The Brooklyn Rail

JUNE 2023

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JUNE 2023 Issue
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You can’t raise money in an environment of control

I was a young fundraiser at a New York City university when someone said it to me: You can’t raise money in an environment of control.

I think about this often these days, as a cultural sector seeking critical financial support attempts to keep pace with massive paradigm-shifting transformations—political, social, environmental, cultural, and artistic. Experiencing a profound societal reckoning, we are re-evaluating our values, our relationships, our priorities, whom we trust, and how we work.

This permanent change scenario can be scary, overwhelming, and maddening. In response, some folks are hitting the accelerator of control, while others are experimenting with letting go.

In my consulting, wellness, and coaching work, I see our relationship with control evolving. Role models are stepping out and up to demand new ways of working and forms of leadership. They are speaking truth to power. I am in awe of the friends, colleagues, and total strangers who are breaking from systems of control and entrenched power. They are articulating a landscape based more on trust, transparency, self-reliance, and experimentation and are changing the way our work has traditionally been done and who is doing it.

What is occurring on a global scale is indeed a massive shift of consciousness. To navigate this transition, we can practice and foster techniques to make change from a grounded and present place, not a reactive one. If we loosen our control over things we can NOT control, we can be less afraid of experimentation and more welcoming of the new paradigm. This will help us build more authentic and impactful relationships.

Dedicated to democratizing cultural philanthropy to better engage diverse generations and audiences, my work focuses on how these profound shifts are affecting private arts philanthropy.

Against this backdrop of accelerating change, arts funding has been decreasing: while other sectors experience record growth, arts and humanities remains stagnant at 4% of overall charitable giving.1 Simultaneously, we are experiencing the largest intergenerational wealth transfer in history: it is estimated that about sixty trillion dollars will be transferred over the next few decades. Impact-driven models of philanthropy are on the rise, with the next generations demanding more effective outcomes and better metrics. This cohort wants new models to effectively drive progress and see the tangible impact of their transformational giving.

The hard data mirrors what I’ve witnessed anecdotally for more than ten years: many of these next generation heirs have felt increasingly detached from and disillusioned by the arts, noting a disconnect between the sector’s work and the most pressing issues in society.2 The same is true of their new wealth creator peers: the belief that the arts sector, particularly through its institutions, could contribute to global progress has dwindled. While they will continue to contribute annually—their name is on the wall or building, after all—this cohort plans to direct their significant giving to organizations with measurable success driving impact for social, racial, climate justice, education, and health.

In response to this information, some leaders get curious and empower their teams to experiment with new forms of engagement, programming, and partnership; they let go of control. Others? They double down on traditional practices, exerting control in the face of uncertainty. But here’s the thing: you can’t control people’s perceptions or reactions, but you can undergo the work of change. If the old ways of working aren’t working, why are we resistant to forming new types of partnerships? Why do we insist we know better than those telling us what they want from us? Because we are scared to let go of control.

When things are rapidly changing everywhere we look, we tend to dig in and try to control outcomes. This can create chaos, depression, and fear. And that fear paralyzes us. We can not stop change, it is indeed inevitable (say that out loud right now!). All we can control is how we respond to change.

In my advising work with organizations and leaders, I see control manifested by the grasp on traditional practices of engagement, and an undermining of new ideas and leaders. “It worked before, why not now? Clearly, you are not good at your job.” Well, the world has changed, people are changing, and it’s all about the people: Fundraising is relationship building; it is partnering to make an impact in order to create a better world. And it is damn hard to build authentic relationships within an environment of control, one without balance and equality.

We need to stop controlling everything and listen to what people are telling us they want to see in our sector: a practice of listening to audiences and communities, professionals and practitioners; giving your platform to those that need it most; an environment of collaboration, trusting folks who embrace experimentation and risk failure; stories and narratives aligning the arts with social impact, not elitism, wealth, and status; impact and metric-driven philanthropy to drive progress; bold and effective partnerships to support artists and creative entrepreneurs; inventive technology for connection and access; redefined and honest storytelling; authentic and sustained investment in community building; an abundance of transparency and trust; and holistic diversity and access as a system of care and wellness.

Control prevents invention, experimentation, and dynamism. Letting go of control to try fresh models and execute bold new philosophies will help us align with the new constituencies essential to building a cultural economy that can drive progress—and hell, do we need progress. We will be promoting a whole cohort of leaders who are unafraid and ready to try, maybe fail, but then try again! We will increase affinity, engagement, levels of care, and giving with staff, board, and all audiences and constituencies. That doesn't sound so scary, does it?

  1. Giving USA: The Annual Report on Philanthropy, 2021.


Melissa Cowley Wolf

Melissa Cowley Wolf is an advisor, author, speaker, coach, and yoga instructor. She is the founder of MCW Projects LLC, an advisory firm specializing in next era philanthropic strategy and organizational wellness for leaders and collectives who want to make an impact, and the director of Arts Funders Forum (AFF), an advocacy, media, convening, and research platform designed to increase private support for the arts. She has over twenty years of experience in philanthropy, programming, and strategic & campaign planning, contributing to campaigns up to $4 Billion, working with internationally renowned cultural, corporate, and academic leaders; philanthropists; collectors; and artists.


The Brooklyn Rail

JUNE 2023

All Issues