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Jeff Breisach

Bolz Center in the Windy City

by Jeff Breisach Monday, November 10, 2014

On Thursday October 30, the students, staff and faculty of the Bolz Center traveled to Chicago for an overnight trip to conduct site visits with six outstanding organizations representing much of the arts and non-profit spectrum. 

Our first stop was to WTTW Chicago Public Media to meet with alumnus Dan Schmidt who is the President and CEO.  The tour of the facilities was interesting! While WTTW is making great strides in keeping pace with advances in digital technology and anticipating and planning for coming changes, they still utilize equipment that would be considered antiques in some circles.  Dan explained that digital integration and distribution is key to WTTW’s future and how they are cognizant of the shift away from single purpose devices, such as radio and TV, and distribution methods with a limited range like traditional broadcast antenna. We discussed in depth the marketing challenges that are associated with this shift and how a major change like this can impact how the behavior of the donor base.

The next stop was Lookingglass Theatre where we spent time with Jennifer Bienemann, Director of Development and Erik Schroeder, Marketing Director.  Lookingglass Theatre is a unique theatre company that delivers primarily new works.  Discussion with Jennifer and Eric revolved around how they are approaching the shift in giving that is occurring in our field; specifically the shift away from large corporate donors to more individuals. We also touched on how Lookingglass would like to further diversify its audience and donor base but the lifetime value of certain segments, particularly young people, does not justify the costs of acquiring and keeping them.

Our lunch on Friday was led by alumnus, Jara Kern, who until recently accepting a position with Roosevelt University was with the Chicago Humanities Festival.  She provided us with an inside look on how the Festival is changing to meet the demand of the Chicago market and the direction it is headed.  As a bonus she also talked with us about her recent experience in changing jobs.  We all got great insight on her preparation, the application process and her interview experience.

Our second to last stop of the trip was the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events (DCASE) where we met with Matt Nielson, Deputy Commissioner.  Matt gave an engaging presentation about DCASE with a focus on the Millennium Park development of which we had a breathtaking view.  We learned about the design of the Park, event structure, financial planning, impacts of the project and more.  Following our meeting with Matt, we were graciously allowed to stay and enjoy the view while meeting with Benna Wilde of Prince Charitable Trusts.  Benna led us through an hour long journey discussing the current state of foundation giving, differences between private and public foundations, shifts in foundation priorities and best practices in foundation operations.

Our last site visit was with Lisa Key of the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago. Lisa gave us a crash course in the current financial state and philanthropy efforts occurring at the museum.  We also had a chance to discuss how their board, which currently stands at 77 members, contributes to the success of the Museum.  Development efforts at the Museum are handled by a staff of 15 many of us (I believe) were unused to hearing.  Collectively we have a vast range of experiences but not many of us have been involved with an organization where 15 staff members are tasked with development.  The goals of the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago are ambitious and they are well on their way to meeting them.

The trip to Chicago provided a wealth of examples of incredibly different organizations thriving despite the recent recession and the wild changes sweeping audiences and donors across the country.  I know the conversations and connections that happened will serve all the students of the Bolz Center well in the upcoming searches for post-graduation jobs and summer internships.