Arts Grants in Aisle 1: Grass-Roots Groups Tap Giant Retailers

As part of Target's outreach effort, Colin Phillips, a store manager in Lex- ington Park, Md., helps paint P.R. Harris school in Southeast Washington.
As part of Target's outreach effort, Colin Phillips, a store manager in Lex- ington Park, Md., helps paint P.R. Harris school in Southeast Washington. (By Susan Biddle -- The Washington Post)
By Jacqueline Trescott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 11, 2006

Laura Connors Hull, founder of Creative Cauldron Inc. in Falls Church, was having a hard time finding money for her summer arts camp.

Then she heard about an unusual way to tap into funding for community groups. She headed to the Target store at Seven Corners, got a grant application, filled out the paperwork and then waited. Without much fanfare, the check from Target arrived a few weeks later.

Janet Stormes, one of the founders of the Choreographers Collaboration Project in Alexandria, noticed the brochure while shopping at Potomac Yard. Any donation would help toward a workshop she was planning before the group's spring concert. Target sent along $750.

Hull and Stormes are among a growing number of officials at grass-roots organizations who have discovered a pipeline of resources -- right in the mix of handbags, sheets, electronics and cookware.

Target Corp., the country's second-largest discount retailer, with $46 billion in sales last year, is giving away $2 million a week to programs for community-based arts, education and family violence prevention. The Minneapolis-based retailer is not alone in its philanthropic generosity or in building customer loyalty through good works.

Its closest rival, Wal-Mart Stores Inc., the world's largest retailer, beats everyone on pure dollars. The company donated $200 million in 2005 to a variety of programs, with 90 percent directed to community causes and organizations by store managers who double as program officers. Yet Target ranks No. 1 among U.S. retailers in the percentage of total earnings given to charity, according to an analysis last year by Forbes magazine.

Target donated 2.1 percent of its income while Wal-Mart gave 1 percent, according to the survey. Although Target would not provide a breakdown of its arts giving, its overall donations totaled $101 million in 2005, according to the Chronicle of Philanthropy.

"When you have as many stores as we have, you want to make sure you mirror your community. And we want to influence where we live and work," says Anne Leesmann, Target's district team leader for the Washington area. Applications are accepted from March 1 to May 31. "Our team members keep their eyes and ears open through the churches, through the schools, and they encourage the organizations to apply," says Laysha Ward, Target's vice president for community relations. "The team members are innovative, smart and knowledgeable and have the ability to be part of the giving process."

Wal-Mart and Target give store managers a lot of decision-making power to fund local programs.

"It makes the customer feel they aren't in a national chain," says Jeff Krehely, deputy director of the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy. "It has a hometown, local feel. And by shopping in the store, the customer also feels they are giving back to the community. It is a warm, fuzzy approach."

David M. Szymanski, director of the Center for Retailing Studies at Texas A&M University, says retail companies are one of the quietest sectors about their philanthropy. "They are not a group that runs around yelling. It is quiet, almost stealth, in the ways they give back to their communities. Maybe one of the reasons is that they are customer-oriented, have that contact with their customers and can be in touch with their lives," Szymanski says.

Krehely says that the availability of the grants is more important than the dollar amount in the public eye. "When you look at the size of grants discount retailers tend to give, it doesn't add up to much," he says. "If you know the local owner of the hardware store who got put out of business because of Wal-Mart, the contributions take away the sting about having them in your community."

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