I am still trying to figure how to build healthy relationships, but I have discovered people who understand the secret much better than I do: performing arts fundraisers.
Fundraising goes by a few names around here — development, external relations, and advancement, to name a few. Theater fundraisers focus on bringing in different kinds of revenue to fill out a company’s operating budget (you know, the part that is not quite covered by ticket sales). A big portion of that revenue may come from individuals; people who have been moved enough by the art to want to do something about it, and who also have the financial means to make an impact. These donors get all sorts of benefits for giving their money to the arts: invites to fancy dinners, backstage tours, and the best mailings the company has to offer.
Many performing arts fundraisers’ careers revolve around these relationships. They are donors’ attentive contact with the theater, the donor’s personal theater friend who is also a similar kind of friend with fifty to a few hundred other donors. The devoted development friend does a lot to maintain their healthy friendships. They rush between meetings and coffee dates with donors, burrow under piles of data about their donors in order to understand them better, and pull a million tiny details together for each donor event. They find donors, establish a basis for their support, and maintain it.
And their job is not only to provide donors with these benefits but also to make sure the donor knows that, despite the fact that their relationship exists for a very specific reason, they care.
This is an intentional friendship with certain kinds of benefits. Is it anything like a real friendship?
Why are we friends?
Krystal Kohler, the individual gifts manager at the Minnesota Opera, is a better interviewer than me, by far. She latches onto small details and turns them into an interesting discussion. Like a good bestie, she is a great listener, and her job has taught her that people love talking about themselves. Even more admirable is her ability to switch between the two. She knows when to add to the chatter and when to sit back and give people space to unload. She also knows when to ask questions, be they the “Big Ask” or whether a donor would like more coffee.
“You’re a journalist, psychiatrist, a concierge, sometimes a waitress, and in the most polite way, cat herder at times … and, of course, actor, storyteller,” Kohler said. “I’m sure I’m missing some more, but it’s an all-encompassing job.”
And, perhaps even more importantly, she knows why she and her donors are in this relationship — because they have all fallen for opera, which in her case happened only after “dating” the art form for a bit.
“You do your research, your Facebook stalking, and the first couple dates you go try it out so you can see — maybe I like it, maybe I don’t — but then you hear that one aria or there’s one moment in an opera that will completely switch. You’ll start crying and it’s like falling in love,” she said. “A lot of our donors have had that experience in one way or another, and that’s what keeps them motivated to keep giving and to keep coming.”
The truth is, Kohler hates asking for money for herself. She would rather be overdrawn on her bank account than ask her parents for help, and she used to be terrified of people who had more money than her. Kohler had to train herself to look at money differently. This is the part of these friendships she tries not to take personally.
“When you make it bigger than yourself and you really care about the mission of your organization, it’s actually really invigorating and exciting,” she said.
How are we friends?
She made her first ask in a hallway, completely on the spot. She said it was the most terrifying moment of her life, but taking the risk and getting a “yes” turned out to be exhilarating.
Unfortunately, Kohler gets the impression people think fundraisers are manipulative. She said her family and other friends think she spends her days going to lunches and parties, having fun, and then trying to pry money from people.
In reality, what Kohler describes sound like the best fundraisers are like the best friends. You need to be open and honest with each other, keep in contact, and make room in your schedule when your friends need you. Remembering how you both fell in love with the same thing and giving your friends access to your circle is important. You make your friends a part of your life and let them support you where they can.
Large organizations, like all humans, depend on these interpersonal relationships for stability, and their importance can feel overwhelming at times. But Kohler finds joy in interacting with donors. For her, it is a lot like why she fell in love with acting. (The theater grad moved here from Texas to pursue an acting career and grew attracted to fundraising but still performs in an improv show once a month.) In that moment when fundraisers get face to face with a donor and ask for support, no matter how much rehearsing they have done, anything can happen.
“It’s the best part of the job, to be honest. It’s a lot of being vulnerable and honest and open,” she said.
Even if these friendships happen for a reason, keeping them healthy and giving them room to grow takes work you can only do if you love the art and the relationship with your fellow art-lover.
So perhaps these backstage actors deserve some applause every once in awhile. We need their friendships with donors for the sake of the theaters they donate to, so that the benefits of their friendship extend beyond the donors to artists, designers, producers — everyone in the process.
Sometimes being friends with benefits is not always what you think it is.