fundraising without writing grants for artists

Fundraising Without Writing Grants

Fundraising can be a daunting task, and writing grants requires a lot of time and effort, and there is a lot of competition for a small amount of funds. Coming up with other strategies to raise capital is essential for contemporary artists. The more diverse your funding sources, the more stable your practice will be. Get creative! Do searches online to see how other artists and organizations raise funds, and if you want to write grants but need more guidance, consider using a fiscal sponsor as a partner. Partnering with a fiscal sponsor means that a nonprofit organization receives money on your behalf (often less a small percentage to pay for its legal and accounting fees). As long as the nonprofit’s mission matches your own project, this is worthy of consideration. However, never create a partnership with a nonprofit if you are going to take the money and run. Artists have burned many non profits by not completing projects and tarnishing the reputation of the fiscal sponsor.   

Some Ideas to Consider

House Parties. Organizations like MoveOn and grass roots projects have thrown house parties as fundraisers for a long time. In The Fundraising Houseparty, Morrie Warshawski describes the common elements of a successful event: 

1. People receive an invitation to come to a party at a private home. 

2.  The invitation makes it clear that the evening will be a fundraising event. 

3. Participants arrive and are served refreshments. 

4. Participants sit through a brief presentation. 

5. The host or a peer—someone articulate, enthusiastic, and respected by participants—stands up and asks everyone to make a contribution. Thousands of dollars can be raised in one evening at a successful party.

Block Parties: Like a house party, only bigger. Get a permit and block off your street for an event, or find a public park and create an event.

Film Screenings: Screen a film at someone’s house, in a parking lot, storefront window, or other site. Sell tickets, and ask everyone to bring a beach chair. Sell popcorn and refreshments for additional revenue. If you are raising money for a new film, show an old one that is really great to inspire people to contribute. If possible, screen a short example of the current film you are working on. To generate even more buzz around the screenings, invite artist and filmmaking friends to submit their short films to be presented before the main feature. This will grow your audience, gain some exposure for a friend, and ultimately help you reach your goal. 

Performance: Hold a performance at someone’s house or other venue. Sell tickets. Use a theater on a dark night. Perform in a public space.

Sales of Artwork: Have an open studio tour and/or make artwork available on your website. This can also be a special edition work specific to your fundraising cause.

Services: Car washes, bake sales, and other old standbys can be updated to make them more interesting, educational, or fun.

Auctions (of anything, including services): While art auctions are always taxing on artists (who are perpetually asked to give everything away for free) there is no reason why you have to auction art in order to make money. Art-related services can be auctioned off, such as framing, crating, photography, documentation, etc., and auctions can require a minimum bid to ensure that the artist gets a cut of the sale.

Direct Mail (letters to friends and family): Come up with an interesting idea for a letter to ask for funds. You might ask for a small amount from many people for your worthwhile project. Eighty percent of donations in the U.S. come from individuals, so don’t discount this often overlooked resource.

Yard or Garage Sale: Collaborate with other artists to do a giant yard sale or studio sale. Market it to other artists as a studio sale, and sell all those supplies you have collected but don’t use anymore. You would be surprised at how many artists need discounted supplies and how great your studio will look with all that extra room.

Money Catching Machine (pneumatic cash transport mechanism): Machine Project in Los Angeles created a money catching machine which it described as follows: “Bring cash money to put in our ramshackle and potentially dangerous pneumatic cash transport mechanism. A network of clear acrylic tubes connected to a high-powered vacuum system running along the ceiling of the MACHINE PROJECT will pull proffered dollars right out of your hands, with little to no effort by us and much amusement on your part.” Built and installed by Mark Allen, Ryan O’Toole, and Brian Tse, it is installed in the exhibition/project space at the gallery. No one can stop with just one dollar.

A New Twist on Events: While some events have been around a long time, consider a new twist to them. Side Street Projects (a nonprofit arts organization) in Pasadena, CA has put on a Phantom Ball for 15 years which “takes place” on April 1st (no foolin’). The actual event does not exist, and you get to choose something you have been wanting to do a long time instead of dressing up and going to another chicken dinner! But in this case, if you choose to buy tickets to this non-event, you get a “commemorative photo” of the event you did not go to by a fairly well-known or up-and-coming artist. Sight unseen, you get a discount. Once the image is unveiled, the price increases.

Donation Button: After reading this manual, you will definitely have a professional website. Consider adding a donation button to the site for a specific project. Not a nonprofit? Then look for a fiscal sponsor in order for your donors to receive a tax write off. (See Fiscal Sponsor section.)

Crowd Funding: For-profit (and sometimes nonprofit) organizations offer tools for creative professionals to raise funds for projects. Although these options have restrictions, monetary limits, and fees they can be a great source for funding your next project. Companies such as Kickstarter and IndieGoGo were the first to create crowd funding sources and are the most well known.

Product Sales: You may have a creative idea for a product that relates to your project, such as a CD of your music, video of your last performance, books, artwork, etc. Have a one-day sale and include every artist you know who has a CD of music, video, or performance. 

Dinners: Create a special dinner for donors. Hire artists to perform, read poetry, or provide other entertainment that relates to the project. Invite a special guest, such as an important artist or author. Artists have presented excellent themes (e.g.  guest wear all white), food as art material, and performance dinners.

Raffles: When Side Street Projects first began to raise money for the gallery, one of the ways that it paid for the receptions was to offer raffle tickets to the viewers during the openings. The raffle included lots of items and services, often related to the content of the work being shown. Sometimes the exhibiting artist would pitch in and create a small work or offer an artists’ book. Another old trick is to hold a 50/50 raffle. This is a simple raffle where the winner receives half of the winnings while the other half goes directly to the fundraising cause. This is not only a transparent and easy platform, but it also encourages competitive growth of the winnings.

Make-a-Wish List: Instead of writing grants to get “things,” consider going to the manufacturer and asking directly for a donation of that item. Need 10,000 cotton balls? Go to the source. Arrange to work with a fiscal sponsor if the donor needs a tax write off. Whenever you send a letter requesting money, include your wish list as an option for those who don’t have the cash to spare but just might have something else you need. Artists have received donations from national companies and local businesses for everything under the sun… including parking meters!

Cook-Off: Have an event like a Chili Cook-Off where guests buy tickets to taste all the different kinds of dishes. Relate the menu to your project.

Partnerships. Consider creating partnerships with other businesses or non profits. They don’t necessarily have to agree to show your work, but may help you with contacts, or provide venues and other support. Find an organization or business that is interested in the same ideas as you.

Repair Items and Re-sell: Invite donations for items you can easily repair and re-sell; e.g., used tools, bicycles, electronics, etc.

Rich Uncle or Aunt: Say you have a rich uncle or aunt who has agreed to give you some funding for your project. If necessary, set up a fiscal sponsorship with a nonprofit so s/he can get the tax write off, and you can get the funding. 

The idea here is to be creative about donated and earned income strategies to help diversify your arts funding. Funders love this entrepreneurial spirit, and artists benefit from a more consistent cash flow. Think smart and be creative to bring in money and supplies. Use this list as a starting point for ideas, and create something that pertains to the project you are raising money for. Use the funds you raise as matching funds for a grant, as funders like it when they are not the only ones funding a project.

No matter what, don’t quit.


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You can also get our popular book for artists, Getting Your Sh*t Together: The Ultimate Business Manual for Every Practicing Artist, which includes all of this information and more here.