free zone / NGO zone

A changing performancecreative engagement between cultural NGOs and business


Julia Rowntree

No guaranteed formula exists for forging successful relationships between cultural NGOs and business.  The key dynamics are to be open to learning and change, to build trust and have faith in the convening power of art.

Cultural NGOs spring up in response to perceived needs and possibilities in society. Propelled by personal passion and much voluntary effort they work through a range of artforms, venues and locations, in virtual and real worlds – frequently outside the mainstream arts. Public funding structures can be slow to support the opportunities such NGOs open up for civil society. It is inevitable that practice moves faster than policy. NGOs are compelled to reach out to other sectors of society for support and particularly for funding if they are to expand and become more stable and effective. Business is just one part of society.

Reaching out requires familiarisation with the specifics of the business world and people within it. It also means taking a realistic look inwards both at why the commercial world might need your organisation now and at the internal priorities and capacities determining the shape of any eventual relationship.

There are as many different kinds of business as there are different types of NGO.  All exist in conditions of great uncertainty.  Arts organisations working at the margins can illuminate routes to adaptation for larger organisations. 

It is well to bear in mind that there are as many different types and scale of business as there are different types of cultural NGO: from a multi-national supplier of telecommunications, oil, or insurance services to a graphic designer or cake-shop. Of course, the purpose of business is to make a profit. With growing emphasis on small government in Europe however, concepts of business are changing as services become privatised and social enterprises become more widely recognised as a route to delivering services. “Business” may now have a wider social remit such as a housing association, a refuse and recycling service, a health or education provider – even NGOs themselves. Some will have bigger discretionary budgets than others, but many different types of business are worth considering when looking at scope for alliances.

Businesses, just like cultural organisations, vary in their values and behaviour. All exist in an operating context characterised by multiple uncertainties: regulatory, economic and environmental. All businesses experience different pressures and vulnerabilities at different times. Some will have cultures that are open, responsible, and eager to learn and adapt, others will not. The activities or reputation of particular businesses may rule out altogether a desire to connect with them. Individuals may be personally motivated to change their company’s behaviour and communications - internal or external. Some may even look to cultural organisations to help effect that change. Whatever the case, individual people working in business are citizens too and have interests and motivations beyond work.

For twenty years (1986-2005) I led the development programme of the London International Festival of Theatre (LIFT). Now I am working on another international project, this time with a ceramic artist to source clay from around the world and create a new public space in London that incorporates the world’s earths. Along the way we are teaching ceramic skills to a younger generation.

It is true that NGOs generally experience more negative than positive responses from business. Even advocates within a business can fail to persuade their colleagues to back a cultural venture in which they themselves passionately believe. Successful engagement does not come easily. A relatively small number of supporters however can make a significant and dramatic difference to the fortunes of cultural organisations. This makes the attempt to engage and build trust across conventional boundaries well worth the effort. Some businesses are powerful players in society. The arts have a traditional role of engaging with power; not only in the search for patronage but also to speak truth to power through the human wisdoms of art.

I write from a British and more specifically, a London, perspective where for many years I worked as Development Director at the London International Festival of Theatre (LIFT[1]). ‘Development’ at LIFT involved engaging with different sectors of society (including business) in the search for all kinds of resources, not just funding. As an independent arts organisation operating across an enormous city, this was needed to get the show on the road. We definitely needed money, but we also needed advice, access to buildings and land, people to open doors to decision-makers and different expertise. In time, this process enabled us to build a community of advisers and advocates from different spheres of life. Their insight and guidance helped the overall development of our organisation and its adaptation to changing circumstances. Furthermore, this team itself became attractive to business sponsors and other supporters. One type of support often led to another.

Starting by not knowing is a positive state. Look inwards and outwards. Research, reflection, conversation, shaping the invitation: the essential starting points of creative engagement.

We engaged businesses first of all as commercial sponsors i.e. we offered aspects of the festival as a vehicle for advertising and promotion or, later on, as expression of a company’s corporate social responsibility. We began this work in the mid-1980s when these dynamics were very new both for us and more widely. Corporate social responsibility approaches and agendas varied from company to company. Too often, in spite of the rhetoric of social responsibility, success was assessed by marketing measures with classic commercial motivations. These directly commercial agendas continue to be the most common business motivations for involvement with the arts. Nevertheless, it is worth bearing in mind that experience and contacts developed during the directly commercial phase helped LIFT shape a different kind of ‘performance’ at a later stage. In a radical response to the dominance of commercial values in politics and wider society in mid-1990s, we extended a different invitation to business – one based on what they had to learn from the art that we presented. The details of how we structured this learning programme are beyond the scope of this article but whatever the style of relationship, the processes of research, reflection and conversation are the same[2].  The power to shape the initial invitation however is entirely in the hands of the cultural NGO.

So, how do you get started? Looking outwards and starting by not knowing is a good place to be. Make every effort to understand the business world in your country, city and neighbourhood. Read the financial press. Keep your eyes and ears open. Look at signs in the street or on buildings as well as delving on the Internet. Search for business conferences or groupings that sound interesting. See if you can join such meetings or get a delegate place sponsored and go along to learn rather than to ask directly for support from other delegates. Ask anyone and everyone in the search for intermediaries. This might include arts-loving professors at business schools; civic or business leaders sympathetic to your work or the arts more generally; people in your own audience or wider networks. Get to know individuals and ask them about how their business works. Look for common ground and think entrepreneurially.

Look inwards too. Is your legal and constitutional structure set up for receiving funds from a range of sources? How much do you really know about what you do and who your audiences and supporters are? What skills, experience and connections do they have?

Read, read, read, about issues facing businesses now. This is how we began to develop a sense of what the arts might have to offer to the business world. We discovered that at times business was more open to risk and opportunity than our public funders; for example one company agreed to fund a LIFT’s first initiative in education.

Looking inwards is essential too. Eventual supporters and donors need to know that their funds or reputation are in safe hands. Any organisation seeking to engage business needs to be set up to receive funds and manage them properly. Legal and constitutional structures are essential building blocks. Some business foundations will only give to organisations with a charitable or non-profit status and all will wish to have confidence in your organisation’s governance. There are less clear-cut things requiring both internal and external reflection.

Your first request for support may not be for funds but help in hosting, graphic design or other expertise. The first businesses to give us support were:

  • a fashionable club where we could take potential supporters to meet in congenial surroundings;
  • and a graphics company who designed a LIFT brochure.

When I began work at LIFT in 1986, LIFT was starting from zero when it came to engaging with business.  It was a new concept more broadly in the arts.  Public funds and some donations had enabled LIFT to stage three festivals, so there was an artistic track record to build upon.  Yet if the festival was to grow and keep ticket prices low when public funds were at standstill, the only likely source of additional funds was the business world.  Previous festivals meant that we had a good story to tell but we had to get specific about this story and how and why others might wish to get involved.

We sought advice from friends or friends of friends with experience of different worlds. This group we called the Development Council. They had no legal responsibilities, but by being a member of the Development Council their connection to the Festival became formalised. The experience of members included: marketing, banking, advertising, international business development and government relations. Our own office was too cramped to host meetings so we often met at a member’s office or at a club in central London that agreed to support our efforts. After a time, it became too cumbersome and time-consuming to have regular meetings so we sought the advice of members on an individual basis whilst staying in touch with the whole group through LIFT events and receptions.

Sponsors are not just connecting to you and what you do. They are connecting to your community of supporters: audiences, participants, advisers and advocates.

Regular parties brought people together to celebrate international connections and spark civic conversations. Celebration, we learned is an essential part of building positive connections across different fields of society. The qualities of hosting too were vital to get right. We attempted always to welcome people on equal terms whatever their social and cultural background, be they newcomers to the Festival or old timers.

By asking advice and hosting meetings and parties (often sponsored), we started to build a team of advocates, and thus began to spread a sense of support, solidarity and enjoyment around the Festival that went beyond the conventional arts world.

We learned that businesses might have a commercial interest in connecting with our artistic programme and audience by promoting themselves through our publicity. But once again we had to get specific. Who exactly is our audience? What do we know about them? How do we describe them in marketing terms? How many leaflets do we produce? Where are they distributed? What other media channels do we use? We had to establish these facts before we had anything useful to put in a business proposal.

We also had to get specific about our programme and the individual performances. How do we describe the events? What are the dates? Are all the productions “sponsorable”? This last question forced us to be realistic. As a festival of international contemporary performance some productions were more likely to attract commercial sponsorship than others. These were the popular, entertaining ones, or ones attracting the interest of diplomatic staff, rather than the politically controversial productions. We decided it was not worth wasting time attempting to engage the business world in productions that were unlikely to attract support. We used our public funding to support these. Sponsors’ names were attached to particular events and their funds went towards supplementing the overall budget. At times, to avoid too great a financial risk, we agreed that a production could only be staged if we succeeded in finding sponsorship for it.

We soon learned that to start a conversation we needed to be able to tell our story succinctly, confidently and compellingly – often in the space of 20 seconds on the ‘phone or, as they say in the States, to make an ‘elevator pitch’. There are always two reasons for why someone in business chooses to support your organisation or project: a) it has a commercial logic; and b) it interests them personally. For any budget to be allocated to your cause, this individual will have to justify the case to colleagues, so they too will need an elevator pitch. Treat this person as an individual ally rather than simply a source of funding. The role of advocate within a business is not a straightforward one and they will need your support and patience.

We also had to cast ahead and think about how the benefits of sponsorship would be expressed and managed. In shaping what it was that we might have to “sell” to business we had to remain consistent with our public and cultural values whilst offering tangible benefits to the business world for which they would pay us varying sums. These ranged from £1,000 up to £50,000. Notoriously difficult to value, each sponsorship offered a combination of: publicity, tickets to events, invitations to receptions, media coverage. Sponsorship values were set between the sponsorship budget available and a sum below which we were not willing to go.

First and foremost engagement between NGOs and businesses is about individuals connecting to individuals followed by consideration of both organisations’ priorities, capacity and timing. Importantly, social, economic and political issues provide the overarching context in which any particular engagement takes place. Underlying all these factors will be cultural values and motivations at a personal level that can help establish common ground.

It is well know that Brits enjoy a cup of tea. Making a brew creates a great accompaniment both to reflection, conversation or advice session. A way to think about starting creative engagement between cultural NGOs and business is to think of it in phases:

  1. internal reflection and conversation
  2. external research, advice and conversation
  3. shaping the engagement and celebration.

Two cups of tea and a glass of wine! Get brewing!


Documents and reports, LIFT Living Archive:

Translated by Krzysztof Heymer.
  1. 1.
  2. 2. Changing the Performance: A companion Guide to arts, business and civic engagement, Routledge, 2006.
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