Managing Change and Maintaining Relevance: Business Volunteers for the Arts®

Posted by Eileen Cunniffe, May 18, 2016 0 comments

Engaging with the business community has always been the hallmark of the Arts + Business Council of Greater Philadelphia; we were established in 1981 and are an affiliate of the Greater Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce. As an extension, our core programs revolve around engaging the employees of businesses, harnessing their skills and talents for the nonprofit arts sector.

These programs include three skills-based volunteer programs: Business Volunteers for the Arts® (BVA); Technology Connectors (TC); and Philadelphia Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts (PVLA). BVA and TC match volunteer consultants with nonprofit arts organizations (or arts projects with fiscal sponsors). PVLA matches volunteer attorneys with arts nonprofits as well as with individual artists, arts collectives, and other organizational structures; and provides pro bono legal support for patents across the state of Pennsylvania, for all types of inventors (who meet financial eligibility criteria).

BVA was the founding program of the Arts + Business Council of Greater Philadelphia, beginning in 1981, though the structure of the program has shifted in response to a changing volunteer environment. While many BVAs around the country experienced similar growing pains, we managed the shift by diversifying our programs, as well as making them more focused. Around 2000, as requests for technology-related projects were increasing, a new program modeled on BVA was added—Technology Connectors. TC operates much like BVA, with projects focused on technology and volunteers coming from technology companies and backgrounds. For some of its existence, TC had a dedicated program director, but now operates essentially as a branch of BVA, with the same staff managing both programs and combined orientation sessions for new volunteers. The main difference is that experienced TC volunteers help with TC project assessments and scoping.

We start about 40 new BVA and TC projects each year, with about 75% BVA and 25% TC. We typically have about 30-35 active projects at any one time. Most projects are handled by a single volunteer, although about 20% of our projects are team assignments (typically two volunteers with complementary skill sets, usually within one program, occasionally one BVA and one TC).

As for a revenue structure for the program, new BVA and TC volunteers pay (or their employers do) a one-time fee of $250 to enroll and are required to attend a half-day orientation session before being matched on their first consulting assignment. Each new volunteer is interviewed in person before the orientation session so the program director can explain the consulting model and assess the level of expertise and types of assignments appropriate for each individual. We typically look for business/technology professionals with at least five years of experience following college, but sometimes we make exceptions for those with less work experience, but direct experience in a consulting role. Arts clients also pay a fee to A+BC after they have been matched with a volunteer consultant; project fees range from $100 to $1,000, based on organizational operating budgets.

Once a volunteer accepts a consulting project, we facilitate the initial “match meeting,” then document the project scope, deliverables, and time frame in a project agreement, signed by both the volunteer(s) and the main contact at the arts organization. We then check in with both the volunteer(s) and the arts client on a monthly basis to see how the work is progressing and to offer guidance as needed. We ask for end-of-project reports when the work is completed.

In addition to engaging business employees through professional pro bono work, we also offer three leadership programs: Business On Board, which prepares business professionals for board service in the nonprofit arts sector and matches them with boards; Designing Leadership, which is executive development for the creative sector (nonprofit and for-profit creatives); and CreativeXchange, an interactive leadership development program that takes professionals out of the world of analytical thinking and, through the creative process, helps them begin to understand, tap into, and maximize their creative potential.

We are always looking for ways to increase the impact and do a better job of measuring the results of the work done by our BVA and TC volunteers. We also strive to generate more stories and testimonials that really capture the benefits of the work for both the arts and business sides of the equation. Increasingly, we are looking to add new programs—like Designing Leadership and CreativeXchange—that offer other ways to “bridge” the arts and business communities and broaden the conversation about the importance of our region’s overall creative economy—nonprofits, for-profits, and individual artists and “makers” alike.

If you are interested in learning more about starting a Business Volunteers for the Arts® program in your community, learn more on the Americans for the Arts website.

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