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Thin Line founder Joshua Butler (pictured) introduces the audience to the festival before an April 10, 2019, screening of “Well Groomed.” The festival had to move online for 2020 and will be virtual again in 2021.

Leaders of North Texas arts nonprofits met Wednesday to talk budgets.

As the nation emerges, Punxsutawney Phil-like, from pandemic shutdown, performing and visual arts groups want to continue hosting exhibits, staging plays and celebrating festivals.

But with an economic downturn shuttering businesses and thrusting workers into unemployment, nonprofit groups might be doing all of that on a smaller budget. On Wednesday, the Dallas-based Business Council for the Arts hosted an online forum to talk fundraising and budgeting in the time of COVID-19.

Panelists for the virtual gathering included Betsy Lewis, the development director for Cedars Union, a cooperative that serves artists with studios and a maker space; Holly Hull Miori, the development and alumni relations director for the Ackerman Center for Holocaust Studies & School of Arts and Humanities; and Kaitlin Guthrow, director of sponsorships and nonprofit relations for North Texas Giving Day — Communities Foundation of Texas.

The panelists said arts groups are funded by big donors — often corporate sponsors who donate thousands of dollars to programs and events — as well as individuals who give less than $100.

“I would say that they’re both equally important,” Guthrow said. “Those big donors can help propel your mission further, and help you reach your goals faster. But you don’t want to become too dependent on a small number of large donors. If I had to pick between one $1,000 donor or 10 $100 donors, I would choose the latter every time. Because if that one drops off, particularly in a challenging year like this year, then you’ve got to start completely over.”

Miori said she’d take “a hybrid,” of big and small donors. The big donations generate publicity and dollars, she said.

“But these small gifts bring a lot of momentum with it, and they tend to be with you for a longer time,” Miori said. “These gifts tend to be with you 10, 20 years and they can also be better planned giving prospects.”

In other words, individuals who give smaller amounts over a decade or longer plan to give cash, equity or property more often than companies do.

“I would add that a sponsorship is not necessarily big and the individual donation is not necessarily small,” Lewis said. “The healthiest way to approach it — if you’re in an organization that has the staff and volunteers for it — is to diversify just like a stock portfolio, so that your fundraising efforts are not completely dependent... on one avenue of fundraising.”

Denton nonprofits have been weathering the COVID-19 storm. Founder and director of local documentary film, music and photography festival Thin Line Joshua Butler said his team canceled in-person screenings and all live music showcases last March. Instead, Butler’s new business, Falcon Events, screened films online, at the festival website.

“Virtual, for one, is cheaper,” Butler said. “So you automatically have a reduced budget across the board. Thin Line is in a good position where we can pivot quickly. We don’t have employees or staff. The virtual festival is pretty inexpensive. I don’t have to worry about hotel rooms and hospitality and car services.”

Screening the festival online brought in an audience that tripled 2019 attendance. More than 7,000 people signed on to the Thin Line virtual fest.

Thin Line is free and is funded mostly by corporate sponsors.

“Every single one of those sponsors got a lot more eyeballs than they would have in the screening spaces, so they got a lot more value.”

Butler said the 2021 festival will be virtual, too.

“We’re going to be virtual next year and then see what the next year brings,” he said. “We know other nonprofits aren’t in a position to pivot like we did. I started Falcon Events to do virtual conferences and Thin Line was its first event. For us, our costs for next year are reduced. Basically, all we have to pay for is the content.”

Panelists said that while COVID-19 was a sucker punch for nonprofit arts groups, the pandemic reminded leaders and volunteers of analog methods for staying in touch with donors and North Texans who come to their exhibits, performances and programs. Donors told nonprofit board members and directors they enjoyed handwritten notes, and leaders said they found ways to use promotional merchandise that didn’t work before the pandemic. Bumper stickers that arrived with too-small text turned into swag to stuff bags and envelopes with. Reluctant board members dropped the word “fundraising” from their vocabulary and instead made thank-you calls to donors that often yielded more giving.

Guthrow said small donations will likely still make up the bulk of charitable giving and support for arts groups. In about one week, Guthrow and her team will preside over a sprawling, daylong fundraiser that will generate millions of dollars for thousands of nonprofits.

“North Texas Giving Day is all about inspiring individual giving,” she said. “You look at what the largest component of philanthropy in this country is, it’s individual giving every single year. To the tune of about 70%. Foundation grants make up about 16[%], corporate giving [is] about 5[%]. So individual giving really is the bulk of it. Never underestimate the power of ‘small donor’ because if you look at last year, what the community of North Texas donors raised was $50 million for over 3,000 nonprofits. Sixty percent of those gifts were under $100.”

Miori said nonprofits have to evaluate their successes and their failures. The Ackerman Center is part of the University of Texas at Dallas, and Mirori said the center has enjoyed support from the community, but not as much from university alumni. The center has elected to put more resources into promoting the center among graduates.

“We’ve staffed up to do better, and we’re getting there,” she said. “We’ve had to continue to do things to make alumni want to come back [and give] ... We celebrate a $2 gift and we celebrate a $1,000 gift.”

Miori said she’s getting a lot of questions about raising money during a pandemic. Her answer: It’s time for creative people to use that creativity to keep fulfilling their missions.

“We’re making it up as we go,” she said. “We’re writing it all down, and hopefully we’ll never have to do this again.”

LUCINDA BREEDING can be reached at 940-566-6877 and via Twitter at @LBreedingDRC.

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