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05 May. 2015 | Comments (0)

Some people are numbers focused, others are creatives. In business, it is often the metrics and the people behind them that pull the strings and the corporate philanthropy field is following the same path. Social impact is increasingly measured by data and used by corporate funders as the basis for grant-making decisions. This trend has not necessarily been kind to the arts sector, as corporate giving budgets have reshuffled to target organizations and initiatives that can quantify their impact.

Giving in Numbers: 2014 Edition found that total giving to Culture and Arts fell by 20 percent between 2010 and 2013, a result that suggests organizations operating in the field have struggled to successfully capture the metrics and information necessary to demonstrate impact in a way companies can understand. Americans for the Arts is responding to the decline, however, with a shrewd assessment of the place arts has in the corporate philanthropy world—it’s not just about impact that can be supported by data, but about using creativity to broaden conversations and generate support.

Comparing impact

It’s easy to fall into the trap of perceiving arts and culture as a segment of the philanthropic community that delivers fewer social impact returns than others. Peter Singer, an advocate of the “effective altruism” movement, has suggested that a $100,000 donation would do more social good if it were given to an organization working to reduce instances of trachoma in developing countries than it would if it went to build a new wing of a local art museum. That’s a difficult argument to counter, but I believe such an assessment doesn’t go deep enough to consider the full impact arts can have.

The sector is in a tough position, because it delivers social impact that is less tangible and harder to measure than most other social issues: leverage.

An example from my own background reinforces the idea that the arts can deliver important social impact in ways that are less obvious than, say, delivering medical treatments. My brother, Chris Parkinson, is the photographer behind Peace of Wall: Street Art From East Timor, a book that catalogues graffiti in one of the world’s most impoverished nations. He argues that the population expressed its political and democratic voice, which was silenced by atrocity and political upheaval, through public street art.

There is no metric or evaluation technique that can accurately measure the societal impact that was created by the art on the walls of East Timor, or for that matter the photography that has captured it, immortalized it in print, and shared it with the world beyond the country’s borders. But it would be imprudent to ignore that impact simply because it is difficult to capture with numbers.

Economic impact

One way that the arts sector has begun to start to put numbers to its social contribution is by measuring economic impact, something that Michael Bloomberg championed during his tenure as mayor of New York City and which Americans for the Arts has also worked on.

This is smart because it gives the sector some positive data in a language that business speaks. The problem is that economic impact isn’t the core purpose of the arts, but rather an ancillary benefit. As Tom Finkelpearl, commissioner of New York City’s Department of Cultural Affairs, has said: “Nobody got into the arts because it's good for the economy. You got into the arts because of a particular artistic experience, the intrinsic rather than the instrumental value of the arts. The instrumental is that it's good for the economy, and the intrinsic is that something happens that's not measurable when you're at the ballet or looking at a painting.”

If companies want to generate economic impact, the arts sector is unlikely to be the first solution to which they turn when other, potentially more economically impactful, options abound. But if companies want to raise awareness of social issues and inspire employees, the general public, or even other funders to take action—that’s right in the sector’s wheelhouse. And it’s that impact story which should be told.

Where to from here?

So, the question remains: will corporate philanthropy’s inexorable move towards data-driven social impact measurement result in the field leaving the arts—with its uncertain impact story—behind?

Americans for the Arts suggests not. Through Corporate Social Responsibility and the Arts, the organization is making a concerted effort to promote the unique ways in which the arts can create social impact through corporate partnerships and to guide nonprofits in their pursuit of corporate funding.

The timing couldn’t be better. Americans for the Arts notes: “A scan of recent reports on corporate funding patterns and trends, as well as observations from field leaders and interviewees, suggest a challenging corporate funding terrain for the arts and culture sector even though arts and culture appear to be well positioned to serve both philanthropic goals and business objectives.” Despite this challenge, there is some good news: companies are still interested in making grants to culture and arts. According to Giving in Numbers: 2014 Edition, the sector ranks third in terms of the percentage of companies contributing to the area, it’s just that the total amount given has lowered.

That suggests that all is not lost. So more than ever, artists need to draw on their own skill set to respond to big data by creatively demonstrating how they deliver social impact through engagement and inspiration beyond the immediate beneficiaries.

This article was originally published on ARTSBlog.

  • About the Author:Alex Parkinson

    Alex Parkinson

    Alex Parkinson is Principal of Parky Communications, a communications agency specializing in sustainability and CSR reporting and communications. He serves as the Co-Leader of The Conference Board Cor…

    Full Bio | More from Alex Parkinson


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