionate, really believe in the art form, now more than ever.”

Avichai Scher is a freelance journalist who has written for The New York Times and NBC News.