By Todd Cohen
CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Faced with changes in Charlotte’s corporate community and how it practices philanthropy, arts groups are retooling the way they seek corporate support.
The city’s largest companies have become national corporations and extended their giving to other regions, while many firms have sharpened the focus of their giving, often tying it to their business goals.
Those changes, combined with government cuts and the recent economic slump, have made fundraising even tougher for the arts, which already had to compete for donations with nonprofits serving basic human needs.
“I’m not sure we’re in a position where the arts are truly valued,” says LaRue Allen, executive director of the North Carolina Dance Theatre.
While Charlotte boasts the biggest local united arts fund drive in the United States, and its three biggest companies are spearheading a public-private effort to raise $190 million to pay for cultural facilities, nonprofit arts agencies say the new climate of corporate philanthropy is forcing them to be more creative in their fundraising.
Popular approaches are to tailor sponsorship opportunities to corporations’ business and marketing priorities, and building benefits for employees into sponsorships.
Opera Carolina, for example, revamped its corporate strategy, says Donna Patterson, who was development director for three years, leaving in May to become a director at fundraising firm Vandever Batten.
“We clearly identified prospects and the giving opportunities, and upgraded the board, and encouraged that asks be face-to-face,” she says.
Aimed at its fundraising volunteers, she says, a key tactical move three years ago was to produce a catalog featuring the full range of sponsorship opportunities for corporations.
“Every volunteer had favorite programs they were passionate about,” says Patterson, who previously was vice president for development at the Arts & Science Council. “But we needed to make sure they understood all our programs.”
The opera also introduced new opportunities for giving, such as a summer camp for underprivileged children that landed sponsorships from Royal & SunAlliance Insurance, and Phillip Morris USA.
And a year ago, in its sponsorship proposals to corporations, the troupe began offering to let their employees buy tickets at discounted prices.
The overall corporate strategy paid off: Annual corporate support for Opera Carolina has grown in recent years from $100,000 to roughly $250,000.
Some corporations now actually divvy up the cost of sponsorships among individual business units, each of which will review sponsorship proposals to make sure they mesh with its marketing needs, says Phil Kline, president and CEO of the Mint Museums.
“A proposal goes under much more scrutiny,” he says.
Like other arts groups, the Mint has tried to fashion sponsorship opportunities that meet the particular interests of corporations, and have integrated benefits for employees into sponsorships
After Harris Teeter voiced interest in a sponsorship, for example, the Mint worked to demonstrate that a core mission of the museum was in sync with the firm’s corporate-giving focus on education.
Now, thanks to a sponsorship by the company, many of the roughly 30,000 local students who visit the museum each year can stop by a gallery featuring student artwork.
The Mint also offers free admission to employees of companies that become members at levels proportionate to the size of their workforce.
Access to employees is a key strategy at the Arts and Science Council, which has seen its annual fund drive double to more than $10 million in the past 10 years or so, largely through growth in individual employee giving at workplace campaigns.
While corporations donate $3 million, their share of the drive has declined slightly, says Terri Marshall, vice president for development.
“Our success has been in those employee campaigns,” she says. “That is where we feel our future continues to be.”
Robert Bush, vice president of planning and interim co-CEO at the Arts and Science Council, says corporations back its annual drive because they recognize it provides operating support critical to the council’s member agencies.
John Mackay, president and CEO of Discovery Place, says that while the city’s biggest corporations are strong arts supporters and help meet big capital needs like the facilities drive, local firms generally opt to channel their arts giving through the arts council, either in employee workplace campaigns or annual gifts.
But with the bigger companies like Bank of America, Duke Energy and Wachovia serving communities beyond Charlotte, he says, arts groups can find it tougher to support programs and ongoing needs.
“We’re much more focused now,” he says, “on trying to secure the interest and passion for what we do from individual donors and smaller businesses.”