Guest Post by Sam Snobelen

Sponsorship of the arts can be a sticky subject and no one knows that better than those of us working on the front lines of fund development.  A very public light was shed on this subject during Vancouver City Council’s public hearing in January to decide the fate of the York Theatre’s request for a sign bylaw amendment that would allow them to recognize a local company, West Coast Reduction, in exchange for a very generous endowment contribution.

In order to better understand the common practices around the ethics of sponsorship in the Vancouver theatre community I led a discussion group at the Greater Vancouver Professional Theatre Alliance’s Making A Scene conference held last month at Performance Works on Granville Island.  The panel discussed the practices common to our respective organizations and looked at how each of us approaches potentially controversial sponsors.

Both of these recent events highlighted for me the need to keep open and clear lines of communication around who our sponsors are and how they benefit both the arts in Vancouver and Bard on the Beach in particular.  Since Bard receives many questions about our own corporate supporters, I’m going give some background on my role as the Corporate Development Officer of Bard on the Beach and what corporate sponsorship is all about.

Sam Snobelen stands next to our new 25th anniversary season bannerWho sponsors the Festival?

Most of our sponsors are local businesses and our agreements are negotiated through social responsibility or marketing departments, with people who have a real connection with the Festival and understand the important role the arts play in developing healthy communities.  Like you, many of these representatives look forward to attending Bard and are delighted to be supporting the Festival through their place of employment.  For many of our corporate contacts, sponsoring Bard allows them the opportunity to make a meaningful contribution to something they’re passionate about.

But what do they get in return?

Sponsorship agreements are, at their core, advertising deals.  Under a sponsorship agreement, our partners provide cash, products or services and in exchange Bard recognizes their contributions through a mix of logo placements, ad space in our season House Program, client and staff-hosting opportunities in our Hospitality Marquee, and a warm thank you from the stage.  Many of our sponsors go further and look for ways to directly engage our patrons through theme nights, providing audience draw prizes or sponsoring our education initiatives like Bard in the Classroom and our Student Matinee Series.

Where and when do sponsors turn up on site?

Part of my job at Bard is to ensure that there is a balance between the needs and interests of the sponsors and those of the Festival.  I meet with potential sponsors, identify their funding and marketing goals and see if there is a compatible program at the Festival.  Once a match is found, I then work with each sponsor to find out how they would like to engage with us.  If you’ve ever attended a BMO Power of Blue night, enjoyed a glass of wine among the flowers of our beautiful Bard Village garden feature, or taken advantage of our Bike to Bard bike parking, you can thank our sponsors for their support.

Why have sponsors?  Doesn’t the government give you money?

Less than 2.5% of our annual operating budget comes from the public sector – including the BC Arts Council, the City of Vancouver and (for the first time in 2014) the Canada Council for the Arts.  We are typically required to demonstrate financial stability and sustainability before we are eligible for government funding.  Sponsorship is one of the ways we can demonstrate that we are well supported by the community and that our productions can attract an audience, both of which are key elements of a stable, self-sustaining organization.

But why don’t you just charge more for your tickets?

It is front and centre in Bard’s values that our tickets be kept affordable so that our productions remain accessible for as many members of the public as possible.  The contributions we receive from our sponsors make it possible for us to keep ticket prices relatively low while still delivering the high quality performances you have come to expect on our two stages.  Additionally, though our sponsors’ contributions amount to only 10% of our annual operating budget, most of our sponsorship payments are received before the Festival opens, helping us to pay for the costs of putting up the tents, building our custom-made costumes, rehearsing the plays and laying the foundation for the magic of Bard on the Beach.

Cast of Twelfth Night, 2013, taking their bow. Photo by David Blue

If you have any questions about sponsorship and how it works at Bard, please feel free to contact me – at [email protected]. And if you like the fact that our family of sponsors are supporting what we do, consider patronizing those businesses as your way of saying thanks.