Arts and Community Development: Connections Matter to Funders

As corporate giving for the arts turns a corner post-recession, arts organizations like ours, the National Corporate Theatre Fund (NCTF), view the development with cautious optimism. Every three years, Business Committee for the Arts (BCA), part of Americans for the Arts, publishes a survey of corporate support for the arts. The report - a fascinating quick read, conducted by theatre patron and research guru Mark Shugoll, reports the first positive trends in corporate support for the arts in six years, although giving is still below pre-recession levels.

This year, the survey goes deep into why companies do and do not support the arts, and what could make them give more, or get engaged in the first place. Two observations stand out to me as ah-ha moments: Arts organizations have lost contact with the CEO's who drive these decisions, and the arts community is not sufficiently connecting and communicating its education and social engagement activity to broader community engagement and development.

A recent experience underscores my first key observation in the report -- that only 10 percent of companies surveyed make supporting the arts a top priority in their contributions. While this is higher than three years ago, when it was only 2 percent (I wonder what accounts for the change), this was a bracing reminder of where we are on the corporate priority list. To celebrate the founding of several regional theatres 50 years ago, an NCTF board member connected us to a media consultant to craft profiles of CEO's in various communities talking about why regional theatres are key to their philanthropy and partnership policies. Our consultants found that media outlets wanted proven research, or at least anecdotal experiences, of employee creativity, engagement, business objectives realized through theatre, and so on.

We approached several companies that are major supporters of hometown theatres and found that these seemingly obvious connections are very challenging to make. Companies are not doing much to measure outcomes from their support for the arts; they are not keen on employee engagement aside from ticket access; and the connections between workplace creativity and arts support are hard to make concrete. Even more surprising was the difficulty in engaging CEO's in what would have surely been a very positive corporate engagement story.

The report also shows that CEO's are by far the most important determinants of giving priorities. The other channels that could influence contributions are friends, family, and colleagues, not advertisements, conferences, or even community arts leaders. It is clear to me we need to enlist our CEO friends and ask that they become our zealous advocates among their networks.

The BCA report backs up all this: even companies that actively support the arts focus far more on general community values than on the specific skills and experiences the arts can provide. And here's where the second observation comes in: the arts are viewed as competitors with social causes and education, and those priorities often supersede us in corporate giving. For example, 30 percent of companies surveyed said that education, healthcare, youth programs, and/or social causes are more of a primary concern than arts. Yet, ironically, theatres and many arts organizations have long provided outstanding education programs. And increasingly, these outreach programs are extending to special needs kids, those in the social service network, and beyond.

In these times of questioning the entitlement and roles of our arts institutions, we need to break through the community-facing silos of marketing, development and education and close the loop in social service engagement. Many corporations are indeed paying attention, since 69 percent of those surveyed said they might increase contributions to the arts if arts organizations are active in providing arts education programs and outreach to the disadvantaged.

Maybe it's time organizations over a certain size hire ambassadors who help community development partners -- corporations, social service agencies, other nonprofits -- more easily connect with the arts and services they provide.

A banker once told me they always notice that the arts are not at the community development table, even though we all know arts are crucial to urban renewal. It seems clear companies are looking for ways their arts support can clearly result in a more vibrant community, and we all need to do more to help concretize what we do in this vital sector.

Don't miss this vital report and let me know what you think of the results. How do we bridge these gaps and better tell our story? Or is it more about what we have to do to be part of the story in the first place?

Check it out here.