Helen Koth

The Story of UPAF

22,000 donors support it, and 15 performing arts groups benefit. But the impact on the broader economy is huge.

By - Jul 6th, 2015 05:15 pm
Melissa Anderson in Christal Wagner's "Insert Word: I ____ You," performance by  Danceworks (a UPAF Member Group). Photo by Mark Frohna.Anderson in Christal Wagner's "Insert Word: I ____ You," a Danceworks Performance. Photo by Mark Frohna.-anderson-frohna

Melissa Anderson in Christal Wagner’s “Insert Word: I ____ You,” performance by Danceworks (a UPAF Member Group). Photo by Mark Frohna.

The arts and entertainment business in Milwaukee is constantly growing. It’s an important industry that brings people and their wallets to this city, and the money they spend helps the Milwaukee economy. That’s one of the messages of the United Performing Arts Fund, or UPAF, which estimates that about 6,000 people are employed by the performing arts in metro Milwaukee and earn in the neighborhood of $100 million in annual wages.

But what would happen if that huge economic engine didn’t have enough fuel to keep moving? That’s where UPAF comes in. “We promote the arts because we not only want people to get to the arts, we want people to be patrons of the arts” says UPAF’s President and CEO Deanna Tillisch. UPAF is “committed to keeping the performing arts a vital part of life in Southeastern Wisconsin,” as its brochures note.

To that end, UPAF has, since 1967, done an annual drive to raise money for the performing arts. The 2015 fundraising campaign brought in more than $12 million – a 2.3 percent increase over last year – that will go back into supporting 15 performing arts organizations in Southeastern Wisconsin. UPAF is one of the nation’s most successful performing arts funds.

UPAF has an outside committee—a board—that determines how much each group receives. “It seems like an elaborate process,” says Tillisch, “but it is necessary because our dollars come from individuals, foundations and companies and we do not expect any public funding.” And donors look to UPAF to maximize the impact of dollars given.

So while the 15 members of UPAF have a level of “guaranteed funding,” the total funding received can vary depending on the group’s earned income and financial stability, and also depending on its contribution to the UPAF, in the form of volunteers who get involved and donations a group helps raise.

Tillisch says this creates incentives for the groups to succeed. That’s what UPAF is striving for, she stresses: not to be “big brother”, but to keep the arts businesses sustainable.

As part of its fund drive, UPAF representatives sit down with businesses and other donors to talk about its allocation process and funding procedures. Tillisch says it’s important to be transparent with the donors as well as the receivers. Since the price of a ticket only covers about 30 percent to 70 percent of an overall cost of a performance (depending on the art form), contributed income is crucial.

Volunteers are incredibly important to these organizations. UPAF alone has 700 volunteers. Tillisch says that they can’t pay people to do what the volunteers do, but recruiting isn’t hard in Milwaukee. “People want to get involved and give back.”

Because the performing arts brings many people to downtown Milwaukee, UPAF and its members have a great relationship with downtown businesses — the many hotels, bars, restaurants and stores — who get business from arts goers.

“When you look at the quality of the arts that we have here…it’s equivalent to any other major city” Tillisch says. And people are choosing to live, work and be entertained in Milwaukee because of this, she notes. Businesses hire and retain talented people attracted to the vibrant arts and entertainment scene here, “which is important because that brings creativity, it bring innovation,” Tillisch adds.

Ultimately, Tillisch believes, UPAF is part of a cycle that is essential to Milwaukee’s business and revenue. “I don’t think people really have a good understanding of that. We don’t get the publicity.” They do have partners that help out on the marketing end like the Business Journal, she notes, but the arts don’t receive the kind of reach or following that say the Brewers or the Bucks do.

One big success for UPAF has been “Workplace Giving” campaigns. Of their 22,000 donors, 16,000 come from the workplace.

This is also where the impact of volunteers may be the greatest. “They are out biggest advocates, and they are our best spokespeople,” Tillisch says. “When a volunteer talks about what we have here, it is much more powerful than when I go out and talk about it.”

4 thoughts on “The Story of UPAF”

  1. Bo Black says:

    Are you aware that Jim and Joan Urdan started the Workplace Giving to raise money. Joan U.. came and talked to me when Iwas working forMayor Maier and the City took up the causes. SMart man and woman. Unfortunately Jim passed, but Joan is still doing her part for the Arts. Sue Dragisic was the executive directooooooooooooooooooo that made the Arts sing, and really pushed workplace giving. Kudosto all of them.

  2. Vic says:

    I would like it if UPAF were more transparent. Where does our money go, and how does UPAF determine who gets it? I don’t give to UPAF because their process isn’t transparent. What’s the criteria?

  3. Tim says:

    Vic, did you google it?

  4. A.Schumacher says:

    Vic – their annual report does a good job of laying out where the funds go, from their personal expenses to what each UPAF member group and affiliate receives annually.

    Here is a public, online copy for your convenience:

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