WolfBrown: On Our Minds

I haven’t found a nonprofit administrator or development professional yet who isn’t concerned about the Obama administration’s ongoing desire to limit the tax deductions for charitable contributions.  I worry along with them that at the upper levels, especially, giving will be more expensive and therefore will decrease.  I recently came across a March 2009 brief from the Indiana University Center on Philanthropy that examined this issue by looking at historical tax data.  I found their conclusion interesting but not entirely comforting: “In looking at charitable giving at a national level, changes in personal income and changes in wealth play a larger role overall in shaping charitable giving than do changes in tax rates. Changes in tax rates matter in the short-term, the year before they take effect and the year they are implemented.”  The brief, How Changes in Tax Rates Might Affect Itemized Charitable Deductions, estimates perhaps a two percent decrease in contributions overall from a tax rate change.  But, of course, that would come on top of the other challenges that they measure.  They also caution that their conclusion is based on one year of data (2006), and acknowledge that longer term changes  would require analysis of multiple years of donor behavior.  So, I’m still worried.


I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the intersection of research and planning.  How do research and planning work align?  When does too much research become “information overload?”  What makes research “actionable?”  Recent work speaking directly with community groups, funders and arts administrators here in the Bay Area has been an eye-opening experience for me in terms of illustrating the power of qualitative data-gathering and its impact on strategic thinking for organizations and individual artists.  As part of a larger study of donor motivations for The San Francisco Foundation and the East Bay Community Foundation that we are doing in partnership with Helicon Collaborative, Fund For Artists grantees conducted participatory interviews with donors to arts projects.  In addition to gathering data, the exercise helped artists and arts managers learn how to talk to donors about their underlying values and motivations.  Sure, the exercise served a research purpose.  But it also helped to develop a new skill set that will pay dividends long into the future.  Similarly, in our current work with World Arts West, the presenter of the San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival, a series of meetings with representatives of different ethnic dance communities generated a good deal of insight into their challenges and aspirations, but also opened a door to building stronger community ties.  These two examples have shown me how powerful information and, more importantly, the act of gathering that information, can be to creating new relationships and exposing strategic opportunities.


In the past few months, I have been clipping articles about a so-called “new” trend towards more amateur participation in the arts.  First there was an article in Newsweek that pointed to the global recession as an explanation for the uptick in non-professional arts activity.  More recently, the New York Times, in a heart-felt story of amateur music-making gave credit to an inspiring teacher.  My own feeling is that we are not experiencing something new, but a pendulum swing back to a time when Sunday living rooms – like the one I grew up in – were full of non-professionals who enjoyed making music together.  On the walls and tables were paintings and sculptures made by people who lived there.  Perhaps the return to this kind of participation is the best indication that the arts are alive and well.


Much of my work at WolfBrown revolves around community cultural and creativity planning.  These processes often take nine months or longer to complete and implementation generally happens over 10 or more years. So being able to engage the cultural sector and a broad spectrum of community leaders - and keep them engaged – is vital to success.  It’s inspiring to me to see how community members are energized by our participatory processes and how leaders can build on that energy over the course of the long years of turning a plan’s vision into reality.  Look, for example, at the Richmond Virginia region, where WolfBrown completed a plan in 2008.  Among an array of important accomplishments, they’ve completely retooled their arts council to lead the implementation process.  In Long Beach, California, where I recently completed an update to the city’s 1996 cultural plan, the City Council has approved five proposals inspired by the plan.  Even in smaller communities, like Lafayette/West Lafayette, Indiana (home of Purdue University), we are seeing some initial action on the plan I completed there barely a year ago.  The work of engaged and passionate community members makes all the difference.


Arts Education Matters

March 4th, 2010

In a recent series of visits to schools and after school programs, I had the chance to remember why this work matters.  In many classrooms, no activity lasted more than three minutes.  Classes opened with short “do-nows,” followed by mini-lessons, then practice, then small groups, then reading journals, then assignment notebooks.  Children and adults knew and moved through their routines – with Buzby Berkeley-like precision.  No one loitered.  No one faltered.  There were no “side conversations” allowed.  Then in one primary classroom, a teacher opened and read a beautifully illustrated book.  Everyone – adult and children alike – spent time “just” inspecting the pictures.  Slowly, they shared what they each noticed, producing a lattice of possibilities.  Children remembered, connected, and re-visited earlier stories they had read together.  For an entire half an hour, something developed, grew more complex, acquired meaning – and hung there to be admired.


Pepsi Refresh Project

March 4th, 2010

Personally, I prefer Diet Coke to Diet Pepsi.  But, an exciting new grant program from Pepsi is causing me to reconsider.  The Pepsi Refresh Project is giving away $1.3 million every month through January 2011 to individuals and organizations that develop innovative programs which have a positive impact on their communities.  What is unique – at least for now – about the Pepsi initiative is the way it uses the empowering principles of social media technology to determine grant awards.  Other corporations – including Western Union, Microsoft, Target, and J.P. Morgan Chase – have occasionally used interactive technology to solicit applications and user recommendations for corporate contributions.  Pepsi has taken the concept further, by leveraging its resources with the democratic principles of such user controlled philanthropy incubator sites as kickstarter.comchipin.com, and kiva.org.  Pepsi accepts grants in six categories (Arts and Culture, Health, Food and Shelter, The Planet, Neighborhoods, Education) and awards several in each category at the end of each month, based on the number of votes submitted for each application by members of the public.  In these challenging times, it is nice to see a company spend over $15 million on a program to improve its corporate image, which also provides resources that support good causes.  While the Pepsi project will quickly become very competitive and not solve any one organization’s financial problem, the real value of this innovative project would be if their use of social media principles had a viral impact on other corporate, foundation, and government grant making processes.


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