WolfBrown: On Our Minds

Other OOM issues have focused on the long-standing tradition of artists who can play an important role in helping to revitalize communities, using modest cash investments and lots of sweat equity to reclaim whole neighborhoods in decay and help transform them. We certainly saw evidence of this when we completed our cultural plan for Richmond earlier this year. Now, with foreclosures at an all-time high in many areas of the country, there are new incentives for artists who can take advantage of distressed real estate prices to find affordable property and begin this process. In March, National Public Radio reported about such activities in Detroit. More recently, I learned of CreateHere, a nonprofit, public-private group founded in 2007 in Chattanooga, TN. CreateHere has developed housing, moving, and workspace initiatives to bring artists to the city as a starting point for downtown revitalization. They have already raised $160 million for riverfront beautification and attracted 24 artists to the area through their relocation and grant programs – ArtsMove and MakeWork. ArtsMove helps to bring artists to the city, while MakeWork aims to stimulate the region’s creative economy, providing grants to artists within 50 miles of the city.

Returns on Investments

May 15th, 2009

At WolfBrown, we think a lot about effectiveness and impact and how to frame our understanding and assessment of them. I was recently fascinated by an article in the Chronicle of Philanthropy detailing the Gates Foundation’s innovative effort to assess the return on its investment in schools.

With the help of the Center for Effective Philanthropy and AmericaSpeaks, Gates went directly to students – not principals, teachers, or data-tracking administrators, but 5,400 students at 20 of the 2,000 high schools it has worked with – to take the “YouthTruth” survey. According to Fay Twersky, Gates’ Director of Impact Planning and Improvement, the “YouthTruth” survey will provide feedback to its grantees and “add rigor to Gates’ process,” though it won’t have a direct bearing on their future funding. The article focuses on Woodrow Wilson H.S. in DC’s Northwest Tenleytown neighborhood and describes how the young people were equipped with wireless devices whose instant polling feedback immediately compiled results on a video screen for everyone to see. The devices were a tool to capture the kids’ attention and prepare them for more serious questioning that followed in an online survey later. The article suggests the survey may also prompt students to think in ROI terms. Questions like “What obstacles, like drugs, crime, or family responsibilities make it difficult for you to perform well in your studies?” were designed to keep them thinking about effectiveness and impact, too.

Nonprofit organizations are experiencing increases in service demand and rising expectations of deficit – these are the generalizations we have all been hearing. The Nonprofit Finance Fund has attached some hard data to these generalizations in a recent survey of more than 1,000 nonprofit organizations of different sizes and sectors from around the country. Among the findings: only 12% of respondents are looking at a breakeven year in 2009, and they are not sanguine that the situation will turn around any time soon; more than half expect a recession-related negative financial impact for the next two years or more. In response, they are taking the expected financial steps of reducing staff and salaries, freezing hires, delaying payments, and using reserves. There are also significant nonfinancial responses: 42% report collaborations with other organizations as a direct response to the financial downturn, 59% report an increase in consultation and communication with their volunteer leadership, and 48% are specifically in touch with funders not only to communicate about the financial situation but also to work toward a more flexible use of grant funds. NFF urges funders to respond strategically by building in flexibility, avoiding restrictions on funding as much as possible, and reducing paperwork, expense, and other process-related stressors on fragile organizations.

If you follow the field of community arts, you would be hard pressed not to have encountered Arlene Goldbard, who has been engaged in cultural development in its various forms since 1978 as a painter, graphic designer, art director, nonprofit manager, and consultant. Her most recent book New Creative Community provides a valuable, in-depth, and accessible introduction to the field of community cultural development. It offers both a description of the field and a powerful rationale for its value, resonance, and importance in our contemporary world. One of her projects that has particular power at this moment is called Cultural Recovery, an important and ambitious attempt to build coalitions of artists and cultural organizations, as well as such domains as education and social action. Its first initiative would be “… a campaign to create a substantial, sustained public-sector investment in community service programs employing artists and cultural organizations as part of national recovery.”

There is much richness here. Her blog, with entries going back to 2003, provides provocative food for thought. And follow this link to download the discussion paper on Cultural Recovery, well worth a review.

Lately, I have been immersed in books about decision-making and intuitive thinking. Jonathon Lehrer’s How We Decide is a great read for those wanting to get a dose of accessible hard science that provides a new perspective on learning and decision-making, at least for us laypeople. Similar to Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink, How We Decide describes the process that goes on behind-the-scenes in our minds when we react to situations and make decisions, specifically when they are based on gut-feelings or intuition. Reading these books is like pulling back the curtain on the Wizard of Oz as each story explains a different facet of how emotion and reason, working together, dictate how we decide. In Blink, for example, Gladwell starts the book with a story of how several art experts identified the Getty’s purchase of an Egyptian antiquity as a fake within two seconds of seeing it, relying on intuitive feelings. In How We Decide, Lehrer explains how a computer is the world champion in backgammon because it has learned to make decisions by adjusting moves based on mistakes it has made in previous games, just as we do.

As researchers, understanding how we make decisions is crucial to designing survey instruments and synthesizing findings for analysis. What criteria do people weigh in making decisions of what play to attend or what museum exhibit to visit? Are different criteria weighed evenly across a scaled range, or do some rank higher than others? And if they can be ranked differently, can people be ‘defined’ by the different ways in which they make these decisions? In a recent segmentation study for Steppenwolf Theatre Company, we found that theatre-goers are differentiated by their decision processes. Product attributes (casting, title, subject matter) are crucial decision factors for some, but not for others who avoid making decisions entirely by subscribing or relying on a friend’s recommendation. Marketing success hangs in the balance.

The National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy is causing a stir with its new publication Criteria for Philanthropy at its Best. The premise of the report, stated in the Executive Summary, is that “Current philanthropic practice accomplishes many beneficial things, but it’s insufficient to play the substantive role needed to solve the urgent problems facing our nation and the world. Grantmakers simply aren’t delivering as much social benefit as they could.” NCRP proposes four criteria, Values, Effectiveness, Ethics, and Commitment, and then challenges foundations to realize these values by working toward ten specific benchmarks. The benchmarks describe grantmaking that many of our nonprofit clients yearn for – including more multi-year grants and operating support, as well as six percent minimum payout, mission-related investment of the foundation corpus, and greater support of low-income and otherwise marginalized communities and more support of advocacy and civic engagement. But not everyone is in agreement on all points laid out in the publication. Naomi Schaefer Riley wrote a countervailing view in the Wall Street Journal, arguing that donor intent may be quite different from philanthropic purposes suggested by NCRP, but yet may still be quite worthwhile and effective.

MOMA’s New Face

May 5th, 2009

In the midst of doing some research for one of our clients on museum and library use of technology, the Museum of Modern Art in New York launched its new, state-of-the-art (or so they hope) web site that takes full advantage of the interactivity now possible on the web. (Warning – if you aren’t using the most current version of your web browser, you may have trouble taking full advantage of this site!) This web site is intentionally designed to “…open[ing] up the singular voice of the museum…” according to Allegra Burnette, creative director of digital media for the museum. And therein lies the interesting question. What are the sacrifices that MOMA is making by “opening its voice?” Burnette’s peers, whom I interviewed as part of my research, asked, “Who is MOMA on the new site?” If much of the site is dedicated to the voices of others, where is the museum’s voice? I readily admit to being overwhelmed by the options offered on the site now, but I am probably not the target audience MOMA is hoping to reach. Check it out and let us know what you think!

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