The little-used but quickly growing source of funds - matching grants

It wasn't as if matching grants saved the day for WGBH last year. The Boston public radio and television broadcasting station received only 3 percent of its donations from corporate contributions that matched, or beat, donations made by their corporate employees.

But that tiny share represents feisty growth.

Last year, total matching income for WGBH reached $198,241, a 54 percent increase from 1981. Part of the rise was because the station added 40 more companies to its matching-gift list. ''We should at least be able to get that many, and hopefully more, this year,'' says Courtney Earley, who heads the matching-grant drive for WGBH.

Matching grants are a minuscule but rapidly growing source of funding for the arts. A company gives matching grants when it meets, or betters, donations made by company employees. The Business Council for the Arts, a New York association of business leaders supporting the arts, counted only 51 firms across the country that had matching-grant programs in 1980. This year so far, the BCA has tracked 230 firms with such programs.

Daniel Fallon, spokesman for the group, says the idea is catching on because companies ''want to involve their employees in the grant decision process.'' And , he adds, ''From the management point of view, I think it's a mechanism to make employees feel the company they work for is interested in them and the things they are interested in.'' And the arts are doing their best to push companies in this direction, too.

At some companies with matching programs, the number of employees taking advantage of them is increasing - and so is the amount they are giving.

Martha Montag, a manager of community affairs at Levi Strauss & Co., says that ''each year (Levi's matching-grant program) becomes more and more popular.'' But, she says, the company is promoting the program more heavily, too , and that has something to do with it. The philosophy behind matching gifts is to ''support and encourage employee involvement in the local community in a personal and financial way,'' she explains.

At Levi Strauss, the ''personal way'' is giving grants to nonprofit organizations where Levi Strauss employees are involved. For instance, if an employee is on the board of a local nonprofit organization, it could receive a Levi's grant ranging from $1,000 to $25,000.

Mr. Fallon, the BCA spokesman, says some company programs have become so popular that businesses have had to put limits on their donations. ''By now, there are companies that put a good number of restrictions on - limiting the geographic area (or) the types of art,'' he says.

The Polaroid Foundation in Cambridge, Mass., will only double employee donations to the arts if they are sent to members of the Massachusetts Cultural Alliance. The foundation already makes such a large commitment to education that ''we wanted to control somewhat the cultural (spending),'' says Marcia Schiff, executive director of the foundation. She says it's not too limiting, since most Polaroid employees live in Massachusetts and most arts organizations belong to the alliance.

Even the quadrupling from 51 to 230 firms, however, touches only a tiny fraction of potential business givers. Mr. Fallon says one factor that may keep companies out of matching grants is administrative problems. ''It takes a lot of administrative time to run a program like this,'' he comments.

Richard Mund, secretary and executive director of the Mobil Foundation, says one problem he experiences is that employees don't always tell the foundation the proper name of the organization they give to. So the foundation has to do a lot of tracking down and verification.

Dayton-Hudson, the major retail company, doesn't have a matching program. But it's not because of any administrative burden.

''Matching is more of a shotgun type of effect in giving money away,'' comments Margaret Wurtele, manager of corporate giving at Dayton. ''Matching $10 , $15, or $25 of an employee is not impact. We would rather make a contribution of several thousand dollars to a program we've reviewed.''

Forty percent of grant funds at Dayton-Hudson go to the arts. Company staff review fund requests and the quality of programs. As for employee involvement, ''we often involve employees in the (choosing) process,'' Ms.Wurtele says.

The rise in the use of matching grants is encouraging to arts organizations, which are marketing these kinds of programs harder as a result. They say half the battle would be won if donors knew which companies were matchers. In recent years, lists of companies that match employee donations have been printed in programs, subscription brochures, and mailers, as well as broadcast over the air.

Some organizations that stepped up their efforts to make the public aware of their programs have seen startling results. The St. Louis Symphony, for example, collected $8,671 from matching grants in 1982. This year, the tally is $32,000, says Maryanne Segura, marketing director for the American Symphony Orchestra League in Washington, D.C. The increase, she says, came mostly from previous donors who did not know they worked for companies that match grants. The symphony can't hold a company to its matching promises unless it knows a donor works for that matching company. Thus, a lot of money is lost when donors don't indicate that they work for a matching company.

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