Can the arts learn from cause-led fundraising?
Mark Bains shares how The Wordsworth Trust entered a world of heroes and villains to develop a more compelling case for support.
Introducing The Wordsworth Trust
The Wordsworth Trust looks after Dove Cottage in the Lake District. This is where William Wordsworth wrote much of his best poetry, including 'I wandered lonely as a cloud' – arguably the most well-known poem in the English language. It is also where his sister Dorothy Wordsworth kept her celebrated Grasmere Journal.
Wordsworth wrote poetry to make us 'wiser, better and happier'. The Wordsworth Trust's activities are inspired by that aim. It is currently a Major Partner Museum (as part of the Cumbria Museum Consortium). In 2012 it was admitted onto Tier 1 of Arts Council England's Catalyst programme.
Arts Council England described Tier 1 as being for organisations with "an established and successful track record of fundraising". It was also a chance to experiment.
Thwarting the enemy: our Catalyst story
Ever since my first fundraising job, I have been told that the arts sector is the poor relation when it comes to philanthropy. We heard it again when Catalyst was launched: arts organisations were missing out and we needed to ‘catch up’.
Previous contributors to CultureHive have looked at how arts fundraising can position itself in a crowded market dominated by cause-led charities. The Wordsworth Trust used its Catalyst campaign to trial some of the methods that those charities routinely employ, to see what they might offer the cultural sector.
Specifically, and with the help of the Institute of Fundraising, the Heritage Alliance and their excellent ‘Giving to Heritage’ programme, we adopted Stephen Pidgeon’s Four Pillars © approach to writing a case for support.
In the cause-led sector, the Four Pillars are tried and tested. They comprise an enemy, a recipient, a hero, and a vision of a ‘happily ever after’. They form the narrative to which the charity wants you to respond.
Once you know the formula, you will see it in the charity appeals on your television, newsfeed or doormat. Terminal illness, the streets at night, natural disasters and famine are the enemies. The palliative care nurse, the homeless shelter, the rescuer and the aid worker are the heroes. The recipients are self-evident, and often people in whom you might recognise yourself or your loved ones. The vision is always of a world in which these threats are either mitigated or eradicated.
They result in miniature stories, and crucially, they leave it to you to imagine the consequences of failing to act. Help the hero! Thwart the enemy! Save the victim! The vision is a direct debit form away.
"Emotive, provocative and occasionally controversial – is there anything in this method for the arts?"
After all, unlike many cause-led charities, we can find our supporters amongst our service-users, and having preached to the converted, we can reward them with recognition and exclusive experiences. Isn’t that sufficient? Or is there a best-of-both-worlds? That’s what we wanted to find out.
Adopting the Four Pillars made us re-think how the Wordsworth Trust tells its story. Fundraising depends upon stories, but the Four Pillars helped us take it a stage further. Who were our enemies, recipients and heroes, and what was our fairy-tale ending?
In 2015, we were planning the leaflet appeal that would conclude our Catalyst campaign. Wordsworth is known worldwide, so we wanted it to have an international reach. We knew that we would be competing with any number of other charity direct mailings. Our challenge was to make the Wordsworth cause stand out, even to people well beyond our immediate hinterland.
We recognised that passion is what inspires people to give to the arts. We wanted to make people feel as passionate as Wordsworth once did about Dove Cottage, “the loveliest spot that man hath ever found”.
So Dove Cottage became our hero. “This is a uniquely special place”, we wrote – unique because where else can almost all of a great writer’s original manuscripts still be read in the very spot where they were both written and inspired?
We then made an enemy of the fast-paced modern world. “A place to leave the pressures of daily life behind”, we wrote, “to reflect, to spark your imagination, and to discover just as Wordsworth did that ‘nowhere else is found / the one sensation that is here’”.
Our recipient was anyone who might feel the need for such a place of respite – in other words, anyone who might be passionate about maintaining Dove Cottage as a sanctuary and place of ongoing creativity in a stressful world. And because it was an endowment campaign, our vision was that the haven could be there forever.
Did it work? The true test would have been to run a parallel appeal using our previous case for support. This was beyond our resources – and our nerves! However, we set what seemed a realistic target based on our networks and donor behaviour, and taking into account the incentive of the match funding, and we came close to tripling it.
"We received donations from across the world. They came from people who hadn’t been to Dove Cottage for many years – or even at all. To some donors, it was enough simply to know that a place was being maintained where Wordsworth’s flame could be kept alight."
The most instructive part of the process was abandoning our earlier case statements. For example, our previous endowment proposition contained over twenty references to ‘the Wordsworth Trust’, ‘we’ and ‘our’. In our new case statement, these words had largely disappeared. Without consciously trying, by adopting the Four Pillars we had shifted the focus away from our needs and onto the donor’s desires.
Arts fundraising may still have some way to go before it stops being ‘the poor relation’. Maybe one day, an arts organisation will make a breakthrough, others will copy it, and we’ll arrive at a new normal.
But in the meantime, perhaps we could look again at our cases for support. Could they be more donor-centred? How often do they say ‘us’, and could they instead say ‘you’? I feel that it worked for the Wordsworth Trust. We would certainly do it again.