How businesses can build non-profit partnerships that really work

AGO director Matthew Teitelbaum and Aimia CEO Vince Timpano explain how they pull off the Aimia/AGO Photography Prize

AGO director Matthew Teitelbaum, left, and Aimia CEO Vince Timpano.

AGO director Matthew Teitelbaum, left, and Aimia CEO Vince Timpano.

The outgoing director of the Art Gallery of Ontario and the Canadian CEO of Aimia discuss the unique partnership that fuels their photography prize.

You recently announced the short list for the Aimia/AGO Photography Prize. One of the four artists you selected will win $50,000 when the winner is chosen this fall. How did the Art Gallery of Ontario and Aimia end up working together on this?

Matthew Teitelbaum: It started with some casual conversations—which, of course, weren’t really casual—between myself and Rupert Duchesne, who was CEO of Aeroplan at the time. Rupert has a personal interest in photography and felt it was an area that hadn’t received enough attention in culture, in philanthropy and in terms of how it could define corporate identity. He asked: Should we think about a prize? But I think that only gained traction when we started talking about trying to do something new and different in the partnership between an arts institution and a corporate entity. I thought we could build more than just a prize—a different way of working.

Vince, when you joined the conversation, what was the opportunity you saw?

Vince Timpano: I spent most of my career with Coca-Cola, so I had a background that understood sponsorships very well. Sponsorships for most organizations are rather passive events; largely, the only exchange is money. The thing that’s being sponsored—and the passion for that asset—sits with another organization. The idea of a different business model that put partnership at its core frankly allows us to be more committed. We can pool resources and trade expertise. We have teams that are ultimately dedicated to the prize. We bring in marketing people, data analytics people and event management capabilities, as does the AGO. And because of that, you have an organization that is actually creating something they take a lot of pride in. And it manifests itself, I think, as a better experience for the artists.

What does the partnership look like?

MT: Vince is right that traditional partnerships involve an exchange of money, a little bit of resources and maybe a little bit of brand. We’ve gone further and we’ve shared expertise. On the AGO side, it starts by going into the relationship knowing that they know stuff you don’t. That has to do with data analytics, it has to do with marketing strategies, and it has to do with the greatest loyalty program in the world, Aeroplan. We’ve embedded our staffs around this prize and in each other’s organizations in a pretty interesting way. We make a lot of joint decisions. That’s an important thing to stress.

Does working in partnership change your approach to the project itself?

MT: We’re much more aware of what the prize is, not only as a standalone project but also in terms of what it means to the life of the AGO overall. The program also involves scholarships with art schools and small exhibitions. We’re doing a lot more to layer the program. At the very beginning, it was just about coming up with a mechanism to choose a winner and show their work. It’s much more complicated now than it was.

VT: What has changed is how we’ve learned together through the process. Frankly, it’s allowed us to think differently about what our objectives are and whether we’re achieving them. What didn’t work with the prize? What is it that we’re going to think differently about going forward?

What have you seen as the return on investment for you?

VT: As we’re a publicly traded company, everybody wants to account for every dollar spent and what return we’re getting on it. We understand there’s a direct return on investment and an indirect return on investment. There is also, as a Canadian-based company, just a basic obligation to do good by our community. But our association with the AGO and the photography prize has really come to underpin the entire organization. We’ve got three office locations—two in Toronto and our headquarters in Montreal—and if you had an opportunity to walk through the offices, you would see a remarkable selection of art through the facilities. Our employees selected the art; we have them acting as curators. There is a brand association they feel very connected to, because now they’re engaged in making the culture real. We’re an organization that values curiosity and conversation and debate and creativity. The placement of art throughout all of our facilities is allowing our organization to be more creative and more innovative, and it puts a premium on collaboration and discussion. There’s been a huge cultural component. I am a big believer that winning organizations have really high engagement with their employees and culture matters.

Does it also help with your actual bottom line?

VT: We supported a study by an organization called Business for the Arts. What it found was 63% of Canadians believe businesses play an important role in supporting the arts. More importantly, half of them had a more favourable view of businesses that support the arts. Frankly, that underpins part of why we do what we do.

You mentioned the joint decision-making that drives all this. Is that a formalized process, or is it just a natural collaboration?

MT: I think it is a formal process. I mean, our teams like spending time together, but there are specific goals and specific challenges for them to solve, so in that sense it’s structured. But it comes out of deep comfort with the people across the aisle.

VT: There is formal governance in place that defines the roles of the team. But what’s amazing about the partnership is it almost doesn’t feel that way. It’s easy for Matthew to get me on the phone in advance of a meeting, and we can talk.

Can you give an example of how it works in practice?

MT: We’ve asked ourselves: Do we have sufficient public involvement? Is the attendance at the show high enough? Is the voting high enough? Vince and I asked the teams to look at that. So the conversations around that question were formal; they set up meetings, they made sure the right people were sitting around the table, and they knew who was accountable. And then our staff came back with a recommendation to rethink whether the public could vote online or not. We originally had people only vote in the gallery space, and then we had the exhibition happen in two different places, so you could vote in either place. Then we went online and allowed people to vote online. But some of Aimia’s research made it very clear that the online votes were tied to how the artwork looked online versus how it looked in the gallery.

That’s interesting. Where did that lead?

MT: We were involved in a pretty interesting issue: Does the reproduction of the work of art online look the same as the experience of the work of art in the gallery? We started working on the idea that maybe we’d stop the online vote. We’ve used online for publicity and for profile, but we won’t actually continue the vote thing. And the teams developed that proposition; they laid out the pros and cons. We asked for some more work to be done, and in the end we decided we would continue the way it was. It wasn’t like, “OK, let’s have a show of hands” and all that. It was more like, “OK, this is how it’s feeling.” Yet the teams were using analytics to come to conclusions and, finally, to make recommendations.

In the Business for the Arts report Vince mentioned, it said one thing that most often drives a corporate donation is just being asked. Do you find that to be true—that sometimes it’s just a matter of putting the invitation out there?

MT: You need to get in front of them, yes, but you also need to have done the work to understand what the corporation wants. You can’t go in and say, “You should do this because…” and make it all about your need. It has to be a conversation. You say, “I’ve been thinking about what a partnership would look like, and here’s where I think there might be some connection between our goals or where our platform might serve some of your needs.”

VT: I would agree. I mean, you’re not going to support something if you’re not aware of it. But there’s a wide variation in the quality of the requests we receive. If you’re asking, you need to make it relevant to the company you’re looking to support. It’s not just about “I need money,” right? I’m dumbing it down a bit, but you have to spend time really understanding what the problem is that this corporation’s trying to solve. What is the opportunity we think this organization can actually leverage as a result of that relationship? If you can make that link more obvious, it’s easier for a company to get behind it.

What does that look like practically, in terms of them coming to you?

VT: You almost have to look at the company as a client. If you look at them as a client, then you’re working harder to better understand their business, their needs, their problems, their solutions. And then you’re doing a better job of connecting how what you’re trying to do is going to help them.