Several lifetimes ago, when I was Director of Marketing for a major orchestra, Catherine the Customer Service Manager came into my office complaining bitterly – but legitimately – about how the afternoon sunlight shining into the box office raised the temperature to intolerable levels and blinded anyone standing behind a ticket wicket. “Why don’t you call some providers, get some quotes for blinds, and we’ll see what we can do,” I said. A woman of infinite energy and resource, she dashed out to start making calls, and 48 hours later there were blinds over the windows. Better still, they were free – as was delivery and installation.
It turns out that after a salesman had come by to measure and do the estimate, Catherine had simply asked him: “Do you think your company could possibly donate them?” to which the answer was just “Yes.” The request was respectful, reasonable, and it certainly didn’t hurt that it came in person from a highly attractive, vivacious, and charming woman (all highly desirable qualities in any customer service position, I hasten to add lest I be accused of dodgy hiring practices).
This was probably the most functional example of corporate giving I saw during my time with that orchestra. Dealing with businesses isn’t easy – I might go so far as to say that successful corporate solicitation is the current holy grail of arts organizations. Any illusions Canadian and British groups previously held about the reliability of government funding have been utterly shattered in the last two years, and Americans never had government funding to speak of in the first place. As for private donations to the arts, they are invariably the first to disappear and the last to reappear in times of economic uncertainty, and the times have never been more economically uncertain.
So are corporations the answer to Sistema and arts funding challenges? Corporate support usually takes one of two forms, and understanding the difference between the two is key. Corporate philanthropy is money – or goods and services, as in the literal and figurative window dressing story – given out of benevolence without any significant expectation of return or reward, save perhaps a modest but appropriate acknowledgement. Some very large corporations have entirely separate foundations (Ford and the Ford Foundation for example) that handle their charitable giving. The application process for these funds can be rigorous and very competitive.
Corporate sponsorship, on the other hand, is a marketing buy – the money comes out of the advertising budget. Accordingly, the business is only interested in promoting its goods or services to your public, which is only really worthwhile for it if you have a substantial audience or list of stakeholders, and can define them demographically up to the industry standard. It’s much harder, although not impossible, for a fledgling Sistema program to offer an attractive investment proposition. Those programs with significant and prominent public performing activities might leverage them by offering naming rights, promotional opportunities or signage on stage, in concert programs, on posters etc. It’s a dangerous game…
There’s also a new format emerging, thanks to social media: programs like “Pepsi Refresh” or “Monsanto Grow St. Louis” appear to fill a middle ground between philanthropy and sponsorship. Make no mistake, they are sponsorship programs, except the business gets all the publicity and recognition from the winning organization as well as from all those groups who fell just a bit short, before it hands out a dime. As Jesse Windels of Orchestrating Diversity in St. Louis put it, it’s a “popularity and perseverance contest.” He’s absolutely right. (Please take a moment and vote for them, by the way.) And the real winner is the corporation, which looks like a great citizen with minimal risk/expenditure in the process.
For most fledgling Sistema programs, Catherine’s approach will probably work best at the start. Make reasonable, respectful requests of people with whom you have any direct contact, and you’ll probably be pleasantly surprised. Pick your targets carefully – with all due respect to the late Steve Jobs, Apple has a pathetic reputation for philanthropy and even severely restricts the use of its products as prizes. Small businesses are usually much more flexible and forthcoming than large chain enterprises, as well; the latter generally have strict guidelines on community support, and are invariably on the receiving end of hundreds of requests. One last suggestion: ask for things they’re likely to give. Pitching a blind and curtain retailer for a new computer probably isn’t going to work out.
That’s my take, but if you have stories of successful – or even not so successful – pitches for corporate sponsorship or philanthropy, please share them below.