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Banking on arts

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By Todd Cohen

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — As the new president and CEO of the Arts & Science Council, Lee Keesler aims to apply the lessons of a 24-year banking career to help a highly effective fundraising organization cope with change.

While the council raises more money than any other local arts fund in the United States, Keesler says, it has been flat in recent years and still faces big challenges.

The council, he says, needs to reach more individual donors outside the workplace, strengthen ties and communications with arts groups, take a more strategic approach to fundraising and funding, and retool its business model.

“We’re essentially doing business the same way we have for a number of years,” says Keesler, former senior vice president and commercial banking executive for the Carolinas and Georgia regions for Wachovia Bank. “But external conditions change, the market changes, everything changes.”

Using the tools he acquired as a banker, he says, he wants to better connect with arts agencies as customers, and better align the council’s message and direction with the way it tracks how well it achieves its goals.

A key issue, he says, will be balancing “processes” with “outcomes.”
“In the world I come from, the business processes supported the outcomes,” he says. “In this environment, sometimes the process itself is the outcome.”

That can be doubly challenging, he says, because outcomes in the nonprofit world can be more elusive and harder to measure than in the business world.

“What’s important is that we conduct the process in way that leaves everyone feeling comfortable and confident, not only that we had good outcomes, but that the process includes the rights steps and people.”

The council’s grants process, for example, has been criticized for a “one-size-fits-all” approach that forces small arts groups seeking small grants to complete the same complicated applications required of large groups seeking large grants.

Critics also have voiced concern about a lack of expertise in particular arts forms on the part of volunteers serving on nine panels that review grant applications, Keesler says.

The council has begun to address those concerns, he says, adding regional and national experts to the panels, and planning to add more.

“The point is not to make the process perfect, because I don’t know if you’ll ever make the process perfect, because we always have more demand than dollars,” he says, “but the point is making the process better every year.”

As the council gears up for its annual drive, which begins in January, Keesler says a big goal will be to broaden its base of donors.

In last year’s drive, which raised nearly $10.4 million, individuals outside the workplace gave just over $2 of every $100 raised, compared to nearly $20, on average, of every $100 raised in local arts drives nationally, he says.

Workplace giving, in comparison, represented nearly $2 of every $3 raised in Charlotte, compared to nearly $20 of every $100 raised nationally.

While those numbers reflect “great leadership from the corporate community to support workplace giving,” and do not reflect individual giving directly to council affiliates, Keesler says, they underscore an opportunity and a challenge.

“We can do a whole lot better job,” he says, “of reaching individuals in our community who we do not reach through workplace giving campaigns.”

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