The Wexner Center for the Arts—also known as The Wex!—is, as described on their website The Ohio State University's “multidisciplinary, international laboratory for the exploration and advancement of contemporary art.” Their mission is to “fuel creative expression, ignite cultural curiosity, and offer unique experiences across all art forms that enliven the local landscape while promoting global connections and understanding.” Fulfilling this mission relies on carrying out a vision for diversity, equity, inclusion, and justice in the arts and, The Wex community, sees the role of expanding their body of donors better keeping to that vision. They believe in order to be true to their mission they must engage the diverse Columbus, Ohio community fully—as museum visitors, donors, and volunteers. Without truly inclusive participation they cannot “fuel creative expression, ignite cultural curiosity.”
Like many large arts institutions in the United States, The Wex has historically relied on large-scale fundraising efforts that appeal to wealthy donors who can give large sums as well as the Foundation that bears its name. In so many cases, these wealthy donors are White and might not always represent the population they serve or the values of the organization itself. Additionally, relying on a small pool of large donors puts the Institution at greater financial risk. If you lose one donor, you lose a large portion of the funding for the organization. This eggs-in-one-basket approach limits the flexibility of the organization to 1) fulfill their values because it prioritizes the voice of a small minority of donors, and 2) maintain a budget without risk of losing large sums at once if a donor decides the organization doesn’t meet its values.
Staff at The Wex were feeling this tension as they saw the over-reliance on a small subset of White, wealthy donors as limiting their ability to fulfill the larger social justice mission and the inclusive environment the Institution sought to cultivate.
Expanding the outreach to a more diverse range of donors has several advantages. First, by appealing to more donors who see The Wex’s larger social justice mission as essential, they have more freedom to continue offering programming that fits into that larger vision and mission. Second, by having more donors who give smaller amounts, you’re cultivating a sense of belonging for more people in the community, thus increasing your ability to be for and by the community which translates into a more diverse range of audience members from the community. Third, the practical side is that you have more financial flexibility when you don’t rely on a small set of donors.
This three-session series served as a first step to transforming the way they do things by focusing on rethinking philanthropy and how it can be done. The workshop didn’t just include Development staff, but everyone at The Wex to help expand the idea of what philanthropy and fundraising means for everyone’s work. Each of the sessions built on one another to lead to the ultimate takeaways from the full workshop.
Session One: The first session invited all staff (40 attendees) from The Wex serving as both Fundraising 101 and laying the groundwork to define philanthropy more broadly. By asking each participant to write their own philanthropic autobiography—thinking about earliest memories of when they were a philanthropist—it personalized the concept for them. Thinking about what toys they donated as a child, what volunteer activities they participated in, or causes they were involved with offers an opportunity to make a connection to the idea of “giving” and understanding the larger purpose behind it. The goal was to showcase how philanthropy is more than just money, it’s offering a sense of belonging with the Institution, the mission, and the work that everyone does.
We held a second version of the first session focused on the leadership team and channeled the lessons learned to specific ways philanthropy linked to each department and the impact on the budget. We focused on more foundational elements of DEI in philanthropy and how, specifically, it can be carried out.
Session Two and Three: After Session One, attendees were sent a survey about their largest concerns about philanthropy at The Wex. The survey results as well as the discussions from Session One were used to continue to work with the leadership team to build a larger strategy and focus for fundraising efforts. Session three helped unpack those concerns, a lot of which centered on a lack of sense of belonging and working on exploring different ways to bring in people who are often left out of an organization because of their lower levels of wealth or their race. In this virtual format, we used Google’s Jam Boards to break out into small groups to explore ideas on how to expand the work. During the final session, we continued channeling those ideas into more tangible action steps to begin operationalizing the ideas.
The results of this workshop series are ongoing as they started an important conversation that will take time to see the results, but it has started to bring internal changes about expanding the definition and role of philanthropy. Staff at The Wex now has new language and ideas around how the entire organization is involved with philanthropy versus just those doing the fundraising and has created an even stronger sense of belonging among and between the people that work there. That sense of belonging will translate into how they engage with the community.
Noah’s insight and knowledge were very inspiring. I genuinely feel that every staff member at the Wex gained more exposure to our vast and complicated world of raising money for the great work they all do to support local and international artists. Our center is indeed better because of you and this experience. I am ecstatic to see what the future holds!
These were such important center-wide discussions, and the breakout rooms and jamboard sessions lent a truly collaborative spirit, offering spaces where all seemed to feel comfortable chiming in. The conversations and the readings Noah provided gave me a new vocabulary (“kinship philanthropy”) and helped frame my thinking (didn’t even think about sharing my 5th-grade candy-striper experiences until we started talking in that first breakout session about philanthropic autobiographies!). Some of the topics raised will surely inform future conversations/sessions (e.g., one colleague in a breakout room said she’d love a session about what makes a nonprofit a nonprofit). This series was also a welcome respite from the intense “micro” or day-to-day work we’ve all been doing to get through the year.