Low-Hanging Fruit: How Can Arts Organizations Better Engage Corporate Donors?

In the aftermath of last November's election, I speculated on the state of the arts under a Trump administration.

Clinging to encouraging past comments—Trump had the "great fortune to receive a comprehensive liberal arts education!"—I didn't allow myself to envision the ominous situation now facing organizations nationwide.

In retrospect, it was an exercise in wishful thinking.

Now, with the threat of federal cuts looming, organizations are planning for a worst-case scenario. How will they plug the gap? Obviously, private and institutional donors will need to pick up the slack. But a report published earlier this spring suggests arts groups may be wise to re-engage an often under-leveraged resource: corporate donors.

The report, titled Corporate Social Responsibility and the Arts, is courtesy of Animating Democracy, a program of Americans for the Arts.  

When you do, you'll likely be drawn to page 13 and the chapter titled "Six Trends to Understand to Successfully Engage Corporate Donors." It's an excerpt from an Arts America blog post titled "As Corporate Giving Bounces Back, Six Things Nonprofits Need to Know."

Most of these trends align with our coverage across the arts sector. Most prominently, the piece encourages arts organizations to embrace the "ROI mindset." Corporate donors, by their very nature, want to see a tangible return on investment.

To that end, "the concepts of 'gifts' or 'grants' are being supplanted by the idea of 'social investments," a development that goes to the heart of my recent must-read chat with Laura Callanan, founder of Upstart, a nonprofit that seeks to create opportunities for artists to deliver social impact at scale.

The report also echoes the emergence of the "artist as activist" mindset permeating the arts philanthropy space. "Today's corporations," the authors note, "have a genuine stake in social issues, whether it is ensuring a sustainable market for products, healthier customers, or a better community for their employees."

This may be the most important takeaway from the report. As such, it needs to be further contextualized.

You'll notice that the title of this post refers to corporate donors as "low-hanging fruit." Indeed, the irony is rich, since the term itself is probably the most popular piece of corporate-speak in the Western world. But its usage was intentional.

Scan the Inside Philanthropy arts sector and, relatively speaking, you won't find a ton of references to Fortune 500 companies giving lavishly to the arts. Private donors and institutional funders are carrying the load.

Part of this disconnect can be traced to corporate donors' "ROI mindset." Nice rewards, though, may await arts organizations that play to that mindset. 

A few years back, Americans for the Arts found in a survey of businesses that among respondents that currently contribute to the arts, 64 percent said they "might increase contributions to the arts if they could support other social causes by giving to the arts."

This finding also suggests that corporations that do not currently contribute to the arts could be swayed by a more socially focused approach.

In short, arts organizations needs to ditch the planned Dadaism exhibition and instead consider projects that address "social causes" that map to the corporation's larger philanthropic goals. (Apologies to fans of Dadaism, by the way. It's nothing personal.)

Arts organizations also need to frame programming through the lens of the various non-financial resources. "The most sophisticated giving programs leverage all the assets a corporation can bring to bear—not just their financial resources," the report notes. "Corporate funders have so many tools to use: their brand and customer loyalty, their products and distribution channels," and so on.

This piece of advice reminded me of a recent post I wrote on the Ford Musician Awards for Excellence in Community Service, a program supporting orchestra musicians and the work they do in their communities. Now, before you scoff and say, "Oh great, another doozy from the Ford Foundation," the piece actually refers to Ford the automaker.

Clearly, most people don't associate Ford with classical music, much less the program's innovative type of community outreach. But the League of American Orchestras allows Ford to further develop its brand by serving members of the general public who normally lack access to classical music.

Bottom line? It would be nice to think that the arts philanthropy space abhors a vacuum and that private donors will supplant federal cuts dollar-for-dollar. I'm not so optimistic. But Animating Democracy's report suggests that cuts or no cuts, corporate America can do more to support the arts—if organizations can make an effective pitch.