Midwest Arts Org Presents a Model for Success | npENGAGE

Midwest Arts Org Presents a Model for Success

By on Sep 15, 2011


“Wow!”  That was my first reaction when I read a newspaper article about the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra.  I happen to live in the Milwaukee area so it warmed my heart to see this headline in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel:  “MSO Finishes Fiscal Year with a Flourish.”  Similar to many metropolitan areas in recent years, the typical news in the local media regarding the finances of arts organizations has not always been good.  So, this headline caught my eye.

As it turns out, the Orchestra’s success was attributable to some savvy development efforts including receiving two challenge grants—one from a family foundation and one from a local couple.  The second one had an interesting premise:  the couple pledged a cool $1 million if the symphony could come within a million dollars of covering its annual budget.  The challenges inspired 987 new donors to make a gift to the Symphony this year, while another 894 increased their contributions.   Pretty impressive numbers.

Sound fiscal management was seen in operational and programming areas as well. When all was said and done, they were within the million dollar window stipulated in the second challenge, meaning the $1 million gift came through.  Voila!  A balanced budget!

What’s the takeaway for other organizations?  I could list several, but it all boils down to a little good old fashion creativity in organizational planning and donor cultivation.  First, the two challenge grants encouraged the Symphony to re-examine its operational budget.   The grants also successfully motivated current and new donors to pledge their support.  Finally, the challenges provided the grantors with “added value” —a huge selling point when trying to close a gift.     

How much creativity have you exercised in cultivating major gifts recently?  Ask yourself how you can better “sell” the idea of a large contribution by demonstrating to donors what a substantial impact they can have on your organization.   There is nothing new about the concept of a challenge grant, but, in today’s budget conscience economy, everyone is looking to stretch the value of a dollar.  Take a look at your funding needs and your donor pool.  A little prospect research may unearth just the right individual to approach about this type of gift.  It can mean the difference between budget woes and financial stability.

Have a creative gift story to share?  Comment on this blog or email me at laura.worcester@blackbaud.com.  Others would love to hear of your success!


Laura Worcester, senior consultant at Target Analytics, joined Blackbaud in 2001.In her current role she advises nonprofits on utilizing screening results in identifying and evaluating best donor prospects. In 25+ years of fundraising experience, Laura has served as the chief advancement officer for numerous organizations and managed her own consulting business, providing grant writing services to arts, educational and health care organizations. She’s presented at development conferences and has been a regular contributor to Blackbaud’s blogs with selected posts being reprinted in journals such the NonProfit Times. A traveler since her study abroad days in Denmark, Laura’s committed to passing this enthusiasm on to her teenage daughters. Her family’s travel adventures were just featured in a neighborhood magazine in her suburban Milwaukee community. Contact Laura by email.

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