19 years post-NAFS and the learning is still having an impact
In this guest blog, National Arts Fundraising School alumna Fiona Mason, now a freelance writer, arts consultant and Development Manager for Pacitti Company, shares her story since attending the School.
It’s a bright, crisp November day in 1998 when I arrive at the country house hotel outside Bath, Gloucestershire, for the National Arts Fundraising School (NAFS). I delight in watching my breath hang in the cold air. In the wooded valley that holds the stone building in its V, a nearby copse of silver birch trees cling to their autumn-gold leaves like it is money. A breeze moves through the branches and a few shimmering discs tumble to the woodland floor, which now resembles a bright carpet of coins.
Clearly I’ve got money on my mind, as even this pastoral scene has become a metaphor for how to raise money with ease from people or organisations intent on keeping hold of it.
Alongside the excitement of learning something new, the prospect of the week ahead also comes with a certain weight of responsibility – my employer, a small arts centre in the east of England, has invested in me. ‘No pressure’, they said, but they must be hoping for big things, especially given =mc’s famous ‘money back guarantee’.
Although I’m a gregarious person, I’m feeling a little nervous. I’m convinced I’ll be spending an intimidating week with seasoned fundraising pros, specialists who already know the ropes, whereas I’m a generalist and a fundraising newbie. My Jill-of-all-trades role of Administrator sees me counting bar takings, doing the payroll, selling tickets, welcoming artists, writing press releases and duty managing events. Of late it has also included drafting small funding applications. NAFS is a big deal for me. It’s the first proper professional training I’ve engaged with, having learned arts admin on the hoof until now. I take a deep breath, tell myself ‘I can do it’ and climb the stone steps into the lobby. There I’m greeted with an outstretched hand and a warm smile, putting me at my ease in moments.
Later, at the first group session, I’m relieved to discover that we’re all pretty much in the same boat. Whether in senior or more junior roles, most of us are fundraising beginners and even those with more experience have specific needs and gaps they’re hoping to fill. We bond over tea, coffee and bourbons, then over dinner and wine, sharing our stories of projects we’re passionate about, the organisations and artists we’re committed to supporting and the frustrations we have in common, mostly around how to manage the sometimes unrealistic expectations about what fundraising is and what can be achieved.
Over the days that follow, we absorb theory and practice through a blended approach that mixes talks and presentations with workshopping and feedback. We cover everything from writing a compelling case for support, to understanding the donor journey, how to (and how not to) approach trusts and foundations, building a nuanced case for public funding, making the ask from individual givers and how to position your project for a pitch to corporates. I am surprised how invested we all become in the activities, especially the presentation skills session. Donning formal clobber and feeling every palm-sweating and gut-churning ounce of pre-performance nerves, we work in small teams to step-up and pitch our ‘fantasy arts project’ ideas to the room; our peers, trainers and a corporate guest the critical stand-ins for a potential corporate sponsor.
After a week of early mornings, long intense days and late nights putting the world to rights, I say farewell to my cohort, armed with an array of fundraising tools and knowledge and a network of new peers and friends with whom to share my fundraising journey.
That was nearly 20 years ago, and I’m pleased to report that I didn’t need to claim a refund on my course fees. In fact, within 8-months of attending the School, I stopped counting bar takings on a Monday morning and started in a senior management position as General Manager of a national arts organisation. NAFS gave me the confidence to forge new relationships with funders, to speak with authority to stakeholders of all stripes and to communicate effectively with the board and senior team. Successful bids for projects, core funding and capital development followed and by the time I left, 6-years later, I’d raised over £3m. After that I began working independently, as an arts consultant, fundraiser and producer, supporting artists and organisations across art forms and securing funding for a wide range of projects.
These days, I combine my arts consulting practice with fundraising for Pacitti Company and developing my own projects as a writer, artist and educator, but I still remember and use the lessons I learned at the National Arts Fundraising School and to date I have raised over £5.6m right across the contemporary arts.
Would I recommend NAFS? Yes, without hesitation. Go, learn, enjoy and then head back to your organisation or independent career and practice and keep practicing until you succeed and keep succeeding. Alongside tip-top communication skills, empathy and passion, resilience and tenacity are what will get you through the challenges in what is the toughest climate for arts funding that I’ve known in my 20+ years in the sector. The stakes are high and the competition for a diminishing pot of funding is fierce. There’s never been a more critical time to be an arts fundraiser and the support of peers facing the same challenges as you is invaluable. High quality, relevant learning and a wonderful network of peers are, I think, the gifts from the National Arts Fundraising School that will keep on giving, long after the event and throughout your career.
Follow Fiona on twitter: @fi_mason