Allison Gauss
4 min
Art Start Classy 100 blog header

How This Arts Organization Is Still Growing 25 Years Later

Founded in New York City in 1991, Art Start has developed a strong community of volunteers to complement the efforts of their small staff. Their support allows the organization to offer creative arts workshops five days a week at local shelters.

In order to not only sustain but expand Art Start’s life-changing programs, their administrative team works to constantly improve and adapt their strategy. For example, their impressive growth in online fundraising in 2016 earned Art Start a spot on the Classy 100 list.

To learn from their success and understand how they adjust to shifts in funding sources and use online engagement to nurture donors, we spoke with Cynthia Ceilan, Art Start’s marketing and development manager.

Navigating the New Funding Landscape

Although some consider access to the arts a luxury, art has a transformative power to uplift people, inspiring them to overcome challenges and envision a better future. Which is why Art Start has used photography, music, dance, painting, and other forms to empower families in need for the past 25 years in New York City. Their programs for homeless youth and adolescents in the criminal justice system help young people discover their passions, learn new skills, and build relationships.

To protect and grow these programs, Art Start relies on a variety of funding sources. This strategy is essential for all nonprofit organizations, particularly when they rely on any government grants or contracts. The current political climate has threatened traditional sources of funding for the arts. This makes diversification an even greater priority for nonprofits like Art Start.

“It’s really important to engage individual donors as much as the larger corporations or foundations or even government contracts. The government contracts are more difficult to get, especially in the current political climate…art is just not considered that important,” said Ceilan.

To fortify their development strategy, Art Start works hard to cultivate individual giving and take advantage of online fundraising. Although they’ve relied more on direct mail in the past, Ceilan noted that online campaigns now enable the organization to reach a much wider audience.

Infographic: Classy 100 By the Numbers

Crafting Artistic Campaigns

Branding and design is important for any nonprofit, but for an arts organization, pleasing aesthetics are an absolute must. To create campaign assets that resonate with Art Start’s audience, artists drive the organization at every level, from administration to volunteers to advisors.

“Just about everybody involved in the organization has a very strong arts background…even within the organization and the board of directors, we have people who are themselves accomplished working professionals in the world of arts and entertainment,” said Ceilan.

Looking at Art Start’s website and their expertly produced programs videos, it’s easy to assume they are a big organization with lots of resources. In reality, their administrative staff is just four people. Ceilan points to the team’s artistic background as a primary reason they are able to create such quality assets.

Their online fundraising campaigns are an example of one such asset. And while Art Start happens to employee a team of talented artists, the newly redesigned Classy fundraising suite makes it possible to create a beautiful campaign, no matter your background. Art Start recently combined their creative know-how and use of Classy to create their monthly giving campaign, Metronome.

arts organization fundraising page

arts organization donation levels

The microsite incorporates the organization’s brand while illustrating the unique power of recurring giving. Even their impact blocks tell a story. The images show the creation of a mural and as the donation sizes get larger, the artwork becomes more complete. With tons of new design features, Art Start and other organizations have the freedom to build campaigns on Classy that meet their needs and reach their audiences.

Personal Engagement for Individual Donors

Along with giving donors a cohesive, branded experience, Art Start found communicating with donors both as a group and individually to be an important strategy for nurturing support. The nonprofit sends emails to supporters once or twice a month with general updates on their work. Ceilan’s team was surprised, though, at the value they found in sending individuals a quick, personalized thank you message.

For example, one woman recently made a small gift online in honor of a friend’s birthday. Touched by the heartfelt note the woman left on the campaign page, Ceilan reached out personally.

“She wrote back to me and she said, ‘well, you know it’s funny you’ve contacted me. My father passed away recently and our family friend donated $1,000 in lieu of flowers and said to give it to a charity your father would have loved.’”

After learning a bit more about Art Start, the donor decided to direct the $1,000 gift to their mission. Interactions like this have encouraged Ceilan to give that extra acknowledgement and engagement to smaller donors. “You just never really know who you are talking to,” she added.

The Next Steps in Art Start’s Growth

With their Portrait Project exhibition, which highlights the stories of the families Art Start serves, and their 25th anniversary celebrations, Ceilan and her team have been very busy. Nevertheless, they’re taking time to plan and prepare for the next phase of Art Start’s growth and development strategy.

To help foster a more personalized experience on a larger scale, Ceilan plans to dive deep into Art Start’s email list to segment donors. This way, Art Start can send their supporters the stories, information, and appeals that are most relevant to them.

Art Start also wants to grow their monthly giving program. Recurring giving was an important growth lever for many organizations recognized in the Classy 100. It provides stable income, which sustains nonprofits even when they aren’t running a major fundraising campaign.

With more personalized communication and monthly giving, Art Start can build on their already impressive brand and design and continue bringing art, creativity, and hope to young people facing homelessness.


  • Very good observations here. I can’t wait to learn more about Art Start!

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