On philanthropy, TheTao Te Ching has this to say: 

The way of Heaven is like the stringing of a bow.
The high are pressed down, and the low raised up.
The string too long is shortened,
And the string too short is added to.
Heaven's Way is to take from what has too much,
And give to what does not have enough.

The classical Chinese text does concede that this is not the normal way of things, but it goes on to ask the question, “Who is it that has too much and offers it to a needy world?” For the purposes of this feature, the first in a series Clef Notes has planned on philanthropy and the arts, the “who” would be those firms that support art and culture in Chicago. And, as we’ll see, it’s not just big corporations who give to the arts.

Many of the city’s cultural institutions rely on the philanthropy of big business; the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago (MCA) is just one. As Gwen Perry Davis, deputy director of development at the MCA, relates, “Corporate support and sponsorship is an important part of our philanthropic plan. Corporate donors, much like individuals and foundations, are part of an ecosystem that ensures that we are able to accomplish our mission,” Davis explained. “They provide long-term support for our institution.”

Calling it an ecosystem isn’t completely figurative. The ecosystem of corporate philanthropy is one in which cultural and financial institutions form symbiotic relationships not only with one another, but also with the wider communities they serve. Diane Whatton is director of U.S. Community Affairs at BMO Financial Group, which—through BMO Harris Bank—sponsors the MCA’s BMO Harris Bank Chicago Works series. “The arts,” Whatton said, “help create an economically viable community and play a partnership role with the many wonderful public and private agencies that enhance our city.”

According to Whatton, “Supporting cultural organizations in a community goes far beyond just writing a check, and there are always more needs than resources. That’s why it’s important to develop true partnerships with local organizations, where a combination of people and funding can be created to generate the greatest impact possible.”

It’s not simply about picking up the phone, calling BMO Harris and asking for money but, rather, expanding on existing relationships that have been built upon a unique sense of understanding and a common goal. Said Davis, “The MCA works closely with board members to present a compelling case for support to companies where they have strong professional relationships. As with all fundraising, a peer request is usually more meaningful and more effective. BMO Harris Bank’s support of our Chicago Works series was the result of a multiyear relationship with many members of our trustees and the bank’s decision makers.”

Arts Alive/45 is a community based nonprofit organization that promotes arts and artists on Chicago’s northwest side. It curated Chicago Artists Month for Portage Park in early October. Cyd Smillie, founder and president of Arts Alive, characterizes the group as a small grassroots organization, placing it at the opposite end from the MCA on the size spectrum. While 80 percent of the nonprofit’s budget goes toward production, only 20 percent of its need is covered by sponsorship. Smillie too emphasizes the importance of partnerships: “The personal relationship is key to funding and growing, understandably… It is the trust established by a good working relationship that can make the difference in the real value of the funding for both partners.”

Echoing Whatton’s sentiment about the disparity between need and available resources, Smillie said, “There are so many organizations, large and small, all clamoring for the same dollar, most with very compelling needs; as an applicant it is very hard to stand out, as a philanthropic corporation it would be ‘Sophie's Choice,’ I'd think, as to who would get funded and who (would) not.”

For small organizations, corporate funding is something of a double-edged sword. While large corporations and museums have the staff and resources to manage the process, it’s still a process—a “comprehensive” and “all-encompassing” one, to use Davis’ words.  Smillie related how the paperwork to apply for funding can be prohibitive, if not a downright liability for the small organization.

“Five years ago not all of the corporate funders required so much data to substantiate their gift," Smillie explained. "In larger organizations there is now a full-time position for at least one person and usually multiple interns to handle the whole endeavor…For a small organization, usually with volunteer staff, the time necessary to stay abreast of philanthropic opportunities, write the Letter of Inquiry, collect salient data and run the program can be too much. Should the small nonprofit receive a grant, there is all manner of documentation and follow-up that can overwhelm the program itself.”

But, just as there are smaller organizations that receive corporate funding, so are there smaller funders. While smaller businesses don’t have the deep pockets of a BMO, their size can prove an advantage in itself. York Furriers is a dealer of furs and fine outerwear and accessories with stores in Elmhurst and Deer Park. In October 2012, York hosted a fundraiser for the regional West Suburban Symphony in its Elmhurst store, and over the years, the company has sponsored such cultural institutions as the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Elmhurst Art Museum, and Drury Lane Theatre. Kathy Rezny, her husband John and brother John Wagner represent the third generation of owners of this family-run company. While York lacks a bottomless bankroll, the furrier makes up for it with nimbleness, raw enthusiasm and good old-fashioned hard work. Kathy Rezny says her way of giving is “an easier, friendlier way of doing things.”

She explains, “Forgoing reams of paperwork, multiple meetings, required board approval and tons of time, York Furrier is able to quickly commit to a project with a handshake or—in some cases—a hug.”

York generally requires written notice about one year in advance of the actual event, but once the company agrees to partnership, “the process is simple and very easy.”

Sponsorship isn’t just about money. Rezny described how smaller companies tend to give additional support in the form of product donations and time spent. Where a bank acts as corporate sponsor, York will provide gift certificates, furs for auctions, goodies for goody bags, ads, even tickets to a particular event.

Now, with all the time, money and effort that go into supporting the arts, the question arises—is there such a thing as too much help? Do corporate sponsors exert too much influence on performances or exhibits they’ve funded? Are cultural institutions vulnerable to a “too many chefs” scenario with their sponsors? Whatton says no, “Our role is purely philanthropic, so we rely on the leadership and boards for the organizations we support to determine the performances everyone sees.”

Davis agreed, pointing out that BMO has “been the strongest advocates that their philanthropic gift should support the vision and curatorial expertise of the museum.”

Rezny goes as far as to point out, “We would not presume that our contribution would allow us to dictate how or what is to be displayed or performed.”

Of course, every sponsor relationship is not exactly the same. There is no hard and fast rulebook to which sponsors are necessarily held. Arts organizations need to be vigilant about developing that relationship of trust that organizations like BMO and MCA have cultivated.

Smillie relates that Arts Alive actually pulled away from a recent project after a corporate sponsor made numerous changes to the content of the work in question. To be fair, the sponsor did own the rights to the project, but as the relationship evolved the artists began to see themselves as mere labor and not creators. This kind of conflict can result if the scope of a project is not clearly and completely fleshed out in advance of engaging a sponsor relationship.

Nevertheless, arts funding remains vital to bringing any arts project to fruition. The Chinese proverb of the string too short resonates all the more today. Four years after the Great Recession, we’re still digging out from under it. Not unexpectedly, the calamity that befell the overall economy had more than a passing effect on the ecosystem of corporate philanthropy. “There is no doubt,” Whatton said, “the recession hit the arts community very hard, as it also impacted so many across the country.  That’s why it’s very important to look at how every dollar can have the greatest impact, and I believe most organizations have had to really look at truly maximizing their philanthropic support in light of the changes we have seen in the economy.”

Davis asserted that the 2007-2009 downturn changed the geography of cultural philanthropy, literally. “During that period, corporations established new giving priorities and aligned their giving with new geographic locations as a result of mergers and acquisitions,” she explained.

In the face of declining corporate support, the linchpin of the MCA’s coping strategy has become, not surprisingly, preservation of corporate partnerships. Davis pointed out, “The MCA focused on the most critical part of any philanthropic relationship—communicating with our partners about all of our projects and programs.  By staying in touch with our corporate contacts—the corporate contributions staffs as well as senior executives—we’ve been able to maintain positive, impactful relationships.”

The ramifications of the recession haven’t been just monetary. Perhaps more importantly, protocols, perceptions and attitudes have shifted as well. Recall Smillie’s account of how much more comprehensive the application process has become over the last five years. Regarding the process of obtaining corporate funding, said Smillie, “The expectations of foundations have grown from individualized requests to a fairly standard procedure.”

Which isn’t to say all the change has been for theworse. Whatton sees art transcending the purely cultural, becoming of real-world economic benefit. In her words, “No matter what happens, the arts play an integral role in our lives. Perhaps people have become even more aware now that there are innovation and job creation components to the arts that are very important to the vitality of Chicago.”

It is that awareness, at least in part, that moves companies like BMO Harris and York Furriers to step up to the plate, recession notwithstanding. As Rezny said, “It is during these harsh economic times that most of these groups find themselves in greater need of support.  And as governments and corporations cut their giving budgets, York Furrier feels compelled to ensure that we remain a staunch supporter.”

The word “philanthropy” stems from the Greek “to love mankind,” and while it would be naive to ignore the concrete benefits of corporate giving—in the form of tax breaks and branding opportunities—it would be too cynical to think corporate sponsorship isn’t motivated on some level by that love. Kathy Rezny’s words illustrate this: “Being family-owned and operated and living and working in the communities we serve makes giving personal.  From our pockets, we personally extend philanthropic support to make life better and more enriched for all.”

This exemplifies art’s role as an ennobling force, that what uplifts us about the arts is the simple knowing that the wondrous works we see on museum walls and hear in concert halls were wrought neither by gods, nor even sages, but by ordinary men and women, and that some of them may not have an artistic bone in their bodies, just longer proverbial strings and big hearts.
The Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago's South Hall (photo courtesy of The Museum of Contemporary Art).

The String Too Short: Building Corporate Sponsorships Based on Shared Ideals and Common Goals

By Don Fujiwara