President of Souls Grown Deep Foundation
By Maxwell L. Anderson, President of Souls Grown Deep Foundation
Italian corporate leaders have reason to be impatient with American attitudes. I write this as an American, admittedly one bearing decades of experience collaborating with Italian cultural and business leaders on both sides of the Atlantic. You are weary of being stereotyped as primarily a purveyor of luxury goods, wine and food. You cannot fathom why your significant role in the world economy–third largest in the Eurozone, eighth largest by nominal GDP in the world, and the 12th-largest by GDP—isn’t accorded pride of place in the board rooms of leading U.S. companies.
A closer look at why Italian business leaders are missing an opportunity in the United States may help explain such myopia.
America’s unusual reliance on the charitable sector can be mystifying to Europeans. There are more than 1.56 million nonprofit organizations registered in the U.S. These organizations range from public charities to private foundations, chambers of commerce, fraternal orders and civic bodies. Total private giving from individuals, foundations, and businesses in 2016 totaled $390.05 billion (Giving USA Foundation 2017). While this is a drop in the bucket of a $20 trillion national economy, there is something fundamental about charitable giving: it erases the fault lines of ideology, bringing together republicans and democrats.
The boards of trustees of the leading charities in the U.S. are the corporate leaders of the nation, cutting across every sector. They come from Wall Street, trade, manufacturing, and every part of the service economy.
For Italian business executives to change the narrative about Italy to that of a powerful economic engine with global promise, there is no better table to sit at than that of a non-profit board. And there are no more rarefied boards than those of leading cultural institutions from coast to coast. Top museums, symphonies, opera companies, and theaters are governed by volunteers who include decision-makers in the business world.
Informal opportunities for socializing with American corporate and civic leadership are abundant at cultural events, ranging from board meetings, to exhibition openings, fundraising galas, cocktail receptions, events at donors’ homes, and group travel with other CEOs. These less formal encounters are where opportunity lies—to share the realities of Italy’s highly developed economy, the ease of doing business with Italian businesses, and change the narrative about Italy from being a lovely destination to being an essential component of diversified global business strategy.
In order to be part of the informal network of top-tier business executives, Italian businesses have to do what their American counterparts do: write checks. Not necessarily painful ones. But they must provide enough support to get the attention of volunteer leadership and be invited ‘into the tent’. In other words, invited to exclusive cultural events, where business development has a better chance of getting attention than just taking part in an analyst’s call. Where acquaintances can become friends, where casual conversation can yield real results in developing critical contacts across multiple economic platforms.
It may seem both foreign and profligate at first. Italians are accustomed to cultural supremacy—both in the breadth of the nation’s cultural heritage and the sophistication of consumers at every level of society. And are also accustomed to the Ministry of Culture taking care of the baseline costs of maintaining Italy’s massive cultural enterprise, spending some USD$2.8 billion annually.
But it’s the reverse in the United States. Federal support for the arts is anemic. The entire budget of the National Endowment for the Arts is USD$155 million, or 0.0004 percent of federal spending. The private sector—largely affluent individuals and foundations—is what supports the arts. CEOs and their spouses are the top supporters and consumers of high-end cultural offerings, and are in awe of Italy’s standing in the arts. If Italian business leaders want privileged access to American corporate leadership, you may find it at very select business gatherings. But you have a better chance of finding that kind of access at cultural events where you have supported an art exhibition, an opera performance, a season at a symphony, or the production of a play.
To determine where to put your support, review online annual reports of leading cultural institutions in the largest U.S. cities relevant to your enterprise, pick one or more, and sign up your company as an upper-level sponsor or member. In addition to opening doors that will surprise you, you will have tickets to give to clients and personnel, visibility in the social and business press, and new opportunities that would never otherwise come your way. It’s that simple.