Inside IPM: Meet Melissa Cowley Wolf
“Inside IPM” is an ongoing series featuring the talented players who comprise the IPM Advancement team! Here you’ll learn all about the people who work behind the scenes at IPM to help nonprofits raise more money to make the world a better place. Today, we’re talking to…
Melissa Cowley Wolf, Consultant
How long have you been working in the field of nonprofit fundraising?
Nonprofit fundraising has been my sole professional focus since I was 20 years old. While studying art history, I knew I wanted to work in cultural organizations. I intended to pursue a curatorial track, but became more interested in the cultural organization’s relationship with its stakeholders, and how it functions within the urban fabric. So I quickly tumbled into development work, enjoying serving as an ambassador for arts organizations, creating authentic relationships with constituents, and connecting them to areas where they could make a distinct impact with their giving. I started my own consulting practice in 2017 focused on expanding the next generation of cultural audiences, advocates, and philanthropists.
How did you decide to focus on next generation donors and the arts?
Over the course of my career as an institutional fundraiser, I noticed increasingly divergent trends in affinity and giving among the traditional donor class and next generation philanthropists. Put simply, next generation audiences have been turning away from the arts. Since we are currently experiencing the largest intergenerational wealth transfer in history, this poses an existential threat to arts organizations. I became interested in helping solve this problem. As a consultant, I partner with arts organizations on the critical work of strategic re-envisioning, storytelling, and philanthropic planning to engage these donors in the work of driving social change through arts funding.
Where are you originally from?
I’m a Chicago native, but I’ve spent big chunks of my life in Colorado and New York City; I’m kind of a hybrid. I’ve also traveled extensively, combining professional opportunities and personal curiosity about different cultures. I’ve studied, worked, and lived in the UK, Europe, and Africa.
What are some of your favorite things about these places?
I love the pride Chicagoans have in their city. It’s a distinctly American city, and it doesn’t aim to be anything else. The work ethic is tremendous; it’s a wonderful place to be a professional because people take their work seriously and are incredibly collaborative. And it’s so clean!
I think New York City is the best international city, and one with a tremendous creative ecosystem. New York is resilient. New York is authentically diverse. New York is whatever the heck it wants to be, and you’ll just have to deal with it.
Colorado has an unparalleled natural beauty and rapidly growing creative industries; it’s a terrific, balanced combination. I love the adventurous spirit of the people. And they also totally bring the chill.
What were the most meaningful lessons you learned early on in your career that helped prepare you for the work you do today?
Hearing “no” is as helpful as hearing “yes” in fundraising. You can then ask questions — such as “What would make you want to give to this organization?” — and then incorporate what you heard, reprioritize, and move on.
What about your childhood might have influenced your choice to get involved in nonprofit fundraising?
My mom was an artist and art teacher who exposed me to the arts from day one. She brought me to museums, to dance and live music performances. She stressed the importance of supporting arts and artists. She created a culture of giving back — in both time and treasure — in our family, regardless of how much or little we could give. That early exposure shaped my appreciation for all art forms, and embedded in me an ethos of philanthropy.
Let’s talk about next generation giving trends. What are some changes or opportunities in that area that you see on the horizon for nonprofits as they enter this new decade?
So much. Acutely listening to audiences. Clarifying the narrative. Storytelling honestly. Clearly articulating the need. Authentically determining and describing social impact. Investing in community building. Fostering holistic diversity and access. These are required practices to recruit next generation audiences and supporters to create resilient and effective 21st century art organizations.
Organizations should ask themselves these questions: Have we honestly evaluated, and are we clearly communicating, our relevance? Who are we serving? Are we deeply listening to our audience? How are we advancing social impact? Are we accountable to all of our communities?
How do you maintain a healthy work-life balance to ensure you can give your best in both areas?
Humor. Perspective. And yoga.
If you could give a nonprofit one and only one piece of advice that would best prepare them to be financially stable for the next decade, what would it be?
Embrace holistic diversity, sustainability, and social impact in all its forms. This is what the next generations of donors and audiences want to see. This will help create transparency and trust. This will strengthen your case for support. From prioritizing a socially responsible investment policy for the organization’s endowment to articulating your value proposition — these are the practices necessary for success.