Volunteering with the Arts & Business Council of Chicago

When I graduated from college, my dream job was to do PR/marketing for an arts organization, preferably something music-related, like a symphony, although a dance company would have been pretty sweet, too. But I discovered that those jobs are a bit competitive. They generally want someone with a legitimate background in that field (so, high school band doesn’t cut it) in addition to the practical business skills. After doing some LinkedIn-stalking (of the people who had the jobs I wanted), I noticed a lot of them had 1) a degree in music, and sometimes also something related to marketing/PR, and 2) their entire career is in the arts. I could get the occasional job interview with an arts org, but never any offers.

However, one executive director gave me some very useful advice with her rejection. (For which I was thankful.) If I was truly interested in working in the arts someday, I could gain experience through volunteering, specifically with the Arts & Business Council of Chicago’s Business Volunteers for the Arts program. I immediately applied for their BVA program, was accepted, attended their orientation, and eventually was placed on a marketing/branding project with the Illinois Philharmonic Orchestra, which lasted for about 6 months of meetings 1-2 times per month.

Then things at my job got hectic (going through a merger), and then I had a crazy long commute and not much freetime, and then I started a new job at a new company. Now that I feel settled at my “new” job (I’ve been there 18 months), and we got through our busy season (holidays), I’m ready to work on a new project, and will do so after the new year with Audience Architects.

Overall, my experience with the A&BC has been very positive! For a variety of reasons:

I can get experience in a field I know little about. I don’t know if I’ll ever fulfill my dream of being employed by an arts org. But this experience has shown me what it’s like, and given me a better idea of if that’s truly something I want to do, or if I’m fine participating as a volunteer, audience member and recreational student/performer.

I can be involved as much or as little as I’m able. The A&BC sends an email to BVAs twice a month with upcoming projects for which they need volunteers. If I have the time, and see a project that is a good match for me, I can reply and ask to be on that project. If I’m busy, or none of the projects are a good match for me (in the suburbs, or needs business skills I do not have), I can just delete and wait for the next round of projects. There is no requirement to participate on a certain number of projects; my schedule with them is entirely up to me.

I can support the arts without making significant sacrifices. I would love to be able to donate to my favorite arts orgs, or be a regular ticket subscriber, but my budget doesn’t allow for that right now. My budget also doesn’t have room for the likely pay cut I’d have to take if I ever was offered a job at an arts org. And if I did have the talent, being a professional artist [dancer or musician] would also come with a lot of sacrifice. Thankfully, the BVA program provides an outlet for me to fulfill my desire to support the arts in a way that works for me.


Park District Ballerina

I have the skills they need. Even if an arts org doesn’t want to hire me full-time, they still need my marketing skills. Most of the projects tend to be around marketing, branding, strategic planning, business planning and human resources.

You’re not an unpaid worker. The projects are truly meant to be pro-bono consulting. BVAs come up with a plan, but it is up to the arts org to carry out the actual work. That being said, the A&BC wants experienced business professionals, so this isn’t an option if you’re a recent grad or entry level and looking for more experience.

Interested? You can submit an application to be a BVA online.

Do you ever do pro-bono consulting? What has your experience been? 

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