Corporate gifts can be the toughest donated dollars to get, although they can also be as reliable as the gifts of individual donors. This is because the sources of these dollars behave very much like individual donors—the programs are subject to income fluctuations, the giving focuses on an individual, and the process is personalized and informal, requiring a high degree of advance cultivation and ongoing stewardship.

First, that narrow definition. A corporate gift is money from a corporate giving program or an executive’s departmental discretionary funds. Most larger corporations have some sort of corporate giving program. This might be a formal, funded program with a staff and a contributions committee; it might be marketing money, run from an internal business unit or as part of an ad agency’s strategy; it might be a matching gift program run through the community relations or human resources department, or it might be the CEO or other high executive’s discretionary spending. Corporate gifts also behave differently under the law, with no set spending or divestiture mandates and different fiscal reporting requirements than foundation gifts.

There are the bare facts. So how do you find these no-strings-attached corporate dollars? (I can hear you all salivating.)

You don’t.

Unlike the vast majority of corporate and private foundations, corporate giving programs often have no established guidelines, no form to fill out, and no formal application process. Like individual donors, you are banking on your relationship with the individual running the program, or an executive with whom you have established a connection.

The best strategy for time- and staff-strapped small arts organizations is to concentrate on building your audience, your press relations, your rapport with state and local arts councils and with the corporate and private foundations that do fund the arts.

However, I am not saying to give up on corporate money. As I stated above, once you’ve got it, it tends to be a reliable source of donated dollars (meaning these are grants that will keep coming for five years or longer, sometimes without asking). But you need the connections, and I don’t know about your town, but in Chicago upper corporate management does not tend to go out looking for $100,000 arts organizations to donate money to.

They do, however, go to concerts and get on mailing lists. They do sit on state and local arts councils and the boards of other corporations and foundations. They send their children to your children’s schools (this business makes one so cynical). In other words they are hiding in the woodwork, on your mailing list, and unfortunately don’t go around advertising their resources on their t-shirts. Develop a strong individual giving program and corporate giving opportunities will materialize.

This doesn’t mean you can’t be proactive. Sometimes you send a blind proposal to a corporate giving program and turn up someone who just happens to have run a small theater in her youth, or sings madrigals on the side, or still studies dance even though the dream is dead.

So do your research and make a professional presentation. Many corporate giving programs are listed in the Foundation Directory (available at your local library and on line at the Foundation Center), or you can just start calling Community Relations or Human Resources departments at local corporations to find out if they have a program. Especially in publicly traded companies it is often possible to get an Annual Report, either from the company itself or at the local library. This is a good way to get an idea of the company’s resources and community involvement.

There’s another good strategy for making connections with corporate giving programs. One of the best ways to appeal to the business people with whom you’ll be dealing, is to offer them a business proposition. In other words, sell them something.

Are you a theater troupe? Write and produce a short motivational sketch for a company’s sales or managerial staff. (You might even be able to get funding to develop this “product” as an income stream.) Are you a choir? How about holiday caroling? An art gallery? Ask if you can use a building lobby to mount a show, or offer to jury an employee art competition. (Don’t sneer; artists have day jobs, too.)
By making a connection like this, you have killed two birds with one stone. You’ve met people in your targeted corporation, and you have demonstrated that you are also a businessperson, someone they can relate to. (Someone they can give money to.)

Once you’ve made the decision to send a proposal do the following:
Keep it short! A two or three-page letter format should be enough to state your case. Give an outline of exactly what you are doing. State exactly how much money you are asking for. (Theater X will mount 3 productions of new works by local playwrights at the Downtown Theater between September and Marc.) State audience size and composition. In two or three sentences describe what makes the program unique. Make sure you relate your program to your mission, to the needs of your community, and to the individual company’s corporate goals as best as you understand them.
Attach a business card to the letter, so the program head does not have to hunt down your phone number.
Include programs and press from previous seasons, but no more than 5 pieces. Do not send a video or audio cassette unless it is requested. (You can ask about sending a tape when you make your follow-up call) Make sure they know about your presence on social media, and follow everyone in the corporation that you identify on Twitter, Facebook business pages, and blogs.
If you’re sending the proposal via email don’t send a “live” document; turn it into a pdf. Give it a short, pertinent name so that the recipient knows what it is at a glance. Make sure there are clickable, highlighted links to your own presence on line, whether your website or a review or article in a newspaper.
Make a follow up call! Invite the program head to your show.
• Finally and most importantly, take “no” for an answer, but write a thank you letter anyway. Put the program head on your mailing list.

And then try again next year.