Corporate Storytelling

Posted by Bruce Whitacre, Nov 18, 2011 0 comments

Bruce Whitacre

Bruce Whitacre

“Our projects have to have a beginning, a middle and an end.”

“Don’t bring me your menu of options, A-level for $10,000, B-level for $15,000. Let’s just talk about what you’re doing and let me figure out how we can be part of it.”

“We’ve been tasked to put the A for Arts into STEM for the next Clinton Global Initiative meeting.”

These are not foundation executives or nonprofit executive directors talking. These are community relations executives at three Fortune 500 companies.

I also saw this phenomenon at the IEG sponsorship conference last spring, when GE and Xerox explained how they are using sponsorship to enter a new country or demonstrate logistics prowess through a sports franchise. Or a company that uses its pro bono work on behalf of a nonprofit to develop in-house expertise that will be resold to the commercial market.

What does all this mean to me?

Partnering with the nonprofit sector, or to speak globally, the non-governmental organization (NGO) sector, is not just business being good, it’s very good for business. In fact, the opportunities for engagement with corporations by the nonprofit sector as a whole may never have been higher.

If we connect to them at their level. And don’t lose ourselves in the process.

Companies with public relations problems—and who in any facet of public life does not have one of those, today?—need stories to tell all their stakeholders about the specific, identifiable difference their corporate social responsibility is making. They need to own those stories, and even better, profit from them in other manifestations.

But are we in this game, we in the arts?

Are we engaged enough, probing deeply enough, or thinking strategically enough, thinking big enough, to sit at that table?

During our recent strategic planning process, we at National Corporate Theatre Fund came to call event-philanthropy our “crack cocaine.” It was integral, it was easy, it was transactional, and we got very good at it.

But it isn’t scalable, it’s low margin, and while it makes everyone feel good, it serves about 40 people at a time. And to protect our partners’ competitive positions, we can’t even talk much about it.

No story, no impact, no difference.

So we did two things. First, we are organizing our 20 constituent theatres into a sponsorship/purchasing collective offering our consolidated business spending and problems to partner corporations seeking a large-scale platform. Our theatres spend $350 million a year directly in goods and services. We are already getting attention from national and international firms.

Second, we are exploring the feasibility of a cause that will transcend event marketing. We are still hooked on our events. They keep our relationships alive and vibrant. But our vision has expanded and we are using these events as a platform for broader, deeper engagement with our major corporate partners, current and potential, instead of an end in themselves. And we are entering new levels of partnership conversation as a result of this bigger view.

It’s going to be more and more about balancing our true mission with meeting companies where they need to be.

About making them aware of the new kinds of opportunities we are creating.

About sharing our business and logistical needs, whatever matches their competencies.

Companies are hungry for the new like I have never seen them before. The social dynamism of this age we are in—when every assumption about the public and private sectors is up for grabs—means we have this opportunity to tell that story, together.

What are you bringing to the table? What is the table?

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