Donor Relations for Singers

Few young singers are equipped for an extremely important aspect of working with opera companies: donor relations. Opera patron, board member, and philanthropist Jane Gross answers the common pressing questions for young singers when it comes to establishing and maintaining good relationships with those who donate to the art form. Gross is an ardent supporter of young artists and she shares a wealth of knowledge to help young singers understand the fundraising aspect of opera.

Why Do People Donate to Opera?

The first rule of fundraising, according to Gross, is that people give to people, not to ideas. “They give for one of several reasons: they love the art form and care about what the company is doing or it improves their social status in the community,” Gross says. “Is it the hot board to be on? The right group of people? The right social status?” This line of thinking may be shocking to those who have dedicated their lives to the vocal arts, but not everyone loves opera as much as the singers do!

“Participation about opera itself is a small percentage of the reasons for donating,” Gross says. She also notes that singers may not understand philanthropy or have ever thought about the why of donations because of their deep passion for the art form. While some donors are enthusiastic and dedicated opera lovers, not all donors are.

What Is a Donor’s Role in an Opera Company?

“Donors typically have a relationship with one or more individuals in the company,” Gross says. “This is why social skills are important for a general director or development director or whoever is in charge of donor relations.” Gross suggests looking at a university as an example—note the size of the development office. All of those people are responsible for raising funds to keep everything running. At an opera company, it runs similarly.

Donors want different things with their money at an opera company. Some want their names to be listed as sponsors of the production. A subset of donors are interested in Young Artist Programs. “Many of these donors want to know the ‘stars of the future’ and have early inside info on rising talent,” Gross explains. Some donors want lots of interaction, while others want to feel good about saying that they contribute to the company.

The company you are singing for should tell you what level of interaction to expect from particular donors to the company. If they don’t, it is the singer’s responsibility to ask and to follow through on the company’s wishes. A voice teacher, director, costumer, or other person associated with the company on the production end may not have the right answer. Gross recommends asking the office staff, particularly the development person or persons if the company has a designated department for it.

Understanding the difference between board membership and donors is also important. Sometimes a donor is on the board of directors for the company, and other times they are not. Board members may not have an interest in opera—sometimes board membership for a nonprofit organization is about professional contacts and introductions to other people professionally or socially. Additionally, nonprofit organizations need legal people, good financial people, and people who understand buildings and building care as well as general operations to serve on their boards of directors.

For galas and other fundraising events, companies want board members who have long lists of people to invite, particularly potential donors. Having good connections with other cultural organizations within a city is the responsibility of the board. As a singer and employee of an opera company, part of your job will be to keep this cultural and social network active and happy.

How Does Sponsorship for Young Artists Work?

“Each Young Artist Program has a sponsor donor,” Gross says. “At some companies, this can range from $10,000 to $20,000 for support. With this kind of support, the singer is expected to be interacting with the sponsor.” That may include singing at their home or other social functions. The company should tell you the details about that sponsor.

Some sponsors are better than others. “Sometimes you will feel that you have to ‘sing for your supper,’” Gross says. “It is important to discuss it with the office staff. They know which sponsors are problematic and can help you to navigate it.” Some donors expect merely a nice note and maybe to have lunch with you.

It is highly important that you establish polite, written correspondence with a sponsor. Gross recommends writing three notes (see examples in the sidebar on p. 34). The first note should be a note of thanks and introduction. The second is an invitation to the opening performance or party the company is giving. The last note should be a recap at or after closing. You should try to make contact and meet if that is an expectation that the company has for you. Gross adds that in your final note, you should try to add a personal touch, particularly if you have met with and spent time with the sponsor.

If it is acceptable to the company, you may add the sponsor as a friend on Facebook, LinkedIn, or other social media. The notes can be sent via e-mail, though Gross advises that the last note be handwritten. It should be a nice card, but needn’t be fancy or expensive. The thought, time, and effort communicate your appreciation of their support.

What Are the Responsibilities of a Singer in Donor Relations?

Companies are careful about interactions of donors with singers. Many donors enjoy meeting with and talking to singers, but singers need to be careful not to disrupt the aforementioned place of donorship within the community. “Boards and donors are a part of the social and cultural business network in a city,” Gross explains. “Your employer does not want you exploding little bombs all over that, ruining relationships or upsetting people.”

Often there is a disparity of backgrounds between singers and donors. Philanthropy and the lifestyles of the wealthy donors may be unfamiliar to many singers. Companies cannot risk singers who are not well spoken, well mannered, or politically correct interacting with or dealing with donors. “It doesn’t matter if you are very liberal and the donor is extremely right wing—stifle yourself,” Gross advises. “Don’t interject your opinions, even if they bring it up! Sometimes, if they’re nasty, they’ll try to nail you.” While this does not occur frequently, singers should be prepared to navigate such social faux pas with ease.

“If a donor asks you a question you feel uncomfortable answering, say, ‘I haven’t really thought about it that much’ or ‘I don’t know, what do you think?’ and turn it back to them. Then excuse yourself to the restroom or something,” says Gross. She advises care when donors ask about the last production and if you saw it before your rehearsal period began. They may have been the major donor for that production. “Stick to positive things (‘The audience was excited!’ [instead of] ‘The audience was not as excited as I expected’) or share encouragement for favorable reviews or colleagues who enjoyed working for the company. Answer donor questions as an observer or commentator rather than as an opinion giver.”

Furthermore, singers need to be prepared to talk about something other than opera. The donors keep the company afloat and keep it running in the community. It is possible to have people on the board who don’t know or care about opera. “Some may not be highly knowledgeable, while their spouse may love the art form,” Gross says. “It’s worthwhile to have a variety of conversational gambits that have nothing to do with opera.”

Being new in a city, which you very well may be, offers a variety of potential topics. “Choose three to five things in the city: museums, parks, food—these topics can make real, complimentary conversations with anyone in the city,” says Gross.

“It’s also a neutral place to start. Always keep it positive!” Gross adds. “You can be ‘negative’ about inclement weather or pollen, but only if it’s a polite conversation.” It is OK to commiserate with residents over winter or allergens, but don’t dwell on the negatives.

You can also ask donors for recommendations about things they like in the city, such as coffee places. “This is easier with women than with men, usually. But do think about the person you’re asking—an older man probably won’t have a recommendation for the best gyms!”

If you are an introvert and find all this small talk to be daunting, create a role for yourself as you do onstage. “Set yourself up in advance with a half a dozen things to talk about, including your work at the company and how happy you are to be there, the community you are in, and your future goals,” Gross says. “Get the person you’re talking to talk about themselves—questions like asking what got them interested in opera.”

For formal events, Gross recommends the “right side-left side” technique. When seated at a table, ask the person to your left and the person to your right the same question and see yourself as a facilitator of the conversation. “Being the ‘host or hostess with the most’ is a learned skill,” Gross says. Most importantly, at your next donor event, remember that these people didn’t come to criticize you, they came to have a good time—so join in and be a part of it!

Creating and maintaining good relationships with donors is a practiced social skill that all singers can attain and improve upon. For many, these skills will seem more difficult than an eight-minute aria. But, like difficult music, we can achieve polish and grace with time, careful practice, and thought about the end result.

Joanie Brittingham

Joanie Brittingham is a soprano and writer living in New York City. She can be reached at joaniebrittingham@gmail.com. Visit her blog, Cure for the Common Crazy, at commoncrazy.blogspot.com or see her column, Big Apple Sauce, on the arts scene of New York, at the website JuicyHeads.com.