Katie Kurcz

Katie Kurcz

At last month’s Arts & Business Council of Chicago’s workshop, we learned that the secret to building cultural corporate partnerships is that there are no secrets. In fact, the core strategy is as basic as building a strong, healthy relationship.

Although this revelation is rather anti-climatic and fairly intuitive, the case studies and advice shared by the workshop panelists provided instructive takeaways about who to target, how to approach prospective partners, and what to expect in making asks.

The panel was comprised of two sets of partnership pairs representing both the corporate and the arts perspective.

Ruth Stine, director of special projects at the Chicago Humanities Festival (CHF) and Business Volunteer for the Arts (BVA) consultant, presented alongside Beth Gallagher, director of community engagement at Aon.

Beth acknowledged that the best way to get support from Aon is having an internal advocate(s) already involved with the organization as a board member or volunteer. The more Aon employees involved with the organization, the more likely Aon will consider a request for support. The status and tenure of the advocates are factors that are considerations as well.

Within these drivers for corporate support, Aon is also interested in how the organization’s mission aligns with the company’s stated funding priorities and what type of enrichment opportunities are available for employee or client engagement. That’s why Aon found CHF to be an excellent partner for their 2012 festival. CHF had plenty of programming to invite employees and clients to attend. Aon even had a couple of top executives introduce a few choice events whose topics aligned with the company’s values.

The second pair to present was Megan Smith, director of corporate partnerships at Steppenwolf Theatre and Johner “JT” Wilson an attorney at Daley Mohan Groble.

Megan originally met JT at a Corporate Diversity Night hosted by Steppenwolf which targets affinity and networking groups to build audience. Megan and JT hit it off and started to discuss ways they could work together. Megan helped recruit JT to serve on Steppenwolf’s Auxiliary Board as its Corporate Partners Co-Chair. In this role, JT was able to solicit his firm to support Steppenwolf’s annual benefit, the Red or White Ball. JT admitted that this partnership grew out of personal connections and their target prospect list was also generated from personal networks.

This was a repeated theme throughout the workshop. “I have always known that face-to-face meetings are the best way to welcome people into your artistic tent, but hearing this from the panel that stewardship does truly start with a face-to-face meeting and not a cold call or a letter campaign was invaluable advice,” said Kaela Altman, executive director of BoHo Theatre and workshop attendee.

Another attendee echoed this sentiment and added that time and patience is required. “My key takeaways were hearing things we had discussed from time to time internally stated in black and white. For example, that it takes about six to nine months to really cultivate a relationship with a possible partner, that asking for advice is a great way to get ‘in the door’ with a potential sponsor, that current board members are invaluable for opening doors and providing introductions,” said Erin Peyton, development manager at Cinema Chicago.

Unfortunately, there’s no magic formula for getting corporate dollars to flow into nonprofit arts and culture groups, but we did learn that it is possible by building personal relationships and leveraging existing networks.

(This post is one in a weekly series highlighting The pARTnership Movement, Americans for the Arts’ campaign 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!)

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The pARTnership Movement


The pARTnership Movement is a new initiative from Americans for the Arts that provides businesses and arts organizations with the resources they need to make meaningful collaborations; partnerships that not only support a healthy, creative and artistic community, but that also give businesses a competitive advantage.
For more information please visit www.partnershipmovement.org.

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