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Corporate Giving to the Arts: Making the Strategic Connection

Posted by Margaret Coady
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Corporate Giving to the Arts: Making the Strategic Connection

Though it may seem counterintuitive the first time you hear it, grantmakers and philanthropists will tell you the same thing: giving money away is hard work. Or more precisely, the hard work is allocating funds thoughtfully and with seriousness about making a real difference.

 

My role as director of the Committee Encouraging Corporate Philanthropy (CECP) puts me in close contact with the corporate giving officers who oversee the philanthropic budgets of the largest companies in the country and world, and in my seven years here I’ve come to understand some of their core challenges.

 

While many of the hurdles are tactical—giving officers typically work on small teams responsible for coordinating hundreds of grants across multiple countries—often the harder part of the job is more fundamental: setting and maintaining a coherent corporate giving strategy.

 

Who and what will the company fund? Why those causes and not others? Why those grantees and not others?

 

The rationale for the funding decisions must be rock-solid. After all, it can be difficult to explain to employees, shareholders, and others why a company can continue grantmaking in an economic climate in which they are simultaneously laying off workers and shutting down regional offices.

 

In the process of setting these corporate giving strategies, historical data shows that giving to the arts is often lost in the long shadow of significant giving to health, social services, and education.

 

Since CECP began collecting data on trends in corporate giving, contributions to arts and culture have hovered between five percent and eight percent of the typical company’s annual giving.

 

Year after year, the story is sadly the same: companies are not prioritizing the arts.

Yet we know from the great work of Americans for the Arts that business clearly benefits from communities made vibrant by an active creative culture. Not only do the arts enliven the cities and neighborhoods where employees live and work, which supports employee recruitment and retention, but also arts organizations can be important partners to companies in marketing, diversity programs, and team-building programs, among so many other ways.

 

Why don’t companies give more to the arts in light of the clear societal and business benefits of doing so?

 

The National Survey of Business Support to the Arts has the most comprehensive national accounting of the reasons, but the theme that emerges seems to be that companies have not felt the impact strategically. According to the survey, when they give to the arts, the majority do so because it is “the right thing to do.”

 

For those of us who share a passion for arts and culture, we know the conversation needs to change—not only is corporate support of the arts “the right thing to do”—but also it is a strategic thing to do, too.

 

This thinking is at the very heart of The pARTnership Movement’s excellent online case studies and resources.

 

Unlocking a higher level of arts funding may require companies and their arts partners to engage in innovative project design that makes impact of an arts grant more tangible to the company.

 

The data shows that 53 percent of companies are not taking advantage of programs such as employee volunteer opportunities at arts organizations, art exhibitions or performances in the workplace, board service at arts organizations, free or discounted tickets to arts events, and even corporate art collections.

 

Stepping back, it struck me that 99 percent of all arts funding is in the form of cash grants. Yet from CECP’s data we know that nearly 20 percent of all corporate giving is product donations or pro bono service.

 

Might there be an untapped opportunity here? Can programs be developed that blend the cash grants that are so important, but also make greater use of employee volunteers, pro bono service, company facilities, and product donations, as other nonprofits are doing in other funding areas?

 

Managing volunteers and product donations can sometimes overwhelm a recipient organization, and I am not suggesting that arts organizations lose sight of their core priorities as they seek greater corporate support; but, when planned for and managed appropriately, programs that blend funding types can have mission benefits that far exceed cash grants alone.

 

The arts community and business share an important key asset: a mindset of risk-taking, excellence, creativity, and innovation.

 

I encourage these two communities to take another look at how programs might be conceived and delivered that capitalize on all of the many societal benefits of arts grantmaking in a manner that the company and its employees can engage with directly, which when done well may be more strategic for all involved.

 

(Visit CECP’s website for more information about their work.)

 

*This post is part of a pARTnership Movement series on ARTSblog.

 

Photo from 2011 BCA 10 winner and CECP member Macy's support of "Random Acts of Culture" with the Knight Foundation at the Macy's store in Philadelphia.

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