Meet Deanna Tillisch, UPAF’s new president
Deanna Tillisch, the new president of the United Performing Arts Fund, had to remind me that we had worked together before. In the late 1980s, when her name was still Deanna Strain, she was the young public relations person for the Milwaukee Ballet’s short-lived, ill-fated merger with the Pennsylvania Ballet. So she knows how trying life can be in the non-profit arts.
In the mean time, Tillisch has prospered in the for-profit world. Her efforts on the ballet’s behalf attracted attention at Cramer Krasselt, a national marketing and communications firm with a Milwaukee office. After stints at CK and with a sports marketing firm in suburban Chicago, Tillisch landed at Northwestern Mutual Life in 1992. She was director of public relations there until 2004 and director of market development until 2008. She will finish her tenure at the company as director of corporate affairs and vice-president of the Northwestern Mutual Foundation.
At that foundation, Tillisch directed charitable giving of about $15 million per year. NML is a major donor to all sorts of non-profits, including the arts.
I kidded her a little about moving from the giving side to the begging side. It seems to me that doling out money makes everyone glad to see you; not so much when you’re asking for it.
She’d heard that one already, of course. Tillisch is making the move out of a personal commitment to the arts.
“I was at the ballet during a difficult time, but it did make me come to appreciate ballet,” she said. “And I have seen how the arts can make a difference for children.”
That includes her own children. Her 13-year-old daughter is severely developmentally disabled; music and music therapy have been godsends to her. Her oldest daughter, 17, is an aspiring actress, and a pianist and singer; the youngest, 10, plays the piano.
“As a child,” Tillisch said, “I always wanted to play the clarinet, but never did. I’ve been able to explore the arts vicariously through my children. The kids were thrilled when I told them I was going to UPAF.”
UPAF raises money for 34 area performing arts groups and sometimes behaves like a service organization, by offering management expertise and other services. Tillisch has raised some money as a volunteer for the Skylight Opera Theatre, but won her relevant experience within the walls of NML. She ran NML’s very successful workplace giving campaign for UPAF, work that heightened her awareness of and commitment to the arts. As an officer with the foundation, Wisconsin’s most generous corporate donor, Tillisch developed policies and practices to assign accountability and measure outcomes.
Through her work at NML, Tillisch had ample opportunity to look under UPAF’s hood. She did not go blindly into this job, in which she faces the daunting annual project of raising in the neighborhood of $10 million and the even more daunting project of allocating it fairly to 34 groups.
Allocation has always been contentious. UPAF has developed many formulas over the decades; none of them ended the arguments and all of them have been, to put it mildly, difficult to understand.
Tillisch recognizes the need to clarify that formula; she suspects that its opacity is a barrier to giving with at least some potential donors. But she feels equipped to take on both allocation and fund-raising in part because of policies put in place by her predecessors, Cristy Garcia-Thomas and Christine Harris. Tillisch pointed in particular to reduction of the board of directors from a sprawling 60 to an activist 25.
Tillisch brings a lot of connections and inside knowledge to UPAF, and a PR professional’s knack for image-building. That’s good, because UPAF is hard to explain. It has a lot of moving parts and a fractured constituency, with client groups from the $17-million MSO to the two-person Theatre Gigante and donors from $15 individuals to corporate giants.
Tillisch believes she can find messages that resonate across these spectra, especially those related to the economic and educational value of the arts.
“What MYSO and First Stage do for children… you can’t get that quality, no matter what school district you’re in,” she said. “The arts create about $240 million in economic activity here. And it’s not just Milwaukee, it’s the whole region. Part of UPAF’s mission is to get that message out there, to be the storyteller of the arts. The arts need a clear message that resonates and inspires people to give.”
In the PR business, that’s called an “elevator story.” Anyone can tell it in the time it takes to go up or down a few floors.
“That’s one of the reasons this job intrigues me,” Tillisch said. “I think I can tell that story.”
Quick Facts: Born in Beech Grove, Ind., 1962. Graduated from Brookfield East High School, 1980; UW-Madison, BA, Communication Arts, 1984; Marquette University, MBA.