Elevator Speeches

I often hear board members of arts organizations suggest that "all they need to begin fundraising is an elevator speech." By elevator speech they mean a three-minute, or less, canned speech about the organization that they can use as they discuss the institution with their friends and associates.

While I never want to dissuade board members from serving as ambassadors for their organizations in their communities, I truly dislike the notion of a set elevator speech. I do not like the assumption that the organization can be reduced to a static group of sentences.

And any fundraising professional knows that fundraising demands far more than a short speech; it requires smart prospecting, cultivation, consistently strong programming and aggressive institutional marketing.

But there is true value in arming board members with facts and figures about the organization, important accomplishments and exciting moments to come. When a board member has a few readily available, pithy and, especially, memorable things to say about an organization it is easier to be a good ambassador.

The problem with prepackaged elevator speeches, as they are currently devised, is that they are static. They tend to focus on mission and general areas of achievement. Unfortunately, these bland statements are rarely impressive to the listener.

I prefer to arm board members (and others) with a changing list of specific current highlights and future plans. What was the last great artistic accomplishment? What are the major new productions planned for this season or next? Which important artists have agreed to work with us? With which major organization are we going to partner on an important project? Where are we planning to tour in the coming year? What major grant have we just received? What major financial milestone have we reached? Who of note has joined our board?

This list, especially when it is long, exciting and varied, paints a vivid picture of an organization that is successful and worthy of support. It also suggests that joining the organization -- as a donor or board member -- will be fun and productive.

But it is essential that this list changes over time. When a list of accomplishments gets stale, it can feel as if the best days of an organization are past. New prospects are far more interested in what is going to happen than what has already happened. Historical accomplishments certainly create the impression that the organization can be trusted to deliver good artistic and financial news, but new donors are more interested in what they are going to experience, not what they missed.

I am constantly peppering my conversations with the latest news about new artistic ventures, new grants received, new awards, new financial results. While one wants to work these into the conversation without appearing to be simply boastful, it is a list of upbeat news items that engage the listener.

Arts managers should arm their board members and volunteers with these lists; and they should make sure the list is refreshed periodically.

But don't forget that this is only a part of the fundraising activity.