Those of us in the mission-driven arts resource business (this means YOU), all have stories about the moment you connected to a donor from the business community—an authentic, real MOMENT when you and your organization connect either professionally or personally with the businessman/woman on the other side of the desk, cocktail, or dinner table.
Sometimes it happens right away. Sometimes a relationship takes months, even years, to develop.
And sometimes, that moment of truth reveals a dead-end future, or more painfully, spells the end to an existing relationship. Here is some of my best advice based on my own experiences—I hope it’s helpful:
1. Always bear in mind that money is the means to an end, not an end to itself. This premise has ripples—it means you won’t compromise your mission for money. It means you won’t get ahead of yourself in a conversation and talk about money before you talk about mission. And it means you MUST understand what your potential business partner values. For him or her, money is the means to an end as well.
2. You have to do your homework. Just like you, the person sitting across from you woke up with a notion of what a successful day looks like. Before you walk into any business, large or small, do a little research. What does the business do? How and where do they do it? How are they doing? What are the external pressures bearing on THEM? Most businesses have vision and mission statements of their own. Look them up. The old adage of “seek to understand before being understood,” comes to mind.
3. The knowledge you’ve gathered is not for you to “show-off” what you know. We all know there is nuance that is never revealed until we have a face-to-face. Use that knowledge to ask questions. Walk into the room thinking, “There’s more I don’t know about this company than I do.” “I think I saw you have a partnership with XYZ arts organization—is that typical of the kind of community partnerships you’re interested in?” “Did I see your sister is a singer? How did she get her start”? You are there to share, not to sell.
4. Go where businesspeople go. Join the chamber of commerce, the economic development group, and the tourism bureau. It’s a pay-to-play, opt-in world so budget accordingly. Perhaps one of your current business supporters will sponsor your membership or conference attendance. Don’t be a Johnny-one-note, always talking about the arts. Learn about business regulations, tax issues, economic issues, etc. Sad to say too many people in business have the hallucination that the arts are irrelevant and artists and arts administrators are willfully ignorant of the “real” world. Burst that bubble and change that hallucination by engaging them in conversations that matter to them.
5. Take advantage of the fact that arts and culture are allowed to delve into the “personal.” “So what connections have you had with the arts over the years?” “Did you play an instrument in high school?” “Are your kids involved with the arts?” I never would have know that a hardened construction executive’s mother won an award for acting in another city if I hadn’t asked. His company has made a $2,500 gift ever since.
6. Stay OUT of partisan politics. I don’t make ANY political contributions to candidates—just donations to Americans for the Arts Action Fund and the state’s political action fund. Again, have your business supporters who are involved politically invite you as their guest to campaign parties and events. Call me chicken, but aggressive partisan neutrality allows me to work both sides of the aisle with a pure heart and motives to match.
7. Help define the appropriate role for your board. Certainly, they can be philanthropic ambassadors to their own companies or business employers. Every one of can make thank you calls. Beyond that, are they willing to spend their personal social and political capital to talk to their own vendors and clients? If not, are they willing to introduce staff or other board members to their contacts? Be aware that sometimes board members cannot make the calls themselves. Perhaps they don’t want to compromise a business or personal relationship, or they literally can’t afford it. Reciprocity can be expensive.
8. Reach out to your own vendors. Anything you’re paying for (cell phones, bankcard charges, office equipment, etc.) can be donated. Make a list and see if your vendors are willing to discount (in return for charitable recognition) or are able to make an outright gift of services they’re currently providing.
9. Credit is cheap—thank people always and often. Communicate those thanks verbally and in writing. Let people KNOW what their contribution made happen. Tie them as closely as possible to the outcomes and, if appropriate, to the people that benefited. Nominate them for awards from arts and business organizations. Share their generosity with the worlds that matter to THEM.
10. Never take ANY donor for granted. Communicate with them without asking for money! Create a special time frame and perhaps an event to thank previous donors. Ask business donors to consider helping leverage their gift by inviting others to learn about your organizations. Large business donors might be willing to host an informational breakfast for their own vendors and clients. Everyone wants new donors but there’s no sense adding at the top if they’re falling out the bottom.
So, create a moment—and then plan for momentum. Hope you have some success stories and tips of your own to share in the comments below.
It’s all about creating a world where the arts matter, where artists are revered, where the creative spirit can thrive and freedom of expression is honored. Good luck.
This post is one in a series highlighting The pARTnership Movement, Americans for the Arts’ campaign to to reach business leaders with the message that partnering with the arts can build their competitive advantage. Visit our website to find out how both businesses and local arts agencies can get involved!