Crain's Business : News Article

 Nonprofit performers provide cheaper thrills

But some sponsors want entertainment with more frills
May 03. 2008 5:25PM
By: Victoria Rivkin

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When Jessi Hempel was helping to organize Fortune magazine's upcoming Brainstorm Tech Conference in Half Moon Bay, Calif., she sought entertainment that would not only dovetail with the event's technology theme but would show attendees something they hadn't seen before. So Ms. Hempel, a Fortune writer, tapped Misnomer Dance Theater, a Brooklyn-based nonprofit troupe that uses technology to promote dance. The group is slated to perform for 45 minutes at the magazine's July 2008 conference, an event expected to attract 350 executives from the technology sector. Although the firm's nonprofit status wasn't the reason for hiring Misnomer, Ms. Hempel says the publication stands to profit from its relationship with a charity.

Helping the brand
“A nonprofit brings a measure of good will to a conference, and it is good for the Fortune brand,” says Ms. Hempel. With corporate irresponsibility and the looming recession grabbing today's business headlines, many companies find that hiring nonprofit performance groups is a way to cast themselves in a more socially and fiscally responsible light. According to meeting planners, both corporations and nonprofits stand to gain from the association. While using nonprofit performers brings firms good will and helps cut their entertainment costs, corporate events expose nonprofit organizations to new audiences—and potential contributors.

“It's another good way to generate revenue for nonprofits,” says Dawn Gibson-Brehon, executive director of Brooklyn-based Ronald K. Brown Evidence Dance Company, which performed for Time Inc. last February. As a result, many top professionals at nonprofits are now aggressively pursuing the meetings market by contacting event planners and volunteering as guest speakers at gatherings that bring together corporate honchos. “Nonprofits have to be proactive in sharing their value with corporations,” says Chris Elam, Misnomer's founder and choreographer.

The price factor
For many corporations, price represents one of the most compelling reasons for going with nonprofit entertainment. According to Elizabeth Ngonzi, founder of Amazing Taste, a northern New Jersey-based event planning firm that has hired nonprofits for J.P. Morgan Chase and Bank of New York gatherings, companies can reduce their entertainment expenses by as much as 75% with nonprofit performers. To that end, The Boys and Girls Choir of Harlem Alumni Ensemble—with 25 to 30 singers, five band members and support staff—charges between $10,000 and $28,000 for a 90-minute show tailored to the corporate event's theme. A comparable, customized performance by a for-profit group would cost $100,000—and even more for top-name talent, according to experts.

With fees ranging from $5,000 to $25,000, depending on the length of the performance and whether it includes live music, the 10-year-old Misnomer troupe has begun to aggressively pursue the corporate market. Unable to afford public relations or marketing personnel, the firm limits its efforts to freebie exposure. This past December, it entered and won an online social entrepreneurship contest sponsored by Advanta Corp. As a result, BusinessWeek, The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times covered the troupe. “Corporations are not necessarily knocking down the doors of the nonprofits,” says Mr. Elam.

For its part, The Boys and Girls Choir of Harlem, which performed last December at Sikorsky Aircraft Corp.'s holiday party in Westchester, generates corporate gigs by sending biweekly e-mail blasts to event planners and following up, albeit less frequently, with press kits about its upcoming shows. Despite the advantages, some companies have not used nonprofits. Their concerns range from possibly contracting with a charity whose goals and activities are inconsistent with their corporation's values to winding up with entertainment that appears amateurish or too no-frills for attendees' tastes. “Corporations don't want to be perceived as doing something on the cheap,” says Robert Schron, founder of Manhattan-based Schron Associates.

Dancers in demand
Pilobolus, a 38-year-old dance company based in Washington Depot, Conn., has managed to surmount those concerns. Through the years, the firm has performed at IBM, Mobile Oil and United Technologies' events, and in February, Manhattan-based Forest Laboratories hired Pilobolus to perform before 3,000 attendees at its national sales event in San Francisco's Moscone Convention Center.

Paul Duffy, creative director of Altered Image, a communications agency in Matawan, N.J., hired Pilobolus for the pharmaceutical event based on the troupe's appearance in a Hyundai commercial and at the Academy Awards. Mr. Duffy says the dance group was the first nonprofit he has ever used for a corporate gathering, but it won't be the last. “After working with Pilobolus, I realize that nonprofits offer a great resource for corporate messaging,” says Mr. Duffy.