Where are the Missing DSO Donors?

In only a dozen years, 1996 to 2008, the DSO’s donor base plummeted 80% from a high of 25,000 donors to fewer than 5,000.


*Data Source: DSO’s Development Department

Why did 20,000 DSO donors disappear?

When asked what the reason was for the precipitous decline in donor numbers, Pamela Ruthven, former CFO and VP for Development, provided an explanation to the Sub-Finance Committee of Strategic Planning on July 27, 2006. She recorded the following statements:

“Over the past three years, the fundraising goals have been achieved to a large degree by extracting increasingly larger gifts out of an increasingly smaller pool of donors.”

“For the next several years, we will need to focus on increasing the number of donors (adding new donors.) This is something that we have not done in recent years, as our primary objective was to raise the most fundraising revenue as quickly as cheaply as possible, given the financial challenges the organization was facing.”

“We also discussed the high rate of turnover in the development department, some of the drivers behind it and its negative impact on our ability to efficiently fundraise.”

Where did the missing DSO’s donors go?

  • Some donors inevitably moved or passed away.
  • Fundraising targets were achieved year-after-year by employing the cheaper strategy of requesting larger, and as it turned out, multiple gifts annually from the most wealthy supporters of the Detroit Symphony. The core of this small pool of donors were, and still are, the DSO’s Board of Directors.
  • This strategy allowed the DSO to reduce costs by not having to solicit a host of small and mid-range donors. However, when the DSO stopped asking – most of these donors stopped giving.

Development staff remained at the DSO an of average only 15 months before leaving to find work elsewhere, reducing the effectiveness of the DSO’s fundraising efforts.

Despite having identified the need to grow the donor numbers and stem the revolving door in the development department in 2006, those trends continued unabated through 2010. The donor base was allowed to erode even further and four different VP’s for development were hired between 2007 and 2010.

Now, eight years of heroic giving has stretched DSO’s board members beyond their capacity to give more, and they are convinced that Metro Detroit can no longer afford a world-class orchestra because they can no long afford one. The eighty-seven member board accounts for almost 50% of the individual giving which supports the symphony. The DSO’s wide and deep donor base has melted away.

In DSO Dashboard – January 2010, a document created with the help of TDC consultants hired by the Hudson Weber Foundation, management acknowledged that many potential donors still exist in the Metro Detroit area when they set a goal to double the size of the donor base from 5,000 donors to 10,000 in just three years.

The question is: If the DSO’s leadership recognized that this many lapsed and new donors could be cultivated in a relatively short time, why haven’t the DSO’s leadership engaged in a massive public campaign, in the last year, to reach these donors more quickly?

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4 Responses to Where are the Missing DSO Donors?


    The DSO Board needs to take a lesson from public radio and tv. They always state over and over that it is not the amount of the donation that matters, just that people donate. In this way, they create a large, broad based community base, and involve a large number of stakeholders in the product. This is not rocket science. I cannot count anymore the number of ways the DSO Management and Board have run this jewel of an orchestra into the ground. Time for them to go, replaced by those who believe in the product of a world class orchestra, sound financial management, and real community involvement.

  2. Shelly Rouse-Freitag says:

    Dear Board of Directors,
    I truly feel sorry for you for having given so much, yet see so little effort from management to go along with your incredible level of giving. To have so many people leave a department that is vital to your organization is a rather telling tale in the effectiveness of your management team. I hope can see that you are being given a sense of empowerment in this situation and it is only jeopardizing and destroying a cohesive group of fine musicians. It is just heart breaking. I never believed that such a group of powerful, intelligent people would let such a situation go so far, much less believe that it is truly the only way out. The development leaders understood and left. I’m sure they are afraid to say anything publicly, but I think their actions speak loudly of the confidence in the current management team to have a successful resolution to this situation.

    Respectfully yours,

  3. These statistics are absolutely vital, key information for understand DSO’s current crisis! Thanks for sharing these!

  4. I am smirking as I read this because I recall someone on the DSO page calling the musicians “elitists”. It sounds to me like the Development Department at the DSO just felt like taking the easy way out soliciting large donations from a small pool of the wealthiest donors. I suppose they figured out it was okay to snub their noses at $5.00 to $100.00 or so donations. Well, if there ever was an elitist attitude I guess this is it. Perhaps this is why the attitude of some of the Detroit community is “who needs the DSO”? Apparently the only ones the Development Department and management thought worthy of soliciting and engaging were the “rich and famous”. Question: Didn’t your mother ever tell you to watch the pennies and the dollars would take care of themselves? You are snobs from the word go. You have put yourself in this situation management and board of directors. You are on a sinking ship equivalent to the Titanic. Let’s see if the super-wealthy will toss you a rope or five or ten bucks to buy one!

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