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

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."

In a 2005 survey, Giving USA found that almost $14 billion was given to the arts, culture and humanities in 2004. Yet the arts can be a hard sell because tastes in subject matter vary, and corporations are no different from local governments when it comes to arts support: When budgets are tight, the arts take a back seat, and when a disaster hits, those monies are quickly diverted from arts and other enrichments to fund emergency aid efforts, arts administrators say.

In the past 10 years, Altria, the parent company of Kraft and Philip Morris, has given $130 million to the arts. American Express has given $18.5 million since 1995 to the preservation work of the World Monuments Watch. Since 1997, it also has underwritten $9 million in projects by the Performing Arts Fund and also helped arts groups in their marketing activities. The Ford Motor Co. Fund gave $13 million out of $78 million total giving to the arts in 2004.

Among retailers, attention to the arts is uneven. For example, since 1996 the National Gallery of Art has received underwriting from two retailers: Target, sponsor of four major shows, and Hecht Co. In addition, Target co-sponsors the Millennium Stage at the Kennedy Center and is a lead sponsor of Gala Hispanic Theatre's current season. It also underwrote the renovation of "Remember the Children: Daniel's Story," an exhibition at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, and has signed on to support this fall's National Book Festival at the Library of Congress.

Target may sell toasters and give to traditional organizations, but its philanthropy does have some flair. In the late 1990s, the company led the corporate fundraising for the renovation of the Washington Monument and contributed $5 million itself. The company asked designer Michael Graves, now one of Target's signature names, to create something splashy and memorable for the project. Graves designed a blue fabric that covered the landmark during the renovation.

"They understand how to blend the arts into every part of their corporate life. They encourage aesthetics in everyday life, and we look at that as broadening the value of the arts," says Robert L. Lynch, president of Americans for the Arts, which has received funds from Target. Wal-Mart also supports arts and culture, including the Art Deco Society of Washington, but its corporate fund concentrates on education, children's services and emergency needs.

Target has 60 stores in Maryland and Virginia, where the funding process can start at the checkout line. Colin Phillips is manager of the 124,000-square-foot Target in Lexington Park in St. Mary's County, which sees about 10,000 shoppers a week. Last year, his fourth as grant captain, he received about 45 applications and approved 30. He is also a volunteer in the community.

Debra Bowling, principal of Oakville Elementary in northern St. Mary's, made sure Target was recognized for its contribution to the school's reading program. Students sent 20 to 30 handwritten cards with the Target bull's-eye logo to Phillips and a thank-you was posted on the school sign. But it is in the smallest community arts venues that corporate giving is most keenly felt. Hull turned to the giant retailer because she found the funding sources for her project were scarce. "There's not a lot of heavy-handedness. They send you a logo packet but -- amazing -- there are no strings attached," she says.

A grant from Target allowed the McLean Orchestra to enhance its annual free family concert. "It did allow us to bring in outside talent," says Nicole Fauteux, the orchestra's executive director. Among them were artists from the Creative Cauldron who helped children make instruments.

The Laurel Fund for the Performing Arts filed grant applications with six Target stores. In 2004, its first try, the organization received $1,500. Last year, it got $1,000. The money enabled it to organize a performance at the Lincoln Theatre called "Capital Talents," a showcase of outstanding students in Washington area arts programs. drawing the best young students from local arts schools. (The second annual show is March 19.) The money also enabled the fund to give away more tickets to the event.

In the Creative Cauldron's case, the Target money saved the day. "I had been struggling to launch the organization. If I can't find funding, I wouldn't be able to meet the mission. Then I was listening to some business report about Target's profits. And thought that sure would be nice. That afternoon, the DHL truck arrived with a $2,000 check," Hull says. "I called and thanked the manager."

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