The Best Seat in the House: Where Skills-Based Volunteers Meet the Arts

Posted by Eileen Cunniffe, Oct 23, 2014 0 comments

Eileen Cunniffe Eileen Cunniffe

For nearly eight years, I’ve had the privilege of managing skills-based volunteer programs for the Arts & Business Council of Greater Philadelphia. Which means I’ve got the best seat in the house when it comes to observing what happens when business and technology professionals take on pro bono capacity-building projects with nonprofit arts organizations.

I’m the director—or as I like to say, the “matchmaker”—for both Business Volunteers for the Arts (BVA) and Technology Connectors (TC). Once I’ve met with an arts client and defined the type of project support they are looking for, I carefully curate a volunteer match and make the introductions, then step back and watch while our arts clients and our volunteers work their magic on each other. That’s right—on each other. Because if there’s one thing I’ve learned after matching volunteers on about 250 consulting projects, it’s that the volunteer consultants almost always benefit at least as much as the arts organizations do. It’s a special kind of alchemy, and it’s fun to watch it unfold.

Each year our volunteer consultants deliver hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of time and talent to nonprofit arts organizations. And each year scores of cultural organizations receive consulting support on strategic plans, human resources, marketing, financial processes, database management, search-engine optimization, e-commerce and many other categories of projects. In most instances, this important work would not be done without pro bono support, because the arts organizations don’t have the staff capacity or the subject-matter expertise, nor do they have the budgets to hire paid consultants.

And while the work itself certainly matters, often it’s the working relationships—and what arts and business people learn from each other—that end up mattering the most.

Some consulting projects prove to be transformational for the arts organizations—even if they begin as fairly straight-forward operational assignments:

  • Volunteer business consultant Carolyn Picciotti facilitated development of a new strategic plan for the Center for Art in Wood—a critical process that propelled the board and staff to successfully raise the funds needed to move into a beautiful new gallery space.
  • Volunteer IT consultant Dan Zuena agreed to help improve online registration and e-commerce user experiences on the website of Whitemarsh Arts Center. In addition to sharing his tech savvy, Dan flexed his creative muscles and helped the small staff completely redesign the center’s website in time for its 50th anniversary.

Some consulting projects are transformational for the volunteers:

  • Volunteer HR executive Mindy Mazer had no idea when she agreed to help the staff of Mighty Writers develop its first employee handbook that she would find herself reading books to children in the after-school program, then be elected to the organization’s board, then be asked to lead its strategic planning committee.
  • Volunteer banking executive Katy Fialkowski did not suspect when she began working with start-up Norristown Arts Hill on their first business plan that she would develop a passion for nonprofit work and become a “sector-switcher.” Katy is now executive director of a social service agency.

Some consulting projects present opportunities for business people to resume a personal arts practice or otherwise draw on past experiences—like the technology consultant who is an aspiring photographer or the accountant who studied dance straight through college. And while I do my best to match volunteer consultants with arts groups based on what I know about their skills and interests, it’s what I don’t know that often seals the deal:

  • Volunteer marketing executive Carrie Harcus agreed to work with Pasion y Arte Flamenco on a new business plan not only because she liked the assignment, but also because it offered the opportunity to work on her rusty Spanish with the artistic director and renew her long-held interest in Spanish culture.
  • Volunteer financial services executive Bill Haines took on a strategic planning project with Philadelphia Folksong Society and introduced himself to the organization’s leaders by telling them he was at the Newport Folk Festival when Bob Dylan went electric.

Like I said, I’ve got the best seat in the house.

As you might expect, arts organizations tend to be grateful for the advice and time our volunteers offer, for the extra wind in their sails. But time after time, the volunteers also express their thanks for the opportunities they’ve had to learn and grow along with the cultural organizations, or to laugh and cry as audience members. Younger professionals from large companies are grateful for the opportunity to step up lead consulting projects, when at work they’d most likely be a junior team member. Mid-career professionals—or those who find themselves between jobs—are glad to keep their skills sharp and/or try out the nonprofit sector through skills-based volunteer assignments.

Some volunteers become board members after their consulting projects end. Others continue as informal mentors or occasional sounding boards for the arts managers they’ve met through our programs. Most continue to attend performances or exhibitions, or become subscribers who bring family and friends along to “show off” the work of their arts organizations. And as often as not, our volunteers become champions not only for the arts groups they’ve worked with, but for the Philadelphia region’s cultural sector as a whole. Which is, of course, precisely what I’m hoping for every time I make a new match.


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