WolfBrown: On Our Minds

Diversity of Donors

July 27th, 2009

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what motivates donors to give to the arts, and how their giving patterns relate to their core values – both inside and outside of the arts. In partnership with Helicon Collaborative, we are currently working on a study on donor motivations and values for The San Francisco Foundation (TSFF) and East Bay Community Foundation (EBCF), and have recently been engaged to survey San Francisco Symphony donors. As part of this TSFF/EBCF study, we facilitated an intensive donor interviewing exercise with a number of small community arts groups and individual artists who are recipients of matching funds through the Fund For Artists initiative, a program of both foundations. Key learnings from these interviews shed light on the deep meaning that small gifts hold for many donors, when they believe that their gift makes a difference. It was also interesting to note that the donors’ most important values often lie outside of the arts (e.g., social justice, the environment), and that arts projects that tap into these value systems were successful in raising funds from individuals who do not normally support the arts. Perhaps by stepping back to ask the bigger questions about what is important to donors, we can better understand the diversity and breadth of their interests and communicate with them more effectively. The report from this study will be released at the end of the year.

You may be familiar with N PR’s WORLD CAFE®, a program of diverse musical expressions, but the WORLD CAFE® I’m writing about is something quite different. It is sometimes linked with “appreciative inquiry,” an academic approach to organizational development popularized in the late 1980s that has been described as “positive, life-centered approaches to organization, group, and global change.” While working on the recently-completed update to Long Beach’s community cultural plan, several members of the planning committee suggested using the WORLD CAFE® approach for our public sessions. It is a conversational process that aims to address meaningful questions by building networks of ideas across groups of people. The collective conversation leads to new insights into the issues at hand and possible solutions. Using the resources of the Long Beach Nonprofit Partnership to assist with facilitation in a comfortable, informal setting at the Museum of Latin American Art, we were able to engage over 120 people in six different discussion areas of “emerging themes” on a Saturday morning, and to elicit ideas, concerns, and insights – as well as passion and connection – that have informed the process in profound ways.

Arts education for youth has been recognized as a long-term strategy for developing cultural participants of the future. Because of my own personal interest and my involvement in projects here at WolfBrown, I have an eye out for research on the impact and effectiveness of programs in this area. RAND and the Wallace Foundation have done a tremendous amount of writing on this topic over the past few years. I recently ran across a “Readers Digest” version of their findings, which is helpful for those who are short of time but are interested in current thinking about effective programs in this area. The summary is concise, four pages, and provides references to other more extensive writings for those interested.

What is ‘Real Value?’

July 10th, 2009

If you want to put a room full of artistic and managing directors to sleep, start talking about evaluation. While most of them care deeply about the impacts of their programs, talk of evaluation reliably produces anesthesia. Why? Some say they’ve been subjected unfairly to funder-mandated evaluations. Others say that the outcomes of arts experiences are inherently mysterious and cannot (or should not) be measured. A few honest souls will confide that ‘measurable outcomes’ feel antithetical to their sense of artistic autonomy. Maybe part of the problem is that we have yet to define outcomes that speak to the real benefits of arts experiences.

Understanding the accountability environment is, perhaps, one of the most important dialogues we can have as a sector. Is outcomes-based evaluation a distraction or a necessity for nonprofit cultural organizations? What expectations should funders have of grantees with respect to their capacity to undertake evaluation? Why should nonprofit cultural institutions voluntarily hold themselves accountable to a higher standard? As we investigate these and other questions in more depth, I hope you will send us your thoughts and ideas.

Making Evaluation Metabolic

July 10th, 2009

Our research also looks beyond the cultural sector to other kinds of nonprofits. Recently, I spoke with an education research and evaluation organization and a venture philanthropy investment group. A common theme stood out: the process of gathering information for evaluation needs to be embedded in the functioning of an organization or project. Otherwise evaluation becomes a burdensome add-on. As Michael Gilbert argues in Integrated Program Evaluation: A Three Part Vision for Better Leadership, Planning, and Effectiveness, “good evaluation is integrated evaluation.” The implication of course, is that the organization has to have the capacity in its leadership and staff to conceptualize strategic outcomes, and the systems to gather, analyze, and summarize data. The venture philanthropy group I spoke with takes a serious and far-sighted approach, funding organizations to create a theory of change, define outcomes, measure outcomes, and train staff to manage performance measurement.

As part of our research, we have been speaking with executive directors and development directors of state arts agencies and cultural organizations. For most of these people, evaluation and assessment is taking a back seat to the more urgent work of survival. While all agree that ticket sales and attendance metrics do not convey the real outcomes of arts programs, lack of staff time and other resources keep even those who are supportive of evaluation from moving beyond these rudimentary statistics. Where more extensive evaluation is happening, it is primarily because a funder has required it, and, in many cases, is funding it. But there are exceptions. For example, one contemporary arts organization is building evaluation into some of its programs, such that programming will change from one event to the next based on the results of evaluation efforts – sometimes to the discomfort of staff. In general, there is interest in moving beyond “counting heads,” but in a time of scarce resources, doing so remains a vague dream.

Money Well Spent

July 10th, 2009

Of all the foundation presidents active today, Paul Brest of the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation is one of the most respected. He has written extensively on evaluation and accountability, most recently in his book, Money Well Spent, co-authored with Hal Harvey. In a recent conversation, I asked him how his foundation balances the need to come up with significant dollars to do effective evaluation with the desire to put as much money as possible into supporting programming and mission-related activities. Brest replied that this is the wrong way to frame the question. Foundation dollars are intended to drive towards impact. Evaluation is critical in helping to achieve that goal. It is not a separate add-on expenditure, but fundamental to the grant because it is crucial to know if the goals of the effort are being achieved. There is no point in funders making grants, he suggests, if they do not know in some kind of objective way if they are being successful. Indeed, Money Well Spent was written partly to change the paradigm in funder thinking that evaluation takes money away from program funding. Both are needed if outcomes are to be achieved.

The Fundamental Question

July 10th, 2009

Back in 2002 James Allen Smith addressed the Museum Trustee Association and Getty Leadership Institute and asked “What do economics have to do with culture?” He noted the “pressure we are under to justify our work in instrumental or utilitarian terms,” and how when “cultural critics talk about economics, or economists talk about culture, smart people can end up saying ridiculous, confusing things.” In the talk that followed he offered a comprehensive analysis of the trends in cultural sector economics that are increasing the pressure to evaluate, and described the issues behind the fundamental question: “In what language should we answer when policy makers and foundation funders speak their utilitarian prose and expect quantitative answers?” It is a talk well worth reading in its entirety.

Proudly powered by WordPress. Theme developed with WordPress Theme Generator.
Copyright © WolfBrown: On Our Minds. All rights reserved.