In 2013, the Robert Bosch Foundation announced that it would consider American cultural managers for the first time in its 2014-2015 fellowship program, providing these professionals with an opportunity to experience a German arts institution from the inside. Laura Brower Hagood, who has a background in fundraising, communication, and audience development in the arts, was one of 15 Americans to receive the Bosch Fellowship.
In this article, originally published by the Arts Management Network, Laura recounts about her chance to collect international know-how, learn how the cultural sector operates in a different political and economic environment, and to reflect on her daily work in the United States.
Each year for the last 30, the Stuttgart-based Robert Bosch Foundation has brought 15-20 young to mid-career Americans to Germany to learn the language, explore the culture, and work in their respective fields for seven months to a year. In the past, Robert Bosch Fellows have mostly been drawn from fields like public policy, foreign affairs, journalism, and law. But, in fall 2014, just as I reached 40, the program’s upper age limit, the Bosch Foundation formally invited applications from the cultural management field for the first time. I decided to apply.
Some people thought it was risky. My employer wasn’t thrilled. The decision to leave a perfectly good job to live in Potsdam for seven months, without my beloved husband, certainly made no sense to my 90-year-old grandmother. Yet, most agreed that an opportunity to take a sabbatical from 20 years of communications and fundraising work in the cultural field was irresistible. In work-obsessed Washington, D.C. it was also virtually unheard of.
After an in-depth application and a grueling interview process, and despite the fantastic odds against it, the Bosch Foundation offered me the fellowship. I was embedded with the Prussian Palaces and Gardens Foundation’s small fundraising team in Potsdam. The questions that brought me there were simple ones: how are German cultural organizations responding to the challenge of raising private funds to supplement diminishing public funding? In what ways is German fundraising in the arts similar or different from what we see in the United States?
Robert Bosch Foundation Fellowship Program: strengthening the transatlantic relationship
The Bosch Foundation has a longstanding commitment to the transatlantic relationship, and since 1984, it has built a growing community of Bosch Fellowship alumni, now dispersed across the United States and in Europe. Fellows return home (or in some cases, stay in Germany) equipped with a new understanding of the political, economic, and cultural ties that link the U.S. to Germany, as well as the insight to foster these connections throughout their careers.
With the addition of cultural management, the fellowship now represents a profound, and to my knowledge, unrivaled professional development opportunity for Americans in this sector. German arts managers are in a somewhat better position, as the expansion aligns with two existing Bosch Foundation programs. In partnership with the Goethe-Institute, the Bosch Foundation supports exchanges in the Russian Federation and the Arab world. Yet this kind of sustained philanthropic investment in arts leadership, as many of us know all too well, remains highly unusual.
The adventure began with private German language lessons in April 2014. In July, I arrived in Berlin for a month of full-time language classes. German is no easy language, but 30 years of experience has shown that the better fellows speak the language, the better their experience in the German workplace.
Our first seminar, introducing us to the German political system, issues in domestic and external affairs, and the European Union, took place over three weeks in September in Berlin, Brussels, and Stuttgart. Our formal work placements began in October and lasted through February 2015. Then, our second seminar took us to Hamburg during local elections. While some of us returned to the United States at this stage, most fellows stayed in Germany for a second work placement, followed by the third seminar in May. In addition, each fellow focused on a transatlantic research topic and presented their findings at the second and third seminars, a cross-disciplinary highlight for all of us.
Fundraising at the Prussian Palaces and Gardens Foundation: A big task for a big institution
Working with exceptional colleagues just steps away from Frederick the Great’s Sanssouci Palace, I learned about the remarkable early successes the Prussian Palaces and Gardens Foundation has enjoyed in raising funds to preserve this historic treasure, as well as the legal and structural challenges it experiences. “Two lawyers, three opinions” soon became a favorite German expression, as I witnessed my peers struggle with a complex tax structure that complicated sponsorship negotiations; data privacy laws that slowed the development of a fundraising database; and accounting systems that have not been adapted to new revenue streams.
As I tried to support my German colleagues, it became clear that these systemic challenges required new solutions. For instance, whereas membership programs are managed in-house in the U.S., friends associations are external to their nonprofits in Germany. How do you develop a major giving program, if you don’t have access to your small donors’ information? How do you “share” donors and their information with another entity? Answering these questions, in a foreign language and with lots of gesturing, demands creativity and flexibility, exactly the kinds of problem-solving skills international fellowships promote.
My German colleagues were interested in adapting U.S. fundraising practices, but were judicious and thoughtful about cultural differences. Many conversations centered on what may or may not be effective in a Brandenburger setting. Galas at $10,000 a plate: probably not. Planned giving for individuals who wish to express their values after their death: maybe, yes. Donor interest in arts education: absolutely. This experience helped me distinguish between core, if not universal, fundraising principles, such as the benefits of philanthropic giving and the importance of building relationships, from specific fundraising strategies and tactics. I also came to appreciate that there are multiple pathways to the same optimal result.
Over the course of my research and conversations with other German colleagues, it also became evident that philanthropic funding for arts and culture has significant potential. Organizations able and willing to experiment (and yes, sometimes fail) now, will be those in the best position to benefit from this trend in the future. Until then, major, international organizations like Greenpeace, WWF, and UNICEF are already importing tactics used internationally and are contributing to the reawakening of a German culture of philanthropy, which has strong historic and religious roots.
Germany and the United States: polar-opposite models for arts funding
Differences in our funding structures and the implications for how we manage our cultural organizations were especially striking during the fellowship. U.S. arts nonprofits draw only 9% of their funding from local, regional, and national government sources, which means that, on a day-to-day basis, organizations, audiences, funders, and board members are linked in a tight feedback loop. Most arts nonprofits must make artistic and programmatic decisions based on whether an audience exists to support their work, whether in the form of ticket purchases or private donations. This connection is of such significance to the organization’s sustainability that it must be directly relevant and intimately connected to its community of patrons in order to flourish.
At the same time, U.S. organizations are on a short leash. The economic downturn in 2008 and 2009 had a devastating effect on arts nonprofits, which are highly reliant on private individual giving. Programs and staffing were cut across the board, and while the sector is now bouncing back, the memory remains fresh: the arts are not a stable business.
In contrast, the German system of sustained government subsidies provides real reliability, allowing arts organizations to plan over the long-term and encouraging the production of art for art’s sake, a value rarely articulated in the U.S. The Prussian Palaces and Gardens Foundation has recently benefited from multi-year capital investment in its 33 palaces and 150 historic structures. As I visited Weimar, Dresden, and Berlin, I learned that Potsdam was only one of many cities restoring their cultural infrastructure with millions and millions of taxpayer Euros. This kind of sustained, long-term investment in culture is for all intents and purposes unheard of in the U.S. and represented for me an exciting and reinvigorating perspective.
However, the links between German organizations, their audiences, and even society at large were less clear, less convincing, than in the U.S. In museum after museum, with a few notable exceptions, I found outmoded display and interpretive techniques that ensured that only German nationals with an intimate familiarity with art history or European history would enjoy seeing them. Almost entirely funded through government subsidies, these institutions are often missing a key feedback loop that ensures responsiveness to their audiences’ needs and wants. And, while American organizations have fully embraced arts education as a vehicle for building diverse and multicultural audiences now and into the future, the German arts sector remains too tentative in realizing this potential.
Back in the United States: Bosch Fellowship lessons learned and next steps
In short, the Bosch Fellowship offered an exceptional window on German practices in cultural management, and because the Bosch Foundation provided our group with meaningful exposure to political, economic, and social issues in Germany, I could also put this information in context and understand the larger forces at work. As a result, every conversation, every new contact, and every museum visit seemed replete with new and thrilling insight and learning.
At basic level, I absorbed an immense amount of tangible information about a new environment in a short period of time, which I now hope to leverage in a career that spans the U.S. and Europe. In fact, recent research on international exchange programs has found that participating individuals are more likely to gravitate toward international careers, demonstrating how truly life-changing these programs can be.
In addition to language and intercultural communication skills, soft skills were also in play. At the end of my time at the Prussian Palaces and Gardens Foundation, general director Hartmut Dorgerloh asked me to provide the organization’s leadership with unvarnished feedback on how it could improve its development strategy. The resulting PowerPoint presentation reflected not only a decade of professional expertise and newfound language skills, but also the adaptability, creativity, and problem-solving skills I had strengthened between biergartens, Christmas markets, and epic amounts of doner kebab.
Everywhere I went in Germany, my fundraising and marketing peers were eager to exchange insights and share common concerns, and now that I am back home, this demand for professional dialogue has stayed with me the most.
In July 2015, I joined the staff of Cultural Vistas, a nonprofit organization that facilitates and promotes professional and cultural exchanges, including the Robert Bosch Fellowship. With an office in Berlin and registered as a nonprofit in Germany, Cultural Vistas provides a welcome forum for continuing this dialogue, and just as the Bosch Foundation would have wished, for doing my part to foster the transatlantic relationship.
For more information about the Robert Bosch Foundation Fellowship and opportunities for cultural managers, visit culturalvistas.org/bosch.
This article first appeared in the August 2015 edition of the Arts Management Network newsletter, a quarterly magazine for the global perspective in arts and business.