Experience Counts – The Personal Touch

Music Academy of the West in Santa Barbara, California

The message in my voicemail was short and to the point: “I am a volunteer with the Music Academy of the West and I would like to thank you for your donation to our CARS program. This will benefit our scholarship fund and I am happy to let you know that we reached our annual goal six months early! If you would like to hear more about our programs, please call me at the following number.”

I was particularly happy to experience the personalized acknowledgment of our gift as I am an alumnus of the Music Academy. This exciting music festival which occurs each summer with top faculty in an incredible setting draws young music students from around the world. I attended for two summers during college — the inspiration provided by conductor Maurice Abravanel and the teachers set me on my path to become a musician.

This was in contrast to another donation my husband and I made recently to a local university, where we received a standardized letter from the development office. There was no thank you offered from the music department or professors who benefited from our instrument donation.

The difference between these two donation responses was striking. One of Los Angeles’ largest universities had an institutional response given by a person in a Development department. Other than taking us through the logistics of the donation, there was no personal touch, no attempt to get me more involved with the music department after a first time donation.

In contrast, the voicemail from the Music Academy came from a volunteer who offered not only thanks, but good news about their fundraising efforts overall. It was short and sweet, and encouraged me to respond if I wanted more information. I did return the call and offered the information that I was an alumnus and was so happy that my 20 year old car brought money to programs that had benefited me directly.

So as not to bother me again by phone, the volunteer replied by email: “I have passed on the gist of your voicemail to the folks in the Music Academy Advancement Office. You will be pleased to know that we reached our annual goal for the CARS program six months into the year. I serve on the Advancement Committee as a volunteer and also am a member of the MAW Women’s Auxiliary for which I oversee/represent the CARS program. If you are ever planning a visit up this way, next summer perhaps?, please do let us know.” A short response from me assured her that I would keep this in mind.

This is a wonderful example of the power of the individual effort in fundraising. It is obvious which institution might get another donation from me in the future. In over thirty years of fundraising, the personal touch is key. You can have the most elaborate budget, impressive concerts, large audiences, and fantastic musicians, but the key to raising money to support your efforts is the personal touch.

It doesn’t matter where you are looking for financial support. Government grants, foundation requests, annual fund drives, board development, and individual donors all need involvement from everyone in the organization. You are building a community of supporters everywhere possible. As just one example, we are proud that Pasadena’s Mayor Bill Bogaard and community leader Betsey Tyler were included in our list of donors.

Former Pasadena Mayor Bill Bogaard and board vice-president Betsey Tyler

Oh, but you lament, how can I find the time to do this with everything else that I need to do each day for my organization? I can assure you that if you develop a good attitude about fundraising, it will become an integral part of each day that most often cheers and encourages you about people who care about what you are doing.

For example, as we were trying to build our board of trustees, I realized that the board was hearing mostly challenging news — I didn’t talk to most of the members unless I needed something from them. I decided to change my attitude and phone a different board member each week just to chat — no ask, no problems, just “How are you? We are happy that the concert went well/a grant came in/we have a new board member/you are invited to an educational program” or anything that was sincere. Board meetings improved, communication opened up, and our board truly felt invested with all news, good or bad. When there was something important to discuss, the channels were open. And when it came to financial discussions, it was much easier.

Likewise for government and foundation grants —

One page of 29 of the City of Los Angeles Cultural Affairs Department Grant application

Above is only one page from a 29-page application for funding from the Cultural Affairs Department of the City of Los Angeles! Navigating this grant was a dreaded task each season. However, we got to know the Cultural Affairs staff, and each year’s meeting about the grant helped us develop professional friendships where we could get direct responses to questions. Our personal touches with the staff included invitations to concerts, updates on funded activities, and updates on other activities funded elsewhere. The Cultural Affairs staff, and many other government grantors, often lamented that very few grantees kept in touch outside of application time.

California Arts Council Artist-in-Schools Grant Application checklist

Our extensive educational programs were also an opportunity for donor development and acknowledgement. Even if supporters were too busy to attend, they always appreciated an invitation to view our school programs. And, current donors and board members were encouraged to invite prospective supporters. Even one time attendees came away impressed that we were committed to bringing music programs to our local students, many hearing a classical music concert for the first time. During our Mentorship sessions, we had donors sit in or observe our musicians teaching in multiple classrooms. Yes, it took a few phone calls to arrange attendance, but it always led to more involvement and encouraged financial support when asked. Our staff and board members often helped host donors so we could focus on the programs.

Over many years, these personal touches — update phone calls, thank you calls by board members, attendance at school programs — had wonderful results which enlarged our circle of supporters. Our board members also encouraged us to have annual benefit events to bring in additional funding and new supporters. However, in recent years, some people have tired of attending multiple fundraisers for numerous organizations that they support. To keep the events fresh and exciting, we experimented with different venues, caterers and formats. We were happy that we always made money after expenses.

Board member E. Randol Schoenberg and Pamela Schoenberg at an annual Benefit

To raise additional funds during the event, benefits also featured a component called the Silent Auction. This involved collecting numerous items (with the help of the Benefit committee) which were sold during the benefit  — gift certificates, artwork, jewelry, tickets to other events, music lessons, books, etc. — all provided for free, with the auction proceeds adding to the event’s revenue. My favorites over the years included paintings by local artists, a black pearl necklace, antique lace, composer manuscript facsimiles, and even a ride in a police helicopter! Although everyone enjoyed placing their bid on desired items, managing the auction was probably the most labor-intensive aspect of benefits. It was great fun for the attendees but it took major organizational skills to implement this part of the event. My experiences lead me to suggest undertaking an auction only with professional help; otherwise staff will have one more difficult set of tasks to organize — you must be certain that the time spent will lead to additional revenue for the event.

Setup for a Silent Auction at our 20th Anniversary Benefit

As Southwest Chamber Music’s projects grew, we also developed special benefits for our top donors. One of our most memorable was a concert given in the home of composer Arnold Schoenberg in Los Angeles. We have been close with the Schoenberg family for many decades and have performed many of Schoenberg’s works over the years. This photo is from a concert in Schoenberg’s Brentwood home in Los Angeles, hosted by current residents Barbara and Ronald Schoenberg. Only top donors and board members were able to have this very special experience, enhanced after the concert by Barbara’s stellar homemade Sacher Torte and other Viennese specialties!

Southwest musicians Lorenz Gamma and Ming Tsu perform in the Schoenberg home

One of the most special benefits for top donors was the opportunity to travel with the ensemble for tours abroad. Tours to New York, Washington D.C., Vienna, Cambodia, Mexico and Vietnam included a specially designed trip that donors could purchase to travel with the ensemble and see the sites, attend rehearsals and enjoy the concerts. Here is a photo from the post-concert reception as the first American ensemble to perform at the Arnold Schoenberg Center in Vienna, Austria.

1. 2003 Arnold Schoenberg Center, Vienna, Austria
(L to R) Larry Schoenberg, Anne Schoenberg, Arnold Schoenberg Center director Christian Meyer, soprano Phyllis Bryn-Julson and myself

The personal touch for fundraising should reflect the identity and personality of those involved. The creativity which inspires an organization can extend to ways to build connections between all “legs of the chair” that supports the group’s mission. While not every person you approach will become a supporter, those that make your activities possible should be cherished and encouraged as you would any friend or colleague. For me, it often became a wonderful experience to gain insight into other professions, develop friendships, and share our love of music together. I hope this will be your experience as well.


  1. Jan, I couldn’t agree more heartily with your blog message! Please allow me to share my experience.
    I typically donate to smaller arts and non-profit organizations where my contributions are truly needed and will go farther to support their goals. This year I had three organizations that received my funds as a first year contributor. Two of the three groups followed your examples for reach-out and acknowledgement and I felt honored to be on their donor list. I will likely donate to them again in future years. The third group did no acknowledgement except for a cursory form letter. Even though I had written an email explaining how the donation would be sent, why I was donating and who inspired me to send it, I received no response to the email or even a hand-written note on the form letter acknowledging the personal nature of the donation. Chances of donating to them again? Maybe, they do great work! But despite the many fund-raisers, without feedback to their donors, an income stream is not as likely to occur. Missed opportunity.

    Keep up the great insight, Jan. Your blogs are always informative and inspiring!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s