Renewed Focus on Corporate Engagement

with the Arts

Author: Bruce E. Whitacre, Executive Director of Theatre Forward

Corporate giving is embedded in the DNA of Theatre Forward…

Many of our nearly 30 corporate partners have been with us for decades.  They have proven stalwart believers in the importance of employee engagement through theatre, and in the importance of a healthy national theatre network.  However, over much of the last decade, corporate giving to the arts has been declining, and many organizations de-emphasized corporate partnership efforts in favor of foundations and individuals. Theatre Forward, previously National Corporate Theatre Fund, rebranded and took on a new name to diversify our funding base.

However, now a combination of factors, including 2017 tax reform which drastically reduced corporate taxes, has brought a new focus on corporate engagement.  Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) has emerged as a broad array of strategies, including direct philanthropy, employee engagement, strategic engagement for mutual business purposes, product and service donations, and a wide range of collaborative strategies.  Partnerships with an array of nonprofits, governments, and increasingly, arts organizations, are charting new territory.

For example, our own Advancing Strong Theatre initiative, which accelerates progress in increasing equity, diversity and inclusion, secured two major corporate funders, Citi and Bank of America.  Both are long-time supporters of Theatre Forward who stepped up in new ways because of their belief in the power of theatre to strengthen community and improve lives.  Advancing Strong Theatre was recently the topic of a piece in Inside Philanthropy, which can be found here.

Our experience is not unique, as shown in the recent Americans for the Arts report, Corporate Social Responsibility and the Arts, by Lynn Stern, which can be downloaded here.  Based on responses from a sample of corporate executives.  The report…

“…. identifies three main CSR/CCI drivers that are shifting the focus on the kinds of arts and cultural projects, programs, and organizations that corporations are interested in and supporting. These drivers are: 1) to enhance corporate investments in community and economic development, education, and health and other priority issue areas; 2) to promote and reinforce company mission, core values, and brand; and 3) to achieve internal CSR/CCI goals, such as employee engagement/volunteerism and work­force diversity.” 

It goes on to cite themes of story-telling for social change, acting through an equity lens, a focus on youth development, and broader goals of strengthening community as animating new models of corporate engagement with arts organizations.

This past summer, as I traveled to theatres which are implementing Advancing Strong Theatre programs, this increased philanthropic interest in their work was apparent.  Companies are more likely to support an arts organization that is exploring new ways of engaging community members and having a deeper impact on their lives. New conversations are taking place between theatres and companies that would not normally consider engaging with an arts organization.

The political and cultural situation in the US is also changing corporate behavior.  Corporate leaders are starting to step into the social change arena and a serious re-evaluation of the role of companies in public policy is taking place.  Jeff Raikes (formerly CEO of Microsoft and the Melinda and Bill Gates Foundation) wrote a recent editorial in Chronicle of Philanthropy calling for companies to be more engaged in social issues and citing those that are already stepping up.  The outspoken roles CEO’s of Delta and Merck are taking on issues of immigration, gun violence, and systemic racism are further signs of companies addressing the polarized political climate in ways they would not have advanced until recently.

After years of declining interest in the arts, companies are giving the sector a second look.  Opportunities are increasing for those organizations with programs and priorities that align with the new face of corporate engagement.

Click here to read why Theatre Forward was featured on Morgan Stanley’s Times Square billboards for the month of August.

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