All Family Members Are Not Created Equal

I write frequently about building a family for an arts organization, creating the group of donors, ticket buyers, volunteers and board members who provide resources for the institution. I have found that arts organizations with the largest and most engaged family are the ones that remain in the best of health.

But not all family members are of equal potency. Some individuals are so generous, so connected or so engaging that they can do more for the institution than a boatload of other supporters.

This thought came to me as I read about the role the actor Edward Norton has played for the Signature Theater, helping to lure huge donors to support the new Frank Gehry-designed theater that Signature recently opened in New York City. Reading about Mr. Norton's impact reminded me of the role Joan Weill has played with the Alvin Ailey organization or the impact my chairman, David Rubenstein, has had on the Kennedy Center.

When we look to build our families we must not only think about the number of our family members but also the potential impact of each family member.

It is true that we cannot always predict how engaged in our work or how productive a particular person may become. Several of my largest donors and most helpful fundraisers are not famous artists, business people or philanthropists. If I had ignored them or failed to engage them in my work, they would have not been as helpful as they are, a true loss to my organization.

But it should not be a surprise that a performer as talented and well-known as Edward Norton, or a philanthropist as generous as Joan Weill or a corporate leader as connected as David Rubenstein would be a good person to add to one's family.

It wouldn't hurt any arts organization to make a list of potential supporters who care about their work and who could have an historic impact on the organization. It is surprising how many well-connected people, great philanthropists, famous stars of the arts or politics or sports most arts organizations 'know' without realizing they know them. Poll your board members, your staff, your volunteers and strongest supporters and ask them about the people they know who could be helpful to the organization.

But be forewarned: this can take time, focus and commitment. One doesn't necessarily engage anyone with a single meeting, letter or phone call. It can take time to educate someone about the value of one's organization and the fun one can have participating.

But it is certainly worth the effort to learn about the prospect, develop an appropriate solicitation plan, select the best solicitor and begin a process of engagement. I cannot imagine what the Ailey organization would be without Mrs. Weill and I know for certain that I depend on David Rubenstein every single day.

Every time you read about or visit the new Signature Theater, think of Edward Norton and one of his most powerful performances -- as a family member of staggering importance.