Arts Innovation Day Recap: Building Strategic Partnerships

Bushnell Performance
Photo courtesy of The Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts

By Patrick Langevin, The Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts

Having recently moved back to Connecticut after fourteen years in New York City, being a part of a community in a professional, creative and personal capacity has been of great importance to me.  Finding my professional home at The Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts in the development department has given me the opportunity to be a part of a major cultural institution in Hartford that has long-standing relationships with loyal patrons and the business community in the area. I have quickly found out that although corporate sponsorship is of great importance, the individual relationships with members in our business community is what holds true value.

Attending a session about strategic partnerships at Arts Innovation Day on Aetna’s campus, I was curious as to what the tone would be in the room. We live in difficult financial times and in a conference hall filled with organizations of varying sizes we all want to survive and be able to provide a product or service for our community.  Putting all of us in front of a panel of representatives from the largest companies in Hartford you could feel the eagerness to answer a nonprofit’s biggest question: how can we get financial support?

Phil Picillo, Senior Vice President of Treasury and Solutions at Webster Bank, was the session leader and moderator.  Panelists included Kathy Luria, Senior Vice President of Community Affairs and Director of Philanthropy at Webster Bank; Eric Daniels, partner at Robinson + Cole; and Cindy Lovell, Executive Director at The Mark Twain House & Museum.

From the very first question there was an honest tone to the conversation.  Phil asked how you begin looking for corporate sponsorship.  Cindy expressed that from the nonprofit perspective it is imperative for there to be a level of interest from a company with what you do.  You cannot be shy and must remain assertive. Eric felt that you have to cultivate a rapport with companies; the relationship should be “more than a once a year ask.”

The Power of Relationship Building

Addressing the audience’s frustration with the difficulties of identifying potential funders and making connections, the panel underscored the importance of networking. For Eric, who is involved with many non-profits (I don’t know where he finds the time!) he understands the power of an organization’s board members. I have seen this first hand with Eric’s involvement with the Bushnell.  He is a true advocate for our arts education programs for children.  I see him at our meetings and throughout the city trying to make introductions and help match individuals with organizations that they might be passionate about. If you have experienced individuals on your board who can use their network to build relationships, it’s incredibly beneficial for your organization.

Attending community events and galas can get expensive, but they are an opportunity to build relationships and network.  Cindy suggested trying to trade tickets to one of your events for another organization’s gala so that you can save money and have an opportunity to meet more people who are involved in the community.  You could also be a part of another organization’s planning committee or volunteer to set up on the day of the event in exchange for a ticket.  I have found a great deal of value both personally and professionally these last four months of living in CT  attending local events to make new friends, build relationships and find out what people are interested.

If you are a smaller organization then you might not have the time or financial resources to participate in as many local events. Eric suggested being part of Dwelling in Downtown Hartford on Facebook, as it’s a free way to see what’s going on and being discussed in Hartford.  It’s a great opportunity to reach out to others in the area simply by sending them a Facebook message.

A company may not be able to provide financial support, but if you build the relationship and the company understands the needs of your organization, then you can work together to find creative ways to support each other. Robinson + Cole staff are encouraged to get involved in the community and provide expertise to non-profits.  Webster Bank also provides pro-bono services. Cindy was grateful for the corporate support that was provided in updating the Mark Twain House employee handbook, something they would not have had time to do if they did not have the expertise and labor-force from a local company.

“Speak the company’s language”

Many audience members reiterated their desire to find financial support from companies and inquired about the proper steps in finding funding.  Each company is different in their approach to charitable giving but as the panel members expressed, you need to know what types of organizations a specific company tends to support. Eric suggested reading a company’s annual report to see where their philanthropic gifts are directed.

Kathy suggested another useful tactic: “Learn how to speak the company’s language” and craft how to “make your request stand out.” In order to be effective and efficient you should be direct, brief and descriptive in your request. This will make it easier to forward your documentation and request to others at the company in order to expedite the process.  I really appreciated Kathy’s honesty about the realities of submitting a request and how to get a response.

Phil pointed out that “People are good natured and want to do good work in this community.” It’s imperative to build relationships with individuals who are passionate about your cause, organization or art.  If you are proactive and creative you can find new ways to bring in individual donors and potential corporate sponsors.  There is a great deal of value in the people that are your individual donors.  Eric sees how a donor base gives you consistency and helps you to find people who really are enthusiastic about what you do.

Saying Thank You

Saying thank you to everyone who supports you is of great importance.  I think sometimes people can forget that there are individuals behind the face of a company name that do a great deal to advocate on our behalf and find creative ways to give our organizations support.  Our panel was kind enough to join us for a morning to share their expertise and be honest with what they can provide.  I am grateful that I had the opportunity to hear a real conversation about the desires and needs of organizations and the realities of providing financial support from our corporate community.

So I’m an optimist….  I understand the realities of the competitive nature of the nonprofit world, but I like to believe that there is room for all of us to succeed.  Although the audience didn’t walk away with a check, I think there was a great deal of insight that everyone gained from the conversation.  It’s imperative as an arts community that we work together and share our resources.  The Greater Hartford Arts Council is an excellent resource and conduit for us to find our success. Whether you are an organization of twenty or one soul with a fervent mission, there is something that we can learn from each other.

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