Marketing replacing corporate philanthropy

An update was made to this article on Jan. 23, 2007.

NEW YORK — As nonprofit theaters hunt for corporate support, it helps to offer a little quid pro quo.

Legit orgs are finding it increasingly difficult to secure funds from corporations on a purely philanthropic basis. But they’re having more and more luck striking deals for sponsorship, as corporate philanthropy has begun to shift toward the realm of marketing.

The National Corporate Theater Fund, a 30-year-old association of 10 regionals including the Center Theater Group in Los Angeles and the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, has lately been thinking as much about what theaters can do for corporations — as what corporations can do for theaters.

Varying reasons are given for the scaling back of straight-up corporate arts philanthropy. Arts money is the first to get cut when a company tightens its belt, and other altruistic causes, such as charities benefiting victims of Hurricane Katrina or the tsunami, have claimed priority recently.

Corporate support generally accounts for a smaller chunk of a theater’s funding than coin from individual donors. For Trinity Repertory in Providence, R.I., — also a NCTF member theater — corporate money makes up 17% of donations received, versus the 40% provided by individual donors. Still, every penny counts, especially with government funding rapidly dwindling.

“As corporate philanthropy in the arts becomes more challenging, we’re trying to tap marketing dollars rather than philanthropic dollars,” says NCTF exec director Bruce Whitacre.

As typified by, say, the Roundabout naming its flagship Broadway house the American Airlines Theater in response to a significant contribution, sponsorship-type arrangements are on the rise, and not just among nonprofit theaters. In 2007, sponsorship growth in general is expected to increase for the fifth year in a row, according to sponsorship analyst group IEG.

“The days of just getting a donation with no quid pro quo are waning,” says Heather Kitchen, exec director of San Francisco’s American Conservatory Theater.

There’s one thing a nonprofit theater such as NCTF member ACT can offer companies: Marketing access to its auds.

“Theatergoers are a highly desirable demographic,” says Richard Jaffe, director of external relations at Trinity Rep. “They’re the cross-section of wealth and education.”

Theaters in small markets may not attract the attention of national advertisers, but grouped together in NCTF, they can offer corporations access to theatergoers across the country. (Based in Gotham, the fund and its high-powered board members also act as vital New York networking reps for the regionals.)

Whitacre says one of his org’s first breakthroughs was a contribution from Merrill Lynch, which helped bankroll productions at member theaters.

This season, NCTF — along with Sharp Electronics, Time and Palace Production Center — launched StageVision, a program in which theater-related, corporate-backed video content plays on Sharp Aquos flatscreens positioned in the lobbies of regionals such as Trinity Rep, the Cleveland Play House and Houston’s Alley Theater.

“Our model is, we want companies to do branded content about theater,” Whitacre says. Orgs associate their brands with legit entertainment through what he describes as PBS-style sponsorship messages in StageVision’s programming.

In return for support, theaters also can help corporations provide employee or client access to entertainment and events, with offers of discounted theater tickets and invitations to opening night fetes.

“It used to be that corporate donations followed the interests of the board chairman and his wife,” says Whitacre. “Now companies are interested in supporting broad ranks of junior employees.”

For all that, corporate philanthropy isn’t dead. According to Whitacre, fewer companies are donating to nonprofit theaters, but the ones that do are upping the size of their gifts.

“They’re increasing their role,” Whitacre says, “which increases their visibility” — and that serves in itself as a kind of advertising.

Time Warner, for instance, has recently launched two high-profile initiatives with two Off Broadway theaters. The company is a major funder of Signature Theater’s popular $15 ticket initiative, covering hit productions of “The Trip to Bountiful,” “Seven Guitars” and “Two Trains Running,” among others; and it is supporting the creation of the Time Warner Commissioning Program this fall at Second Stage Theater, a project to spawn new works from scribes of diverse backgrounds.

Such programs not only fall in line with TW’s philanthropic goals, but also may yield other benefits for the corporation.

“The film side of our business is always yearning for more scripts and better writing to represent diversity,” says Lisa Quiroz, TW’s senior VP of Corporate Responsibility. “You may have young artists out there who could be the next Scorsese.”

But although corporate arts philanthropy survives, nonprofits approaching corporations find it beneficial to pitch their ideas toward the growing middle ground between a donation and an advertisement.

“We’re telling corporations that we should be talking to both their philanthropy people and their marketing people,” says Trinity’s Jaffe. “It’s a gray area.”

Follow @Variety on Twitter for breaking news, reviews and more