I had the good fortune to serve as Vice President and Director of Institutional Advancement for the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities (LEH), based in New Orleans, from 2009 through 2015. The piece that follows was originally written for and published in the LEH’s Louisiana Cultural Vistas magazine, in the Winter 2014-15 issue (pp. 8-9). For additional “Stories of Investment and Impact” from my LEH years, click here.
THE BUSINESS CASE FOR SUPPORTING ARTS AND HUMANITIES
Dark Days and Fitful Beginnings
Over the past five and a half years, I have been honored to serve as the LEH’s chief institutional advancement officer—essentially its primary fundraiser. It has been a wonderfully rewarding tenure, despite the very challenging financial/political environment the organization has faced throughout most of the period. When I joined the organization in early 2009, the nation was in the grips of its deepest economic recession since the Great Depression and non-profit organizations everywhere were suffering from the “one-two punch” of declining donations and nonperforming investments. Equally devastating, public support for arts and cultural organizations (nationally, and certainly here in Louisiana), was on the wane. This unfortunate trend would ultimately result in the LEH losing all of its $2 million annual state appropriation.
Looking back on that crisis atmosphere, the overall fiscal scenario for the LEH, as well for as most other arts, culture, and humanities-focused organizations in Louisiana, was indeed grim. Fortunately, most of us in this embattled sector have since persevered, through a combination of tactics and strategies. For the LEH, rather than retreating or downsizing, we began focusing on our core institutional strengths: (1) an impressive, four decade track record delivering first-rate educational and cultural programming and grants statewide, across all 64 parishes; (2) a talented staff, guided by an aggressive Board of Directors, who collectively understood that doing more with less and continuing to innovate were not incompatible concepts; and (3) a robust network of individual and organizational supporters across Louisiana.
The latter group, of course, included friends within the business community. It is this sector, perhaps more than any other, which has stepped up in the most significant manner to ensure the financial health of the LEH over the past five years. In fact, total corporate giving to the LEH increased by more than 800 percent between fiscal years 2008-09 and 2013-14, growing from $96,966 to $784,250. How this came about was not accidental or happenstance—although we did learn a number of important lessons along the way. And we still have a long way to go in more successfully reaching out to the private sector. We have a learning curve, just as the business sector does in fully appreciating and supporting the arts/culture sector. We can learn a lot from each other—which is really the underlying plot to the story that follows.
The LEH achieved greater private sector fundraising success through the pursuit of a combination of strategies that successfully made “the business case” for our mission and the work that defines us. In this article I offer a summary assessment of how this was achieved, as well as a few words of advice for others working in the (still vibrant but certainly still challenged) arts and culture arena.
First Lessons: The Importance of Listening and Necessity of Good Data
In early 2009, as we started reaching out in new ways to the private sector, we found that some of our traditional appeals for support were more effective than others (one critical lesson: seeking corporate support requires increasing amounts of relevant, hopefully quantifiable data on impact). We also started listening more intently (lesson #2: businesses rarely support organizations merely because they are doing good work; rather, they seek value-added partnerships). As simple as it may sound, the mere act of paying closer attention to the perspective of the business community was something of a watershed experience for the LEH. For example, our traditional appeals for support of our outstanding PRIME TIME Family Reading Time program included statistical data on numbers of participants and families attending, session-to-session retention rates, and other important but not necessarily business sector relevant data. What we were being asked for was hard data on matters such improved student performance and high school graduation rates. Accordingly, we commissioned an independent study of the PRIME TIME program’s impact on academic performance (see: www.primetimefamily.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/05/pt10yrstudy.pdf). The study’s findings—including the revelation that program graduates outscored non-graduates across nearly the entire spectrum of academic disciplines, from grade 3 through high school graduation—had a profoundly positive impact on our fundraising efforts with the private sector. We discovered that better data on program impact can work wonders.
Broadening Our Case: Pitching Arts and Culture as “Value-Added Propositions”
An additional example of how private sector input informed and improved the LEH’s case for support was our subsequent argument for the overall value which our humanities-infused arts and culture programming brings to the people of our state. Over time (after plenty of “trial and error”), the core tenets of our argument emerged, as follows:
- Louisiana’s quality of life, including access to enriching, educational artistic/cultural activities (i.e., what the LEH does), positively impacts the private sector in several ways:
- In order to be successful, businesses require happy, motivated employees.
- The availability of high quality arts and culture experiences improves employee leisure time, and therefore contributes to more content employees.
- Employee recruiting and retention—which represent very real costs to companies large and small—are closely linked to quality of life.
Sealing the Deal: the Educational/Workforce Development Appeal
We soon recognized that our evolving business case had limitations. One of these was the fact that artistic/cultural experience is just one of several key factors comprising quality of life. Another is of course education. The overriding importance of education—both technical and intellectual/academic—to Louisiana’s private sector has become ubiquitous in today’s social discourse. The success of Louisiana’s economic future will depend upon the availability of a better trained, better educated citizenry. Fortunately, the LEH has had a longstanding and expanding stake in educational programs, including evidence-based family literacy and teacher professional development (PRIME TIME), adult reading programs (RELIC), partnerships with educational/cultural institutions statewide, and our encyclopedia of Louisiana history and culture: KnowLA.org. In combination, these broadened the LEH’s business case in several ways:
- Successful businesses need literate, educated, and well-qualified employees.
- Through our PRIME TIME family literacy initiative (which now includes separate programs for pre-K and elementary-age children/parents, as well as teacher professional development training), the LEH positively impacts thousands of Louisiana residents each year (see: primetimefamily.org).
- Both Louisiana Cultural Vistas magazine and KnowLA.org have enormous potential to assist Louisiana businesses with recruiting and retaining quality employees. They are also a valuable resource for K-12 educators and especially students.
Assessing Lessons Learned
The primary outcome of this refined business case for support was a vastly improved relationship with the business sector, from local companies to large multinationals. By paying better attention to the needs and perspective of this sector, the LEH achieved dramatic increases in private sector support for our core mission and programs. We neither “sold our souls” nor engaged in “mission creep” in the blind pursuit of money. Instead, we became more entrepreneurial, and therefore more effective. And our timing, as public support for arts/culture evaporated in the face of a deep recession and long recovery, was fortuitous.
I close with two additional perspectives from friends who are leaders within Louisiana’s private sector. The first effectively summarizes the business perspective. The latter eloquently alludes to the private sector’s own learning curve with respect to recognizing the full importance of (and also investing in) Louisiana’s arts and culture sector.
“For Air Liquide and other corporations operating in Louisiana, recruitment, retention, and quality of life are all “bottom line” business considerations. Employees who are aware of and take advantage of the state’s fascinating history and diverse cultural treasures find better personal-professional balance and are undoubtedly more beaming and productive. And by the same token, a better understanding of Louisiana’s rich culture can help attracting and “seal the deal” in recruiting out-of-state employees who are considering relocation to the state. When I encountered Louisiana Cultural Vistas magazine in a Baton Rouge store in 2012, I immediately considered it as my passport to discover Louisiana in its deepest cultural and historical roots, and quickly came to realize its potential value for assisting me in attracting and retaining quality managers, as well as other key contributors. The magazine, as well as the LEH’s other educational and cultural programming/services, which illustrate well the uniqueness, richness and authenticity of Louisiana, have been important assets for me in attracting, recruiting and retaining talent.”
—Christine George, Vice President, Air Liquide Large Industries U.S. LP
“For more than four decades, the LEH has been the non-profit organizational standard-bearer for recognizing and celebrating the full spectrum of Louisiana’s history and culture. But it strikes me that the tremendous value of our culture as a “net positive” for both existing businesses and those considering coming here is all-too-often taken for granted. I see this first hand because I travel the state and have interacted with hundreds of individuals and companies over the last two decades. I think that’s most unfortunate. Because of that I would really encourage businesses large and small to take advantage of the resources offered by the LEH like its beautiful quarterly magazine Louisiana Cultural Vistas, and its new online encyclopedia of Louisiana history and culture—www.knowla.org. There is nothing like them anywhere and they’re great tools to help us all better leverage and promote the most interesting culture in America – Louisiana’s. With adequate public and private support, the cultural backbone that should be a key part of our companies’ business recruiting and retention efforts will remain strong.”
— Barry Erwin, President, Council for a Better Louisiana