Why Business Support May Come in Smaller Packages

Choruses looking for new sources of corporate support might do well to investigate small businesses, which, according to a survey by the Business Committee for the Arts, represent a largely untapped resource.

The BCA Report: 2004 National Survey of Business Support to the Arts came up with the surprising information that 89 percent of the $3.32 billion in cash and non-cash contributions given to the arts by businesses in 2003 came from small and mid-sized companies.

In fact, the largest percentage came from the smallest companies—49 percent from businesses with revenues of less than $1 million, followed by 40 percent from mid-sized businesses, with revenues of $1 million to $49.9 million. These small and mid-sized companies—the real estate office, hardware store, market research firm—are community-based organizations that tend to look favorably on forming partnerships with community-based arts groups.

Small and mid-sized businesses may be overlooked by arts groups, even though there are a great many of them—about 10.5 million in the small category and more than 1 million in the mid-size range, as compared to 41,000 business with revenues of more than $50 million.

"Everyone is chasing the big score," says Mark Shugoll of Shugoll Research, the firm that conducted the survey. "A higher percentage of large companies give and their median contribution is higher, but there is huge competition for those resources, which get chopped up into small piles. Given the large numbers of small and mid-sized companies, pursuing them can be rewarding." Shugoll notes that 61 percent of all companies that do not support the arts (including 64 percent of small ones and 43 percent of mid-sized ones) have never been asked to do so.

Judith Jedlicka, president of BCA, says that asking smaller businesses for support requires a particular approach. "It's much more relationship building, more time-intense, but it can be a very rewarding relationship," she says. "You need to talk with people, network with them, share your challenges, and listen to their challenges."

As an example, Jedlicka cites the Dallas Wind Symphony, a small ensemble that was trying to sell its CDs. Through an introduction by the manager of a classical music station, the group made contact with a local family-owned hardware store that advertised on the radio. The business used the orchestra's marching music in its drive time spot and offered customers the opportunity to buy the CD. "It sold out in two weeks, and the store then sponsored their Fourth of July concert," says Jedlicka.

Choruses are particularly well placed to pursue these sorts of relationships, says Jedlicka, because their singers tend to be tied into the community through a wide range of jobs, social activities, and schools. "You may find that some of the business people are members of your chorus. Tap into their thoughts. They may also be members of the chamber of commerce, which is a very good way to make connections with businesses in town."

The BCA pamphlet, Think Small for Big Results, offers strategies for finding the businesses in town that might become partners. One suggestion is to join the chamber of commerce or a similar community organization that attracts small business owners, attend their meetings, volunteer for assignments, and eventually even invite some of the members to rehearsals or performances. Another avenue is to talk to business owners as you make purchases—get to know them.

Once an approach is made, it is critical to have your pitch clearly worked out. "As many as 74 percent of arts contributors and 59 percent of non-arts contributors said that they would increase contributions or begin making contributions to the arts if there is a proven need for the contribution," says Shugoll. "Focus group research suggests that arts groups don't do a convincing job of saying why they need support. These businesses don't really know why they should give to the arts. They don't understand that arts organizations can't be fully funded just by selling tickets, and they don't understand that the arts groups offer programs in the community beyond what you see onstage."

Such community programs can play a role when a business decides to support an arts group. Businesses surveyed about their reasons for supporting specific arts organizations cited a number of motivators: "Offer arts education initiatives" (72 percent); "Offer arts programs to reach the underserved" (72 percent); "Tie the arts to social causes such as hunger, violence, and homelessness" (61 percent); and "Offer opportunities for company recognition" (61 percent).

At the same time, small businesses can be made to see that supporting the arts benefits them as well. "The business wants to attract and retain customers," says Jedlicka. "By giving them something they can give their customers, it sets them apart. And they want to be seen as good folks in the community. If people think well of them, they make the choice to go there, rather than somewhere else. Mid-sized businesses also want to retain their employees, so they give them benefits, special things that they will appreciate. An arts group can make sure there are concert tickets for the employees." She offers the example of a high-end dry cleaner that contributes to its local theater and ballet companies by cleaning its costumes. Both groups invite the employees to performances.

Small businesses, like the dry cleaner, can be valuable sources of in-kind contributions. Other possibilities include advertising agencies or web design firms, who could provide marketing expertise and greater exposure; commercial and residential cleaning services, who could clean up after events; or self-storage companies, who could store recordings, a score library, or concert production equipment such as risers and music stands. In return, the chorus could provide listings in the program and other publications, website links, and reduced-rate or free tickets for employees.

Some businesses are actually very interested in supporting the arts, but don't know where to start. "I'm a huge arts consumer," says Shugoll. "I was going to every type of arts event even before I started supporting the arts through my business. I would have been flattered to be involved, but I didn't know how to do it." Washington's Arena Stage approached his company, and the relationship, which began with the donation of marketing research, Shugoll says, "has grown enormously in 20 years."

Shugoll sees the small business-chorus relationship as a good fit, since choruses are often more nimble than larger institutions such as symphony orchestras. As Jedlicka points out, "A business would find a chorus appealing because choruses, like businesses, are so community-based. The business wants to sell more products and services and can look to members of the chorus as potential consumers. Also, as a group, a chorus does something that's good for the community. It's a business-to-business relationship, but also a community-to-community one."

This article is adapted from The Voice, Fall 2005.

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