Chris Hughes Ruminates on Tech and Philanthropy: Is There Room for the Arts?

When Chris Hughes expounds on the current state and future of charitable giving, we should probably listen.

Hughes, as many may know, is a co-founder of Facebook and the publisher of the New Republic. And due to his CV, he represents the kind of data-driven "voice of the millennial" mega-donor that has some arts organizations rolling their eyes for saying things like, "But then you get into fields where it's difficult to quantify impact. If a donor gives money to a new center for the study of a particular topic at their alma mater, then how are you going to look into data to quantify that impact? Or if you start talking about the arts, that’s a difficult field to measure impact."

In fact, there are mountains of evidence that suggest that it's possible to measure the impact of the arts. It may be relatively more difficult compared to other areas, but it's possble. Either way, arts proponents shouldn't let this misconception gain too much traction, especially amongst the tech-millennial crowd.

In fact, this is precisely why we should pay attention to the views of people like Hughes. It reminds us of that stuff from Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus—how is it that two different personality types can look at compelling evidence, yet come to completely different conclusions? Therefore, we need to make the effort to peer into the idealistic ids of the show-me-the-ROI millennial donors. You can ignore them and their stock options at your peril.

It's a subject we've looked at before, and rather than rehash old material, we'd like to take Hughes' words and try to extract some more action-oriented takeaways. First off, organizations need to understand and even adopt the language of the tech-millennial demographic. In the interview, Hughes uses words like "personalization," "sustainability," and "social entrepreneurship." They practically jump off the page.

Let's take "personalization" and its close relative, "customization." Nowadays, anyone can happily exist inside their own cozy echo chamber. They can choose who they want to connect with on social media, get their news from their favorite sites, check out Amazon product recommendations expertly attuned to their interests, and so on. Millennials grew up on this stuff. So Hughes talks about "the need to take a more personalized, patient approach with an investor or donor."

What does this involve? Understanding the causes nearest to a donor's heart, preferred modes of communication, and perhaps most importantly, making the donor an active and involved stakeholder. Organizations need to make donors feel like they are the only one in the room. (Indeed, research suggests millennials have a flair for narcissism. Or more specifically, "deluded narcissism.")

Then there's the issue of performance measurement and impact. Needless to say, there may be mild pangs of vertigo in certain arts quarters when Hughes predicts "there will be a more-pronounced emergence of data-based feedback loops" and that this kind of accountability "will become more standard." He's firmly planted in the "effective altruism" camp that measures impact by the number of lives saved per dollar.

Yet fundraisers and grantmakers can't be all things to all people, so they'll need to identify areas of greatest overlap, particularly when vying for millennial donors. Should a small theater group run reports of "data-based feedback loops?" Of course not. But they can point to tangible and quantifiable ways in which their programs benefit a community—something even the most fervent effective altruists can get behind.

When asked, "What does the nonprofit and philanthropy world still need to learn to do better?" Hughes said they need to build a "bridge between nonprofit and philanthropic activity and public policy." Fortunately, such a bridge—the educational and social benefits of exposure to the arts—already exists. It can be strengthened, promoted, and scaled accordingly to help the maximum number of people.

Related - Why Are Techies Like Chris Hughes So Keen on Giving Money Directly to Poor People?