Funding the arts in the Twin Cities once took little more effort than a meal and a spiel.

"It used to be you took someone to lunch at the Minneapolis Club, told them about this great group that deserved support, and they'd write you a check," said Ford Bell, grandson of the founder of General Mills.

But the circle of wealthy philanthropists who made up the "greatest generation" of arts giving in Minnesota is growing ever smaller. Several have died in just the past two years, including George Pillsbury, John Ordway Jr., Thomas Crosby Jr., and John and Sage Cowles.

With fewer wealthy patrons willing to give enormous sums, arts organizations must invest more resources to reach greater numbers of smaller givers. They must conform to more stringent standards.

Today's younger donors "don't want to give just because a museum is a great place to visit and has always been there," said Bell, a trustee of the Minneapolis Institute of Arts (MIA) who heads the American Alliance of Museums in Washington, D.C. "They say: What's the community impact? That's something we measure now that we didn't used to."

Once during the 1970s, the Guthrie Theater was so cash-strapped it was in danger of not being able to make payroll. A staffer simply went over to board member Polly Grose's house and coaxed her away from her garden long enough to secure a check to cover it.

The late Ken Dayton, who gave millions to the Minnesota Orchestra and whose widow, Judy, continues that support, was "my idol," Bell said. "He'd say, if I think enough of you to make a big contribution, then I have to believe you know how to best use it. You didn't have to show him the 10 additional widgets you were able to produce."

That was then, this is now.

"These legendary families are aging out, and we have to address it," said Danielle St. Germain-Gordon, development director at the Guthrie Theater, which recently announced its largest operating loss in 20 years. "The future will look very different."

Going their own way

Many of today's big givers still come from the One Percent, but their wealth doesn't go back as far. Marilyn Carlson Nelson, of the Carlson Companies fortune, recently led a fundraising effort to resolve the Minnesota Orchestra labor dispute by offering $20,000 bonuses to each musician. William McGuire, former head of UnitedHealth Group, and his wife, Nadine, have given $10 million each to Walker Art Center and the Guthrie in the past 10 years.

But potential future major givers, those in their 40s and younger, may not be as tied to Minneapolis or St. Paul and want to create their own legacies rather than build on those of their parents.

Instead of attending black-tie dinners, they use social media to build donations and meet the people they're supporting.

"The younger folk are more mobile and don't feel that deep indebtedness to one city," said Jeremy Wells, 35, who matches donors with nonprofits as a vice president at Minnesota Philanthropy Partners in St. Paul. "They're continuing to fund the arts, but they might choose innovative work as opposed to the traditional."

Judson Dayton, Ken and Judy Dayton's son, sees it as "the end of an era in some ways. People are still picking up where their parents left off, but it's often for different, smaller organizations."

Blythe Brenden embodies this generational transition. Brenden, 46, whose family money comes from her grandfather, the late theater mogul Ted Mann, runs her own foundation, is a prominent supporter of the MIA and serves on the boards of the Guthrie and arts developer Artspace.

Brenden's foundation will shortly announce the first recipients of a new micro-grant program, all for $10,000 or less.

"I don't want to just be a check writer, I want to be authentically engaged," she said. "For organizations that have been doing things the same way for so long, it's a hard transition. … Rather than the same small group of individuals they've relied on for so many years, they have to go after multiple sources and learn how to attract younger donors."

Giving goes corporate

Do the larger institutions who received million-dollar gifts now stand to lose the most?

"They will have to make sure their appeal is broad enough so they can build a larger base," Judson Dayton said. "They'll also have to work harder. It takes a lot of people giving $500 to make up for those multi­million gifts, which fewer and fewer people are capable of giving."

Corporations are, however. The Twin Cities is home to several that have steadily increased arts donations, in part because the Five Percent Club — a giveback fund launched in the 1970s by Ken Dayton — set a strong precedent. Also, a thriving arts scene attracts top employee talent.

Since 2002, the Dayton-founded Target Corp. has been the top overall arts contributor in Minnesota, giving more than $33.2 million in 2011, up from $20 million in 2001. General Mills, US Bank and Travelers Corp. are consistently among the top 10 arts contributors, according to the Minnesota Council on Foundations.

Funding in the Twin Cities reflects a national shift toward programs that connect the arts with social services, health and economic development, said Janet Brown, president of the Seattle-based consulting group Grantmakers in the Arts. But while corporate support for the arts has declined nationally, Minnesota companies continue to be strong backers, she said.

Corporate dollars, however, often come with strings attached. "Just as corporations are now being held more accountable to stockholders than individual leaders, there's a much higher expectation of results you can see and count," said Artspace director Kelley Lindquist, adding that many nonprofits now replace the word "gift" with "investment" when courting donors.

Minnesota's Legacy Fund has infused nearly $200 million into the cultural sector in the past four years, but those grants are spread more thinly, and often aimed at nontraditional arts programs.

More donors, smaller gifts

Perhaps no local arts institution has benefited more from family largesse than the MIA.

Individual philanthropy remains a bigger source of the museum's income than corporate grants, said advancement director Julianne Amendola, "but we've had to pitch a bigger tent to get a higher percentage of our audience giving than before."

Major arts organizations are diversifying their boards as well, added Amendola. The ability to make substantial personal contributions is still a prerequisite, but more leaders are coming from global professional backgrounds, such as Best Buy CEO Hubert Joly, the French-born executive who is now the MIA's board chair

The days when collecting windfalls from a handful of loyal backers was the norm may never return, but that's not necessarily bad news, said Vickie Benson, arts program director for the McKnight Foundation, founded by 3M heirs and one of Minnesota's top arts funders.

"People like Sage Cowles paved the path for others to contribute, and no one can ever replace her," she said. "But a broader base — more people contributing to a greater number of arts groups — is healthy for the ecosystem."

Kristin Tillotson • 612-673-7046