Using the Arts to Support Nonprofits

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By Windi White

Leaders of nonprofits all have a few things in common – we believe in dedicating ourselves to working for the common good, money isn’t always the bottom line for us when it comes to our work, and we’re convinced that if we could get enough people to hear the stories of the life-changing work happening in our communities every day, they’d all become major donors overnight. Right?

Well, I’m convinced most of that is true (at least the first two), but as the director of development at Healing Transitions, an addiction recovery nonprofit organization that’s been around for nearly 20 years, one thing I’ve also seen firsthand is the struggle my team has faced trying to find new, fresh ways to engage our audiences. Newsletters, social media posts, campus tours? Check, check and check. We were looking for something different.

This year, as we looked with excitement toward the end of our $16.75 million capital campaign, Recovery Can’t Wait, my team challenged ourselves to come up with some creative ideas that would refresh and re-energize our community around our cause: bringing hope, healing and recovery to those in the midst of addiction.

One of the first things that came to mind was an event focused on recovery and the arts, but we weren’t sure where to begin. We knew we had a lot of talented artists within our network, but tapping into that community felt overwhelming. We had never done anything like this before, but we were confident it would be a great partnership.

The capital campaign team started talking to several artists who had been through our program or had another connection to Healing Transitions. At the time, I hadn’t yet started working at Healing Transitions, but I was regularly volunteering to teach painting and art therapy classes at the men’s and women’s campuses. Art has had a huge impact on my own recovery, and I was thrilled to join the steering committee to help Healing Transitions plan the yet-unnamed art event.

Leading those classes was an incredible learning experience for me. I’m convinced I got more out of those classes than all of the participants combined. In real-time, I had the privilege to witness how powerful art can be in the healing process, whether you’re in recovery or not. It was completely transformative, and motivated me even more to help get the creative arts event launched.

After some brainstorming, our team of incredible volunteers developed the “Art of Recovery” concept – an event we’re hosting for the first time in Raleigh, North Carolina, Saturday, Oct. 16.

“Art of Recovery” features artwork from local artists who are in recovery or have been impacted by addiction. This year, our goal is simply to test out a new event concept and raise awareness about addiction and recovery. However, ultimately our hope is that we can have this event become our annual fundraising event.

Using arts to help advance the causes of nonprofits might feel new to some of you, like it did to us as well. But we can look to other leaders in the nonprofit sector who have gone before us as trailblazers, offering wisdom and insights for those of us behind. In 2018, Nonprofit Quarterly and Artsy both looked at ways the nonprofit and the arts communities were combining forces, and some of the successes and challenges they faced in this new-found partnership.

Incorporating art events into nonprofit fundraising is a way to find a language that everyone can understand. I think art is one of the greatest gifts of humanity, and to me, there is no higher calling than the service work that nonprofit staff do every day. So, art brings these two beautiful things together into one unstoppable force.

As we look expectantly toward our inaugural “Art of Recovery” event, here are three tips I’d offer to anyone else considering how to incorporate arts into your nonprofit work:

1. Be the Leader

You’re the expert in your sector. You don’t also have to be the artist. As a leader, it can be tempting to think we have to bring all of the answers to every problem our teams face, but when it comes to the arts, if this isn’t your skill set, find someone who is the expert and … (see No. 2)

2. Ask for Help

We found that as soon as we started reaching out to local artists in our community for help, others raised their hands, too. Before we knew it, we had dozens of artists, volunteers and vendors eager to participate in an event that only weeks earlier had only existed in our conference room as a brainstorming idea.

3. Be Willing To Fail

When we initially came up with this concept, our executive director told us to “raise less money,” which was odd since my team’s primary goal is to fundraise for the organization. The concept bewildered me, but slowly, as he explained to us what he meant, it started to sink in. I began to realize that when it comes to fundraising, you can’t simply keep raising the bar higher and higher each year and expect your team to follow.

In our case, we have already been doing an excellent job. In fact, we just closed out our multi-year, $16.75 million capital campaign and exceeded our fundraising goals. It’s been a big year for our team. This year’s goal for a creative fundraising event was to try something new (and be willing to fail if it doesn’t work) — and the “Art of Recovery” event was born!

I think in life, whether you’re in recovery or not, we all tell ourselves these stories of failure, of expectations, of what we think things are supposed to look like. And we’re constantly disappointed because we never match up to what we think everyone else is doing. Painting — and really any kind of art — is about letting go. It’s abstract, layered and complex. Allowing the picture, or our lives, to evolve over time, to me, that’s really the beauty of what bringing art and nonprofits together can do for each of us.

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