4 Things I’ve Learned About Working in Donor Relations in the Arts

Michelle Greenspoon
Associate Director, Donor Relations
Art Gallery of Ontario

I’ve worked in donor relations for over a decade. I’ve had the good fortune to work with international development, as well as healthcare- and education-focused nonprofits, and now I’ve found my new home in the arts, with the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) in Toronto.

I was both excited and nervous to come to the AGO, an established institution with an incredible reputation. What if everything I knew didn’t matter? What if everything was completely different? How could I possibly contribute to this massive mission to bring people together with art to see, experience and understand the world in new ways? What if I didn't know enough about art?

In short, my concerns were unfounded. Here are a few things I’ve recognized:

  1. No matter how different the cause and the donors (although I have to admit I’ve seen many common donors across all of the organizations I’ve worked with), the underpinning remains the same: donors want to understand the impact of their generosity. But what that impact is and how it’s presented can be a completely different ballgame.

    I’ve worked for organizations that do not have any physical recognition opportunities, as well as those with a wide range of naming opportunities. I’ve worked for organizations that have a massive sustaining base of monthly donors, but not a lot of major gift activity, as well as organizations that are extremely top heavy with major gift support, but don’t have much of an annual pipeline. You know what they all have in common? Their donors care deeply about the organization they are supporting, whether they give $20 or $20 million. Their motivations for giving might be different, but the key to success in donor relations at any organization is understanding those differences and how to use them to deliver the best donor experience.
  1. Donor relations serves as a bridge between teams across the organization – marketing and communications, those delivering the work, and finance, for example. Most importantly, donor relations helps strike a balance between representing the best interests of donors and the organization. Building strong relationships across the organization is critical, and that’s been a constant in every organization I’ve been with.
  1. Each year of experience I’ve had, each new role I’ve taken on, each field of work, and each mentor I’ve been able to meet throughout my journey has prepared me to be here. I am excited about how much I get to personally learn and grow in this role, and I am confident that I have the necessary and fundamental background to be successful. When it comes to making a decision that is in an unfamiliar area (I’m looking at you, exhibitions!), I have my experience and instincts, as well as an incredible team around me to help ensure I’m making the right call. I’ve also reached out to the ADRP network and met many new wonderful people who’ve been so generous with their time to help me understand best practices within donor relations and stewardship in the arts.
  1. The institution is the destination. I get to work every day with hundreds of people who are passionate about the AGO. My colleagues are incredibly creative, knowledgeable and interesting. The art comes to life through our curatorial, interpretive planning, design, public programming and learning and education teams – in other words, it’s way more fun than an art history course! It’s not just a job, or a step on the ladder. This is the place that my colleagues want to be, and I felt like that coming here. I knew I had to be here. Don’t get me wrong – I’ve felt deeply committed to the organizations I’ve worked at before, and I know my colleagues at those places have too. But there’s just something very special about being in an arts institution that I can’t quite put my finger on. I occasionally still catch myself in a state of disbelief that I get to work here. Every day is truly different, and that’s one of the things I love most about this role.

I feel deeply grateful to be part of an institution that wants to make art accessible to all. It’s inspiring and invigorating to walk the halls of the AGO, surrounded by world class art and diverse visitors every day. It’s certainly the only job I’ve ever had that I want to visit on the weekend – and as a bonus, my children think I work at the coolest place!

Back to the August 2019 Hub