Moving Beyond the ‘Transaction’: The Importance of Relationship Management in the Funding of Year-Long Cultural Celebrations
By Annmarie Ryan, Kemmy Business School, University of Limerick and Rowena Neville, Business to Arts
This short report and the research that underpins it, has been prepared in the context of the Limerick City of Culture year of activity in 2014, and funded by the Irish Research Council’s New Foundations Programme. The research undertaken focused on the corporate and cultural sponsorship partnerships that were created during the year. The findings of this research point to vital learning that could (and should) be acknowledged, understood and applied to upcoming similar durational periods of cultural and event planning, such as during the Decade of Centenaries (e.g Ireland2016), the European Capital of Culture 2020 (ECOC) and so on. This learning is also contextualised by what was observed around the sponsorship partnerships achieved for The Gathering, The Year of Irish Design 2015 and others.
Recent government policy has seen an important link being leveraged between culture and the economy. Specifically, we have seen an increase in the State piloting and providing seed capital to create a number of themed activities to drive economic activity and cultural engagement. This coincides with work undertaken by the cultural sector to maximise private investment to counteract cumulative damage to programming, outreach and employment levels due to the erosion in public funding.
The Decade of Commemorations has presented great opportunities to leverage existing State assets and historic centenaries to drive economic activity. We have also seen other activities and designations coming from ideas generated by the Global Irish Economic Forum, such as The Gathering 2013, the National City of Culture 2014 and the Year of Irish Design 2015.
For each designation, it is usual to see the creation of new sub-organisations and management teams. These come with particular infrastructure creation, governance, administration and learning challenges, as well as the pressure to engage in fundraising activities required to deliver on the objectives and programme as set out.
As a new funding landscape and reality beds in for Ireland, there is a requirement to strike a balance between public, earned and private income. We have observed that there can be a great deal of pressure to source these monies in a short amount of time, in particular for a one-off event. We believe this leads to a set of behaviours in those seeking funding.
Notwithstanding the pressures faced by, sometimes new, and temporary cultural organisations, year-long activities of cultural engagement have important opportunities not only for those directly involved, but for the sector as a whole. Specifically, they raise the profile of the arts and increase audience engagement, which by definition should attract the attention of corporate investors. However, with opportunity comes responsibility. We suggest that it should be the responsibility of all involved to see themselves as being in a ‘nurturing’ position in this work, to ensure that the corporate firm can become (or continue to be) a regular investor in culture, rather than a one-off, thereby seeding the pool of funders for the whole sector in the future.
The Limerick City of Culture event in 2014 was unique in that it was the first Irish city to be given this designation, with, it should be acknowledged, a very short lead-in time for preparation. Across a range of metrics, the year has been considered a success by those involved and has proved an important foundation to build on for the city’s ECOC 2020 bid. Many will be aware of controversies around the organisation of Limerick 2014, at the beginning of the year. The resolution to this was the formation of a new team to co-ordinate and deliver the programme as designed by the original creative team. This, i.e. programme delivery, was a key priority for the team. Our understanding is that there was no in-house sponsorship capability within the team prior to 2014. The approach taken appears to have been what we can describe as intuitive and ad hoc, rather than emerging from a formal planned approach.
From discussions with sponsors and businesses involved with Limerick City of Culture 2014, we observed, and they verbalised, a number of challenges, which can, and should, be acknowledged and counteracted by teams working on cultural events into the future. These include:
- Timing: Approaches for investment can simply come too late for business planning cycles, or for appropriate negotiation and activation plans to be effective
- Transaction focus: Because the team are (by necessity) thinking in terms of a one-off or time-sensitive series of activities, their behaviour is to ‘close the deal’, deliver the event, and move on to their next project. Evidence would suggest that there was much less emphasis on developing processes to support a relationship, understand in-depth the corporate’s needs and objectives, and in some cases little reporting or impact assessments created or delivered. Of those that were delivered, some were generic and did not fulfil the sponsor’s specific needs or objectives
- Legacy: The research brought up a question around what exists when the year is over. When the team have moved on (to other endeavours), who or how will the corporate’s appetite to continue to engage in culture, be harnessed and leveraged?
Towards the end of this document, we offer a set of considerations and take-aways that will be beneficial for any entity engaged in what are essentially ‘one-off’ celebrations or commemorations of culture/heritage/arts and design.
Creating a relationship approach to Corporate Engagement
There is a growing recognition of the importance of developing strong relationships between corporate funders and cultural organisations. Good working relationships lead to the development of trust in an arrangement. This trust allows for each organisation to behave within their own value system and still function well in the relationship. Relationships develop over time, and involve interpersonal chemistry, but also a linking of the resources and activities of the two organisations. This is important as it suggests that a successful relationship is not only about getting on well, but also co-ordinating with your partner. Relationships also offer the opportunity to develop the content of the sponsorship. As you interact, you learn about new opportunities that can become part of the arrangement.
Even in one-off year-long events, we advocate a relational approach. This suggests that investments are made and resources are allocated to manage the interaction between funders and arts organisations. Further, a strategic approach to the sourcing of sponsors needs to underpin these year-long events. A 12-24 month lead-time of relationship development is suggested in order to create the perfect match between event and sponsor. This should not be done by the cultural organisation alone, but in interaction with the potential investor, where in effect, you co-design elements of your engagement, matching these with the emerging programme of events. This speaks to the reality that corporates want and need more time to develop and generate the benefits for their investment. Taking time and space to do this effectively reflects evolving business needs.
By way of example, in advance of The Year of Irish Design 2015, the co-ordination team worked closely with Business to Arts to develop a knowledge of the marketplace, and from that created a bespoke corporate engagement strategy that was responsive to the planned programme and objectives for the year. This helped deliver highly effective strategic partnerships which delivered on the goals set for the year.
Even though a year-long event will cease to exist in time, the legacy of good, or poor, relationships will live on and impact other arts organisations and funders into the future.
Considerations for the Corporates/Business
- Set clear objectives: The arts and cultural sector is perhaps uniquely positioned to deliver on your community engagement and employee wellbeing/creativity/innovation agendas. Be clear about your corporate challenges, and work with arts partners to tease out measurable objectives around engagement that they can help you deliver.
- Make space for greater involvement: Even if you are presented with a packed programme, work with the creative team to make space for your organisation. Shy away from single events, working instead to create a narrative to link your association with other events in the programme to neutralise the temporality of the year-long programme. This can involve working to identify a higher level ‘theme’ that you can be involved in. Or, if that’s not possible, seek to partner with the artist or organisation for future events. There is greater value if the relationship continues beyond the year, and benefits the city/community/arts organisation beyond the one-off.
- Find(ing) the Shared Values: The fit between the sponsor and the event is recognised as a key ingredient for success. The reason for this is that your employees and customers will acknowledge the funding and support it, if it makes sense. Important too is that the audience for the event understand the relationship and ‘get it’, that it makes sense to them. From a relational approach we would also advocate that over time there is more ‘fit-making’ to do; that is, this is not all achieved upfront pre-contract signing. Fit-making refers to those ongoing activities by both organisations as they continue to engage with the event. Perhaps the opportunity arises for a further project, or a new promotion/activation opportunity will present itself out of conversations between personnel from both sides. These opportunities are vital as they, unlike a transactional approach, are embedded in the realities and needs of both organisations at that time, and not just proposed opportunities made months in advance.
Observations for Event Managers
- Engage far beyond the Transaction: So what’s the case for treating the sponsors/funders well? After all you’ve got your money – so job done. Right? Wrong! Understandably, in planning a year-long event, the organisers are likely to work out the budget required to deliver on the programme. However, when these budgets become monetary targets for private investment they can lead to a transactional approach. Making the deal and getting the funder to sign on the line becomes the key focus. The metric for success and focus, accidentally, becomes the meeting of the targets. No matter how long it took you to ‘land the fish’ and get the sponsor to sign on the dotted line, it is still only the beginning. Building relationships includes the budgetary wins, but not as sole metric. The monies and supports can come in all shapes and sizes and at different times – during the relationship and not just at the point of signing the deal.
- Invest Time in the Relationship: Appoint a key contact who can nurture, care and evolve the partnership. Most importantly, they will be responsible for understanding the client’s needs at the deepest level, and creating and delivering reporting structures that fit those needs. This key contact person needs to be replaceable, if things change during the year. Important then is to keep formal records of interactions with sponsors, to enable others in the organisation to pick up and manage the relationship if required.
- It’s not all about you: Year-long events often come with high levels of publicity and civic, professional and media engagement. As suggested above this makes them quite attractive to corporate funders. With this opportunity then comes an important responsibility – to leave the corporate in a more-engaged condition than it was found. A sector-wide perspective is required, every year-long event-delivery team actually becomes the representative for the sector and the region – not an isolated entity. Developing good working systems and processes to support interaction between parties, developing agreed evaluation and reporting processes means that each sponsorship can, when it’s time, literally end well. The best situation is when you are leaving the sponsor open and interested in engaging with other cultural events in the future, and in effect handing them, fully formed, to their next partner event or organisation.
- Getting closer has risks and benefits: Involvement and engagement do not equal interference. Interference is borne out of a lack of respect or understanding, or both. This is something that you have to work on, either in choosing potential funders (see ‘fit’ reference above), or creating opportunities for personnel from the funder to spend time with you in your organisation; allow them to get to know you!
Take-Aways for Year-Long Cultural Celebrations
- Start engaging with corporates, if possible, 2 years in advance, but not less than 9 months before the beginning of a period of cultural activity
- Work to develop a close relationship, so that time is taken to understand all the objectives of a corporate (and vice versa)
- Task and resource someone to develop this ‘relationship’ with the sponsors, who manages delivery of benefits and creates a reporting structure that demonstrates that objectives were met and exceeded. This person should also ensure that the corporates’ broader relationships with the cultural sector in the area are developed and matured over the period, to ensure that their engagement continues
- • Share the spoils. You will have gained vital intelligence on the sponsor over your relationship. You will understand what motivates them, and what they need delivered. This will leave you uniquely placed to advise them on their next investment – line up the support for the next guy!
- Great relationships win Awards! Disbanding a delivery team too early post-delivery activity can mean no one is left to celebrate the achievements or record the legacy. Prime the Sponsor to apply for Awards and tell the story of the impact of the year.