Q&A with Mark Saville: FW Opera’s development director talks fundraising tips, challenges

Mayor Betsy Price took the stage for the opera

After an anonymous donor gave $500,000 to Fort Worth Opera, the organization set out to raise an additional $500,000 – for a total of $1 million – in a campaign from June to August called Million Dollar Summer.

When the campaign ended, the Opera announced that it not only exceeded its goal but also expanded its donor base.

Raising money isn’t easy, though, said Mark Saville, the Opera’s director of development. He talked with the Fort Worth Business Press about the challenges of fundraising and offered some tips for a successful campaign.

First off, how easy or difficult is it to ask for support from other individuals or organizations?

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You would be surprised how often I get asked this question as a fundraising professional, because people find the act of asking quite unnerving. The truth of the matter is, if done correctly, the process by which an individual chooses to give his or her philanthropy to an organization is a process that often leads them to make that determination before anyone even has to ask. I can provide a narrative and the vehicle by which they can support my cause, but at the end of the day, people want to have a positive impact on their community and leave it better than they found it. As a fundraiser, I simply connect people with the opportunity to do just that, and it is an unbelievably rewarding experience for both the individual and the organization.

What’s the biggest challenge when it comes to fundraising?

In a nonprofit environment where every dollar counts – and is counted – the greatest challenge can simply be adequate access to resources. Development departments are often understaffed yet entrusted with ambitious budgetary goals, but that’s where creativity and ingenuity are employed. Leveraging long-built relationships while thinking resourcefully about how to maximize your impact make all the difference when trying to convince people that you matter.

That said, it’s been an uphill battle until late. The performing arts were hit harder by the recession than any other nonprofit sector, and our greatest challenge became our need to become relevant, important and accessible to our communities again. We had to prove that we were not merely a luxury for the few, but a necessity to the cultural health and well-being of our city.

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Promisingly, trends demonstrate greater proportional gains in giving to the performing arts nationwide than any other sector in the last two years. Though, that said, responsible budgeting and thoughtful, intelligent programming are more important now than ever.

What factors played into making Fort Worth Opera’s fundraising initiative successful?

With the overwhelming success of our world premiere, JFK, we knew there was a unique opportunity to capitalize on its momentum and help meet our fiscal year-end goals. Provided with an incredible $500,000 challenge by a truly remarkable individual, we set out to do what many thought couldn’t be done – match it in 90 days. This initiative was a cross-departmental collaboration unlike anything I’ve experienced with past campaigns and was the first time I’ve witnessed a true synergy between the marketing and fundraising departments. We realized that we had the unique opportunity to present a solution to our fiscal dilemma and craft a positive narrative that spoke to the arts in a broader way than just Fort Worth Opera. It was the combination of the strategies deployed and solidarity of the company behind the campaign that led to the positive momentum we experienced from day one. That and a great number of truly selfless individuals who decided we were well worth their investment – thank you all!

What were some of the strategies you used in reaching out to potential donors?

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We knew that we had to roll out the campaign in short order to both capture public attention and give ourselves a full 90 days of running room to the end of the fiscal. The campaign went from a concept to implementation in less than 30 days, then became the focus of our messaging for the next three months. We utilized radio spots, magazine and newspaper box ads, social media, direct mail, e-blasts, phone banks and personal visits to engage as many people as possible over the course of three months. Ultimately, through clear and concise communication and multiple touch points, we were able to double our donor base in just that period of time.

Fundraisers today have to utilize the full spectrum of tools at their disposal to articulate their message, but do so in a well-orchestrated and strategic manner to ultimately succeed. It also helps to have a company of incredibly talented individuals entirely dedicated to its mission. That’s Fort Worth Opera.

What role did social media have in your campaign, and why should organizations consider using social media in their fundraising initiatives?

I’ve utilized social media in various ways and on many different campaigns throughout my career, and I’m always fascinated to try something new to see how it translates into philanthropic support. People often see social media as a vehicle for communication to millennials, but that no longer holds true. My mother uses Facebook more than I do these days. Through social media you can craft a narrative, build momentum, engage people in a conversation whether directly or indirectly and articulate your mission and its importance to the community.

We utilized this campaign’s social media movement as an opportunity for prominent members of Fort Worth to speak out on behalf of the arts and why it matters to them. If you read many of the signs provided for photographic endorsement, the statements were overwhelmingly in support of all art and its importance to the well-being of the city. It also didn’t hurt that Mayor Price was our first volunteer and did a spectacular job. We’re indebted to her support!

What’s the secret to attracting new donors and retaining them?

Attraction is easy. It’s retention that can often become a challenge. You attract new donors by simply communicating with them, engaging them in a dialogue, making them aware of your organization, its mission and merit to the community you serve. Awareness and a positive perception often translate into philanthropy, as people want to support what they love and hold dear. The challenge thereafter becomes sustained engagement and a strategy to cultivate a deeper sense of understanding and affinity to your organization. This is particularly challenging with limited deployable resources. Create avenues for donors to become more aware and educated to your mission and provide a personalization of service that connects them with a face and a name. Relationships do more for retention than anything else. Lastly, always thank someone for their generosity more than you ask them for money, and let them know how truly important they are.

What are some tips you can offer for holding a successful fundraising campaign?

Craft your narrative and timeline carefully, think creatively and communicate clearly and often. Use all the tools at your disposal and segment your database of individuals to ensure that each receives the appropriate messaging and multiple opportunities to give. Have automated systems (direct mail, etc.) designed to build your base, so that your fundraisers can focus on prospect identification, contact and cultivation for major gift opportunities. You should also have a reasonable idea of where your campaign goal can be found before you even launch, but always have a tiered list of potential donors because surprises can happen. Lastly, challenge your supporters and give them something to rally behind, whether a cash goal or a deadline or both. People ultimately want to help you succeed and will, if you make it convenient enough.