As I mentioned in the last blog post about research, we’re sharing our thoughts about each social cause as we begin new research. The purpose of sharing this additional information is to explain why we think these are interesting or relevant areas to research, what we learned about the nuances of the cause, and the difficulties we faced in narrowing the scope of the research, so you, the reader, can understand what we considered as we refined our thinking about the research.
If you are an expert on any of these topics, you should be receiving an email from us soon and we hope you will be compelled to participate! If for some reason we have missed you and you think you have a valuable perspective to offer, please contact me at email@example.com.
Additionally, I’m sure I haven’t been able to capture every nuance in these sectors, so I invite your feedback and thoughts about how you might think about this work. For those readers less familiar with this topic, I hope you will learn something new and tune in again when we have the results of this research. Thank you all for your participation!
In the 1960s, there was an explosion of nonprofit arts organizations in the San Francisco Bay Area. In 1961, before the birth of the national Endowment for the Arts, San Francisco passed a law to require part of the hotel tax to go to funding the arts. Over time, each Bay Area region evolved to have different kinds of arts and culture groups across all disciplines, styles, and ethnicities: jazz, classical, folk, dance, choreography, visual arts, literary arts, poetry, film, video, and so on. In fact, at one point, the San Francisco Bay Area was second only to New York in terms of having the largest number of dance companies. Therefore, with decades of support and development, the vibrancy and variety among the arts in the Bay Area has led to a unique texture in the cultural fabric of this region. Today there are hundreds and hundreds of arts and culture nonprofits, of all sizes and varieties, all across the Bay Area.
The Arts and Culture Landscape
What does the world of arts and culture look like in the Bay Area? Through my conversations with arts experts, I learned that there are a number of ways to look at the landscape. First, one could examine nonprofits according to the two metrics: creation of work or engagement. Creation of work relates to supporting cultural heritage or preservation of art, as well as the support of new work, both in the development and production phase. Engagement in the arts could include introduction to the arts through performances for young audiences, it could include standards-based arts education in the schools, or it could include out-of-school arts learning for youth and/or adults.
Another way to look at arts and culture is by buckets or type of organization: nonprofits might focus on arts education, be considered major arts institutions, be community-based arts organizations (this might include service organizations, art therapy, low-income community programs, etc.), or be considered independent artists and organizations such as dance and theater companies.
A third way to examine this field is to look at organizations by budget size. Small arts and culture organizations might fall under $100,000 in annual budget. Mid-sized organizations might fall in the $100,000-$1,000,000 range. And large organizations might be above one million dollars. The largest arts nonprofits in the Bay Area might have a $4-6 million annual budget (still below that of some of the largest arts organizations in New York).
And yet another way to think about arts and culture nonprofits is to look at them by genre, discipline, or even location. I’m sure there are even more ways one could divide up “arts and culture” as a social cause.
As an organization, we value diversity of expert type in our network of professionals and diversity among the types of nonprofits represented in the expert mutual fund. Therefore, it’s important for us to keep the scope of our research broad enough to allow for this kind of diversity to emerge among the responses of our experts.
One difficult decision we faced was whether to limit the organization size in the scope of our research. An argument can certainly be made for asking experts to only highlight small-medium sized arts nonprofits because they most likely need the additional funding in this down-turned economy. However, we believe that the primary purpose of the research we run is to help individual donors understand which nonprofits are having the most impact in a given sector, rather than which nonprofits most need the additional funding. Therefore, we will invite participants to comment on any size nonprofit focusing on impact and encourage experts to think beyond organizations that have simply been around for the most number of years or are well established. We’re looking for quality of the organization above all else.
Who cares? Problem Statements
In most of our research, we begin by understanding what problems nonprofits in a particular sector are trying to solve. Again, this was a bit tricky to do with arts and culture nonprofits. Here are a few responses from experts to the question, “what problem are most arts nonprofits trying to solve?”
- Today, people have very little time to reflect on and distill their life experiences. The arts provide individuals with this opportunity.
- In an increasing capitalist, consumer-focused society, cultural heritage is being lost. Arts organizations must try to preserve these traditions.
- Commercial publishers seek monetary gains, therefore arts organizations must do what they can to encourage the literary arts to flourish.
- We are in danger of losing “art for arts sake.” We must encourage the creative expression of human beings because it’s good for the soul and for the mind.
- Funding for the arts in schools has been cut back over the last three decades. Arts organizations must fill in the gap and develop arts education programs to support students.
- Arts aren’t about solving problems, they’re intrinsically valuable to human culture, they’re about being alive and expressing yourself.
I found this part of my conversation with experts to be particularly interesting because while these are “problems,” most arts experts with whom I spoke don’t believe the purpose of arts organizations is to actually solve problems. This makes arts and culture a very unique social cause for Philanthropedia. I don’t think this will fundamentally change the way our research is run, but it’s important context to understand as we frame the survey and as we analyze the results in the weeks to come.
High-Impact Arts and Culture Nonprofits
Impact in the nonprofit sector is always hard to define, yet I have found that it’s even more difficult to define in arts and culture. How might we measure impact in the arts world? First, from a more objective standpoint, donors or funders might look at the “staying power” of an organization which could be evaluated by measuring the growth of support over time. One could look for evidence that someone cares about this work: attendance numbers, subscription numbers, percentage of the house that’s full, and/or donor support. Second, one might look for more subjective measures: what do organizations achieve with what they have or how much programming can they produce on a given budget; what’s the scope of this activity and what’s the quality of this activity? And then there’s the dimension of whether the performance, exhibit, reading, etc. was enjoyable, interesting, or thought-provoking to an audience member.
With the help of a few experts, I’ve come to this definition for what a high-impact arts and culture nonprofit might look like: A high-impact arts and culture nonprofit is one which is successful at creating or producing something of value to those who care about the arts and culture. A high-impact arts and culture nonprofit is able to contribute to the field by creating meaningful work and/or helping others develop an appreciation for the arts and culture.
Scope of the Research
Given all of this information and context, we decided that in the survey, we’d ask experts to recommend nonprofits that could be developing or producing new work, be focused on performance, preservation and promotion of traditional culture, have an educational component, serve any age or type of audience, have any budget size, and/or represent any genre or discipline of art. We are interested in arts nonprofits that have had real impact in their community and do outstanding work, NOT nonprofits that have simply been around for many years or most need additional funding. This research will be focused on organizations, not individual artists.
We’re excited to see the results of this research and share it with donors to help direct more funding to some of the great arts and culture nonprofits in the Bay Area who are really making an impact. As we begin this process, I’d love to hear what you think about these ideas. What other nuances did I miss? Do you agree with these definitions? If not, how might you define impact of arts and culture nonprofits? I invite you to share your thoughts and look forward to hearing from you.