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PND Talk: Why Give to the Arts When People Are Starving?

January 31, 2014

Long-time readers of Philanthropy News Digest may remember PND Talk, the message board we launched back in 2004 and maintained for the better part of a decade (until the launch of our new site in November).

During its heyday, PND Talk was a lively community frequented by a regular cast of generous, knowledgeable nonprofit professionals — people like Susan Lynn, Sheryl Kaplan, Rick Kosinski, Julie Rodda, Tony Poderis, and the late (and much missed) Carl Richardson and Linda Procopio.

Recently, some of us were reminiscing about PND Talk and the friends who made it such a valuable resource for so many years. And that got us thinking: Wouldn't it be great if we could share some of their advice and wisdom with our readers here at PhilanTopic?

Well, we can and we're going to — starting with the post below by author and fundraising consultant Tony Poderis, who for twenty years served as director of development for the world-famous Cleveland Orchestra. In it, Poderis addresses the longstanding dilemma faced by all development professionals in the nonprofit arts world: How do you justify philanthropic support for the arts and culture when so many people, here and around the world, struggle to secure the basic necessities of life? It's an interesting and provocative post, and we think many of you will want to add your thoughts in the comments section below....

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Arts_jobs_buttonFor those of you laboring — with love — in the nonprofit "field" of arts and culture, I can guess, with reasonable certainty (I come from that background, too), that you are challenged at times to justify your organization's existence, particularly at a time like this, when so many other, "more worthy" societal needs are crying to be met. How do you respond?

I've had to address that difficult question many times over many years. And for many arts and culture organizations, it continues to be a pressing one. I hope what follows is of some help the next time you are so challenged.

Why give to the arts when people are starving?

I actually saw that question scrawled among the marginal notes in a funding proposal for an orchestra. The notes were penned by a trustee of a grantmaking foundation during a meeting to review the proposal. Another trustee of the foundation, the one who presented the proposal on behalf of the orchestra, later shared the notes with me and asked what I could do to help counter his colleague's questioning remark.

Arts and cultural institutions are often forced into such defensive postures. They're accused of benefiting only the elite. The needs of the hungry, the homeless, the physically, mentally, and emotionally challenged are cited as being so overwhelming that something as frivolous as the arts should not be allowed or encouraged to draw from the limited pool of private funding available to support the work of nonprofit organizations. Those of us who work with and passionately support the arts are asked how we can justify "diverting" funds to the arts when such need exists.

The arts community does its best to provide data that shows its economic impact and benefit to the community — the number of people employed by arts and cultural organizations, tourists attracted to a downtown neighborhood, money spent on purchases from vendors, etc. Although those statistics tell a true story, they are not always compelling. Then there's the "quality-of-life" argument, but it, too, isn't always convincing — in part, we're told, because it is too subjective, too broad, too general.

I believe the correct response to the question is to stop being defensive and to start asserting the value of the arts with some questions of our own.

Would our communities be places that successful people able to support other needs call home if they didn't have orchestras, art museums, the ballet, opera, and theater? Without the quality-of-life amenities that arts and cultural organizations provide, would private companies, corporations, and firms be able to attract and retain people with critical skill sets — the same people, in many cases, who keep local businesses thriving and civic initiatives moving forward? Would startups and new enterprises — the kind of businesses most responsible for creating new, well-paying jobs — want to call our communities home? Without "old money" and new wealth to draw on, where would the philanthropy that helps support "more worthy" causes and organizations come from? Would hospitals, school districts, social-service agencies really benefit?

To me, the gist of the argument is simple. Without the arts, without cultural institutions, the people who provide the lion's share of support for civic and social needs in our communities would be far fewer in number. And that can't possibly be in anyone's best interest.

-- Tony Poderis

Comments

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The useful exist to support the useless. Commerce, construction, communications, etc. (the useful) support love, beauty, philosophy, art, etc. (the useless).

The useless include the goals of civilization ("life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness" etc.) and do not receive their value from what they support. They are at the TOP of the pyramid of value. The useful receive their value from what they support, not merely from their actions.

The useless are the ends; the useful are the means.

I like that you don't rely on the economic impact argument. On the other hand, in your penultimate paragraph, if you were to replace the arts references with "stadiums" and "major league sports teams," or "single-industry factories" (an old model, but one that still exists), the argument still holds. And factories and sports franchises are not exactly nonprofit organizations (although they may have a small nonprofit arm for PR purposes), which defeats the argument for charitable support.

The arts hold a great deal of meaning, and in 2014 we need to find a way to quantify that meaning if we are to remain charitable organizations that seek donated funds. This America doesn't value the arts - in fact, they decry it as elitist and self-serving (donors donate to organizations they use - not like a food bank) - but that doesn't mean we have to. Not in poetic terms or cultural bon mots, but in real impact data.

This is an important topic and I encourage all of you in the arts to think about your case for support. However, I have a question for you. What evidence is there that giving to arts and culture "crowds out" giving to the starving?

As a fund-raising professional turned state-certified educator, I can attest that a hungry child is not a learning child, a frightened child is not a focused child, a homeless child is not a child capable of appreciating the beauty of either man or nature. Abraham Maslow is correct in his "hierarchy of needs". Prior to entertaining his/her need for self-actualization, a child must be fed, housed, and kept safe from harm, and I would say the same for an adult.

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