Will anyone step forward to fill the shoes of Cincinnati’s major cultural donors?

By MATT PEIKEN

©WCPO/Scripps • November 13, 2014

–> Story link on wcpo.com

CINCINNATI — Each death notice has hit Cincinnati’s arts community like a nail in the coffin of an era:

Carol Haile in 2004, followed two years later by her husband, Ralph. Carl Lindner and Luba Dorman died in June 2011. Louise Nippert followed in July 2012, just after giving the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra $85 million—one of the largest single gifts on record to any American arts organization.

Lois Rosenthal died this past July. In August came the sudden closure of the Corbett Foundation—Ralph and Patricia Corbett, who died in 1988 and 2008, respectively, gave $70 million to local arts colleges and organizations over the previous six decades. Bill Friedlander died in September of this year.

Otto Budig and a few other longtime, deep-pocketed supporters are very much alive and giving, as are the foundations endowed by the Hailes and others that are still bedrocks of local cultural funding.

Still, they represent a withering generation of philanthropy.

Those charged with cultivating and nurturing donors to Cincinnati’s major cultural institutions face a daunting concern: Attracting younger supporters—professionals in their 20s to 40s—and inspiring the kind of loyalty that breeds the next Corbetts, Nipperts and Rosenthals of Cincinnati.

“Those are the names of people who’ve built the great institutions of this city. There’s no covering the fact these are tough losses,” said Kirby Neumann, who leads the development department of the Cincinnati Art Museum.

“Talking about the next generation has probably been a conversation with every generation, wondering whether people will pick up the torch,” he said. “And they always do. People grow into appreciating civic treasures.”

Leaving nothing to chance, major arts organizations in Cincinnati and around the country have launched singular campaigns and permanent programs and rethought their pipelines to leadership, all to build relationships with millennials and the people of Generation Y who, someday, will consider substantial levels of giving.

Thinking Young

The earliest local efforts to woo donors under 40 date to the 1970s, though most have only taken shape in the past several years. These range from social groups catering to young professionals, happy hour-styled events promising behind-the-scenes access and plenty of networking opportunities, incentives for long-term attendance and other enticements that, two decades ago, were only offered to top-tier donors.

While nonprofits of all sizes are concerned with cultivating the supporters of tomorrow, only organizations with the largest staffs and budgets can commit the resources to experiment with programs that nurture younger donors without compromising relationships with older devotees.

The Cincinnati Opera’s Center Stage program began as a discount incentive program for returning subscribers aged 25 to 40 but has evolved into a program cultivating future board members.

“There was (internal) friction over the question of whether this was about selling more tickets or raising money,” said Sneja Tomassian, who has worked 13 years with the Cincinnati Opera, the past three as director of development. “For me, it was about encouraging people to give their first gift to the opera, and then we can take it to the next level.”

Members of the Center Stage Board Associates give $1,500 each season to serve as “young ambassadors” to Cincinnati Opera’s board of trustees. Center Stage members plan every element of the annual Opera Ball, and the group’s chair becomes a voting member of the executive committee.

“We wanted to winnow it down to the people most interested in helping the opera succeed. It’s creating that connector, to see how committed they are,” Tomassian said. “We’re cultivating the next donor. I don’t know yet if we’re cultivating the next big donor.”

There’s no entry cost to belong to the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra’s young professionals program, called Encore, which largely creates extracurricular events connected to concerts that already appeal to younger listeners. The orchestra also regularly experiments with social events outside the Encore umbrella, such as its recent Boundless Backstage pre-concert happy hour, which offered backstage tours with a ghost story.

For the orchestra, every initiative is about “building relationships,” said Rachel Kirley, director of individual giving, and that starts with Lollipop concerts geared to 3- and 4-year-olds.

“There’s a correlation between people who attend performances and people who give,” she said. “We strive to move people through Encore toward subscription programs. Once they become frequent attendees, that’s when you move into the giving realm.”

Volunteering time to the orchestra, Kirley said, is another ramp toward financial giving.

Louise Nippert’s $85 million gift, which the orchestra draws at $3 million per year, largely pays for the orchestra’s performances with the Cincinnati Ballet and Cincinnati Opera. Nippert had hoped her act would inspire comfort and confidence in other potential donors to the orchestra, said Chris Pinelo, the orchestra’s director of communications.

“There are families that have been enormously generous, but (we aren’t) sitting around waiting for the next family that has a billion dollars in the bank,” Pinelo said.

While more individuals are donating to the orchestra than ever before, Pinelo said, nobody from Encore or elsewhere has indicated they’re ready to step into the level of super-donor. Even heirs to the Corbett and Nippert fortunes haven’t “picked up the banner and carried it forward,” Pinelo said.

“I wouldn’t say those days (multimillion-dollar donations) are gone, but we’re not looking for a next ‘X,’” he said, adding that the emphasis is on building relationships that lead to annual giving at any level.

“We’re looking at what we’re trying to accomplish from a mission standpoint and attracting the best and brightest musicians in the world to be part of this orchestra, so of course we’re looking for people who can help make that a reality,” he said.

Ramping Up To Philanthropy

There’s a $250 ramp to The Future, the young professional donors’ program of the Cincinnati Art Museum. The program, in its third year, has about 100 members, and museum leaders are working to develop a steering committee and board of directors for it.

“We want people who get involved to feel like it’s their museum,” said the museum’s Neumann.

“The challenge with the 20-to-30 demographic is that’s when people are building their careers and families,” he said. “You can’t put money in people’s pockets and you can’t influence the timing of when people feel ready to play a bigger role. Our challenge is staying relevant to them.”

The Cincinnati Ballet only last year launched its Attitude Associate board for young professionals interested in networking with other patrons, donors and members of the full board. Other company initiatives, such as its dancer sponsorships, are unique in this city.

These sponsorships range $350 for dancer trainees to $6,000 for principal dancers, money that goes to the company, not the dancer. Still, the sponsorships are often doorways into deeper friendships between the sponsor and dancer. While these sponsors tend to skew older, the Attitude Associates board pooled $2,700 this season to sponsor Jacqueline Damico, a member of the company’s corps de ballet.

On Nov. 13, Cincinnati Ballet announced a $500,000 gift to the endowment from longtime supporters Larry and Barbara Kellar, largely to pay for the company’s top female principal dancers.

“We’re going through the growing pains of trying to attract younger donors,” Pomeroy said. “It’s a little bit of a mystery, because we have dancers who are so young and out in the community and meeting people in that age range, yet our bigger demographic (of donors and sponsors) is the upper age range.”

The College Conservatory of Music at the University of Cincinnati seemingly has a natural pipeline of philanthropy—its alumni—and the organization Friends of CCM has fostered individual giving to the school since 1975. Just this year, school officials merged the alumni association’s governing board with that of Friends. The goal was better interweaving attendance at performances, volunteering for the school and financial giving. The school’s dean, Peter Landgren, labels this the three Ts of giving—time, talent and treasure.

“I’ve seen schools where the director of the alumni association will ask for the first $25 donation when the ink is still wet on the (graduate’s) diploma, and I think that alienates people,” Landgren said. “If the first thing we do after extending our hand for a handshake is put the palm of our hand out for a donation, we’ve missed many steps here.”

One of those steps, he said, is educating students about philanthropy before they graduate. Toward that end, the UC Foundation has launched a plan for student engagement and philanthropy. At CCM, that means having students meet and dine with donors and taking donors behind the scenes at the school to see the tangible impact of their involvement, among other efforts.

“Students get scholarships and don’t really know what that means or what sponsorship means. They’re going to classes and are disconnected from all this,” Landgren said. “We try not to use the language of gift or donation. This is an investment, an investment in excellence, and it’s important that students see this as a continuum that doesn’t end when they graduate.”

Grooming Tomorrow’s Leaders

ArtsWave’s annual corporate fundraising campaign brought in and dispersed a record $13 million last year to Cincinnati-area arts and culture organizations. Less known is the ArtsWave program BOARDway Bound, now in its 11th year, which encourages and educates young professionals to the realities, responsibilities and rewards of serving on nonprofit culture boards.

Those who enroll take 15 hours of classroom training on governance, fundraising and business expertise and sets up students with watch-and-learn opportunities with local cultural organizations. ArtsWave also has its own young professionals group, and members are tasked with recruiting other people their age to the cause.

Ninety percent of those who’ve gone through the program—nearly 300 people—ultimately joined the boards of the organizations they were paired with, most of them with small, local arts nonprofits.

“For these smaller groups, over three, four years of going through this, you have a chunk of people on the board who really know what they’re doing,” said Heather Hallenberg, director of grantmaking and strategic initiatives with ArtsWave. “It really elevates the entire organization.”

Another effort cultivating the next generation of arts supporters is the Young Philanthropist Society of Cincinnati, founded nearly four years ago by Tracey Lynn Conrad, a New Jersey transplant and former part-time dental hygienist who sits on seven arts boards or committees in Cincinnati. Through the Young Philanthropist Society, Conrad estimates placing 130 young professionals on nonprofit boards and committees inside and outside the arts.

“A lot of people ask ‘OK, what’s available for me to get involved with?’ and that’s not going to work or last very long, because they’re not really engaged,” Conrad said. “Volunteering and philanthropy shouldn’t feel like a job. The main thing is finding something you’re passionate about.”

Conrad tells of meeting a woman who moved to Cincinnati from Michigan, didn’t take a liking to her new city and was looking for jobs elsewhere. After learning the woman formerly sang opera, Conrad got her involved with Cincinnati Opera’s Center Stage Associates. She became so attached to the company and people she met that when an offer came to leave Cincinnati, she turned it down.

“The biggest challenge for the arts is there are so many great causes to get involved with here, and people might be more motivated by something outside the arts,” Conrad said. “The key is getting people out to learn about what a great arts city we are, to get out and experience things and go to performances, and the philanthropy will come.”

From Receiving to Giving

There’s consensus among those charged with cultural fundraising: People don’t go into such programs or donate money to arts and culture without developing an appreciation while young.

Tim Giglio is Exhibit A.

Giglio studied piano and accordion as a child and worked as a teenager alongside CCM students at a restaurant—the long-closed Forest View Gardens, in Cincinnati’s West Side—owned by a pair of opera singers. Giglio was in the early years of his career in investment banking when, in 1993, at the urging of a client who also performed with the Cincinnati Symphony, he began volunteering for the orchestra.

In spring 2000, the orchestra tapped Giglio to breathe a second life into its young professionals group, originally called the Symphomaniacs. One of Giglio’s first acts—changing the group’s name. Now in his early 50s, Giglio, long graduated from the CSO’s Encore and the young professionals demographic, is now treasurer in his ninth year on the symphony’s board and among the orchestra’s major donors.

“If (the orchestra) were sitting here with a $200 million endowment, I’d say we’re fine and we just need butts in the seats, but I think everyone shares concerns with future philanthropy,” Giglio said. “The big names aren’t necessarily giving as they have, and with all the competition out there for philanthropic dollars and entertainment, it’s important we grow our endowment and continue to build a base of subscribers.”

Giglio said he can relate to the life steps necessary before anyone feels ready to become a major donor. He didn’t dial up to large donations, he said, until he joined the orchestra’s board.

“It’s just going to take time until kids get out college and free up some cash to become major donors,” he said. “We tend to attract a lot of people freshly out of college and newly married, and then we lose them for 20 years, and we wanted to see (with Encore) what could be done to engage these people.”

Another young professional who has become a beacon of cultural philanthropy is Ryan Messer, who grew up with scant exposure to culture while growing up in tiny Rising Sun, Ind. As a young adult, Messer was adopted by a couple of people he regards as life mentors. They introduced him to opera and classical music and took him to his first live opera—”La Traviata,” through Cincinnati Opera, and often invited him over to listen to and discuss opera over dinner.

Messer moved to Cincinnati in 1991 and became a regular patron of the opera. Eventually, a staffer with the company approached him to chair and recruit members for a new group devoted to young professionals.

Today, at 41 and a senior manager in the pharmaceuticals division of Johnson & Johnson, Messer has graduated from the Center Stage Associates program and taken a seat on Cincinnati Opera’s full board of trustees.

“I remember meeting Mrs. Nippert and thinking ‘Are there any Mrs. Nipperts around?’ and I don’t know that there are,” Messer said. “But at the same time, there are blue bloods in this city who’ve given lots of money. I look at all those people and they were once early career professionals, maybe just starting families or just starting in law, and now they have their own practice and are in a place in their lives to do more.”

Even those without much money, Messer said, are in position to entice the future major donors by introducing the art form they love to newcomers. For his part, Messer introduced a neighbor in her 60s to the Cincinnati Opera, he said, and she’s been attending ever since. Messer also started a youth program, called Future Leaders of OTR, where one of the requirements for members is attending an opera.

“Who knows where that might go?” Messer said.

“The organizations are accountable for connecting to those future leaders of tomorrow as they have with me and others,” he said. “It’s not only to ensure they have a next crop of leaders willing to balance budgets and plan galas and all the things boards do, but also engaging people’s hearts and mind and endearing the organizations to those folks, so that when they have the ability to make contributions, that’s who they’re thinking about.”

Ultimately, people who have spent much of their careers in fundraising agree the small donor of today could surprise them down the road. Peter Landgren, the dean of the College Conservatory of Music, tells of a woman who subscribed to CCM’s performances for 20 years and joined the Friends of CCM at a modest level. When she died, Landgren said, CCM officials learned she left the school $1 million.

“If we sit here and fret to wait for the next Nipperts and Corbetts to show up, we’ll starve to death,” he said. “We’re doing all the right work. We’re adapting, and if we don’t adapt, we don’t deserve to be here tomorrow.”

 

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