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Occupy Philanthropy

Mandee Ferrier Roberts

Mandee Ferrier Roberts

I admit I don’t know much about politics. Being the president of my high school drama club wasn’t exactly training for a career in political science. But after attending Arts Advocacy Day 2011, I realized I needed to be promoting and working for positive arts policies in our nation. That’s why I decided to intern at Americans for the Arts—and I was hoping to gain at least a little bit of political knowhow through osmosis!

Every day for the past couple of weeks as I walk to work, I pass by one of the camps for Occupy DC. It’s got me thinking a lot about what the people are protesting—social injustice and the uneven distribution of wealth. I know I’m worlds away from becoming the next great economy wonk, but I am an emerging leader in the nonprofit arts field. How can I connect the dots? I am currently pursuing a Master’s degree in Arts Management. In fundraising class, we’ve been learning about donor models, as shown in the graphic below:

Basically, the largest individual dollar amounts are donated by smallest number of people.

Sound familiar?

This model for nonprofit fundraising may already be out-of-date, in favor of the Fundraising Trapezoid/Dodecahedron/Polygon (it’s only a pyramid because ideally, donors should move up the ranks as their relationship with the organization progresses), but it still begs the question: Is there a “1%” that controls how nonprofits treat their constituencies?

In a broad sense, it’s more like 2%–according to the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy’s recent report, Fusing Arts, Culture, and Social Change: High Impact Strategies for Philanthropy. Key findings in the report indicate:

“[T]he majority of arts funding supports large organizations with budgets greater than $5 million. Such organizations, which comprise less than 2 percent of the universe of arts and cultural nonprofits, receive more than half of the sector’s total revenue. These institutions focus primarily on Western European art forms, and their programs serve audiences that are predominantly white and upper income.

Only 10 percent of grant dollars made with a primary or secondary purpose of supporting the arts explicitly benefit underserved communities, including lower-income populations, communities of color and other disadvantaged groups. And less than 4 percent focus on advancing social justice goals. These facts suggest that most arts philanthropy is not engaged in addressing inequities that trouble our communities, and is not meeting the needs of our most marginalized populations.”

There is then, in arts funding, an uneven distribution of the wealth. Perhaps those smaller, grassroots organizations that are working on a local level simply lack the staff and resources needed to seek and apply for funding; more established, higher-budget organizations already have those resources in place.

Now let’s take a look at how the giving structure works within a typical arts organization.

An arts nonprofit’s development team (that is, if they can afford one) is always on the lookout for that major gift, bequest or endowment. And with each donation, the benefits vary as the pyramid is ascended. For my $25 gift, I could get a bumper sticker (one that incidentally allows me to provide free advertising for the organization). For $250,000, I might get naming rights. I could have an entire wing named after me, thus placing me visibly and permanently into the organization’s history.

Motivation for giving changes when you ascend the donor pyramid. For the bottom “99%”, tangible rewards such as membership benefits, tote bags, or free parking dominate. For the top “1%”, intangible benefits such as social connections and legacy permanence are the stronger motivating factors. I guess it’s hard to come up with what to give to the person who “has everything.”

Why give any rewards at all? Because in our market-driven economy, one can’t get something for nothing?

Yet from reading the RAND report The Performing Arts: Trends and Their Implications, the National Endowment for the Arts’ publication How the United States Funds the Arts, and my course textbooks, I’ve learned that earned income and individual donations should comprise about 75%  of the organization’s budget. And all of that comes from us, the “99.”

Are institutional funders and the funding pyramid perpetuating a “class system” via the separation of market values and social values?

Is there any way out of the market “trap”, to return to the altruistic benefits of giving?

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