At the recent Americans for the Arts Annual Convention the Arts and Economic Prosperity IV research was released to the public and the media. One of the trends noted in the presentation is the increasing urbanization of America. More and more people are moving to cities. This reality is posing unique challenges for small and medium-sized cities and towns.
In the 90s the big box stores descended upon Middle America with pervasive force, edging out “mom and pop shops” left and right. Some bemoaned the change, others viewed it as progress, and ultimately the “boxes” took over.
In the recent economic downturn many of those big box stores have left small towns, or significantly reduced their inventory. Now the residents can’t buy what they need at the big box or the “mom and pop,” so they turn to the internet or drive to a larger town. Of course the problem with this is that the commerce is then benefiting another community either where the online business resides or simply a bigger city in another county nearby.
The decreased tax revenue as well as the loss of commerce has a direct negative impact on the livability of these communities. Either the taxes have to go up or public services like nonprofits, schools, police, fire, and roads suffer. At least in our small town, the latter is what we have faced.
This leads us back to where we started—the research. When the livability of a community is subpar, educated and affluent people are more likely to leave, hence the migration to larger cities and towns. Some people even refer to this migration as “brain drain.”
Mansfield, OH, is a town that typifies this scenario. The arts organizations, nonprofits, and public services are all struggling to find their way in an economy that is increasingly unfriendly to small towns. The people of Mansfield, like the people in countless small towns across America, love their community and have high hopes for reviving their hometown. They have come together in some interesting ways as we adapt to the tougher times.
Our community development group, Richland Community Development Group (RCDG) has very active sector groups including the “Be Focal Buy Local” action team. This group in particular has been pivotal in helping my organization, the Mansfield Art Center, develop business partnerships in creative ways.
A key theme at the Americans for the Arts Annual Convention was the value of creating corporate partnerships. In the traditional sense, that is nearly impossible in small cities and towns. Nearly all corporate presence in Mansfield is at best tertiary to the main office of a given corporation and none of the decision makers who affect philanthropy are in our town. As you can imagine, that means very little corporate sponsorship is available for the arts and other nonprofits.
One notable exception is the model used at Aetna. They have a long tradition of corporate philanthropy that is very friendly to the arts, in fact last year Americans for the Arts awarded them a spot on their BCA 10: Best Companies Supporting the Arts in America.
This company utilizes a large work-from-home employee base. These employees can volunteer at local nonprofits while being paid their regular Aetna wage. In fact, Aetna has even taken an active role in leveraging some of that work from home staff at the Mansfield Art Center. That’s a really great contribution they’re making. It’s not a check, but I need volunteers as well.
Another trend, also discussed at length during the convention is the local movement. There is increasing focus on shopping, dining, and sourcing locally. Whether through Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) or a simple focus on shopping at local and independent merchants, the local trend is becoming popular in big cities like Detroit, where they just celebrated “8 weeks under 8 Mile”, or small towns like Mansfield, with our active “Be Focal Buy Local” group. At least for my organization, this is our tipping point where we are seeing the greatest impact on sponsorships and corporate membership.
Our active involvement in the “Be Focal Buy Local” action team has led to some less traditional sponsorships. A local auto dealership, Mansfield Motor Group, like many businesses, places philanthropy in the hands of their marketing department. They were interested in supporting the arts, in large part because our patrons are a key demographic they hope to reach for their business. The dealership’s owner and I created a customized sponsorship that met his marketing needs and provided us with the sponsorship we needed for our summer arts festival, Mansfield Art Explosion. He wanted to do something that would show off his cars, and an outdoor arts festival is a great location.
The resulting idea is fun and fits the needs of both organizations. We will have five white cars on our lawn that day, which will be painted with water-soluble paints by local artists. Thanks to their financial support we have the money to more aggressively market the festival with billboards and radio ads, something we couldn’t afford to do in the past. Of course Mansfield Motor Group will receive credit in all of our marketing.
Another interesting opportunity that has emerged as a result of our involvement in the business community is our new text marketing campaign and sweepstakes. Another member of the “Be Focal Buy Local” group owns a text marketing business, MOcoopinz.com. He offered the Mansfield Art Center a special reduced rate on his services since we are a nonprofit and he wishes to support the arts.
Text marketing could help us better reach that coveted 24–35 demographic that we hope to expand within our membership, so we were excited to start the campaign. One of the best ways to build up a good cache of “opt-ins” for text marketing is to offer a sweepstakes. This is where another interesting sponsorship opportunity emerged. It is even more impactful to offer a small reward for every opt-in in addition to the grand prize. We really couldn’t afford to buy prizes to pass out for the opt-ins, but a local wine shop and wine bar, The Happy Grape, made a very generous offer. Not only would they give a $50 gift certificate toward the grand prize, they would also give a free piece of chocolate cake to every person who opted in. Let’s face it that is a pretty sweet deal, who doesn’t like cake?
In Middle America’s small towns we have much to be concerned about. There is a fear that our way of life may be fading away in the shift toward all things urban and corporate, but there are glimmers of hope that a new future will emerge for towns like Mansfield.
The Mansfield Art Center has experienced over 30 percent growth in memberships this year and things just keep getting better. All of this is thanks to our willingness to adapt to our changing economy. Are times tough? Absolutely, but the staff at the Mansfield Art Center is innovating in exceedingly creative ways as we find our place in a shifting economy.
*This post was originally posted on ARTSblog.
*Photo courtesy of vitorhirota.