Milwaukee Business Journal: UPAF evolves to achieve its goal of raising funding for the arts

By   – Digital Producer, Milwaukee Business Journal

The United Performing Arts Fund has raised $8.1 million toward its goal of raising more than the organization raised for Milwaukee-area performing arts groups last year, with a sizable number of workplace giving campaigns yet to complete.

The organization, known as UPAF, is readying for the homestretch of its annual campaign to raise operating funds for 14 member performing arts groups and assorted affiliate groups in the Milwaukee area. The campaign, which kicked off March 4, wraps up June 12 in a ceremony in the Northern Lights Theater at Potawatomi Hotel & Casino in Milwaukee.

For the third year in row, UPAF did not unveil a specific fundraising goal as it looked only toward topping the previous year’s effort. The united arts fund is in the middle of its second campaign following a high-profile, and highly successful, 50th anniversary campaign in 2017 that raised more than $12.3 million.

If UPAF can beat last year’s fundraising total, it will be the fourth straight year that it will raise more than $12 million for the arts, and UPAF will have done so in the face of ongoing turmoil in the Milwaukee business community that has affected some of its biggest donors.

“Fundraising has changed fundamentally in the last eight years, ” UPAF president and CEO Deanna Tillisch said.

UPAF’s funds come from a variety of sources, but the largest components are corporate donations and matches, workplace giving campaigns and gifts from individuals. In 2018, corporate donations accounted for almost 37.7% of the funds, while workplace giving was not far behind, at nearly 32.5%, according to UPAF. Individuals donated 21% of the overall funds, while special events like the UPAF Ride for the Arts and golfing event Dancing on the Green accounted for almost 5%.

This year, UPAF’s campaign is led by co-chairs Jim Barry, president and CEO of The Barry Company of Milwaukee; Sandy Botcher, vice president of field experience at Milwaukee-based Northwestern Mutual; and Tim Stewart, attorney and shareholder at DeWitt Ross & Stevens in Brookfield. Stewart’s leadership is one of the keys to success for UPAF, which added a third co-chair to its annual campaign beginning in 2012 to address the growing size of the fundraising effort and to target potential donors in the western suburbs.

Mergers and acquisitions — and divestitures — have upset the corporate landscape in Milwaukee over the past decade or so. One of UPAF’s largest donors, Johnson Controls, is now two separate entities: Johnson Controls and Clarios. Two decades of change have morphed Miller Brewing Co. into a unit of a Denver-based company, and Milwaukee banking leader Marshall & Ilsley is now BMO Harris Bank, based in Chicago.

And a series of CEO retirements have altered the makeup of Milwaukee’s C-suites as well, which Tillisch said creates a need for UPAF to continue to reach out to the new leadership to convince them of the value of the arts in Milwaukee.

Thankfully, BMO Harris and MillerCoors have continued their strong support of UPAF and Tillisch said new leaders, like Blake Moret of Rockwell Automationand Ken Bockhorst of Badger Meter, are fully aware of the value of UPAF. Tillisch also said the Johnson Controls Power Solutions business has long been a strong UPAF supporter, and that won’t change now that it’s Clarios. The company is holding its own workplace giving campaign this year.

While UPAF has worked to maintain those corporate relationships, indicators from other factors are positive. Donor counts are up, donations from mid-sized firms and small businesses are on the rise, signups for the signature fundraiser Ride for the Arts on June 2 are pacing ahead of last year when it grossed $520,000, and money that flows in through UPAF’s west side initiative, targeting the western suburbs, continues to grow, UPAF officials said.

UPAF is also reporting success in reaching new audiences and new demographics through an array of initiatives, including Bright Minds, an arts education program strongly supported by BMO Harris Bank, and UPAF Connect, a Brico Fund-backed program that links UPAF member group performers with underserved audiences. A third program, Adopt an Artist, connects Milwaukee-area companies with the local talent, offering a more personalized experience of art.

Those initiatives join affinity programs Next Generation UPAF and UPAF Notable Women to help raise awareness of the performing arts in Milwaukee.

That’s not to say that UPAF isn’t facing a few headwinds. Baby boomers are retiring at an increasing pace and corporations continue to streamline their workforces; fewer employees mean fewer donations, Tillisch notes. All the while the corporate landscape continues to shift, forcing UPAF to adapt to ever changing needs and perspectives. That demonstrates the need to expand into new demographics — like millennials — and new geographies — like the west side. So far, that effort is meeting with some success.

“It’s because we’re targeting our audiences in the messages,” Tillisch said.

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