Meet the Woman Who Will Track the Wallace Foundation’s Building Audiences for Sustainability initiative

Last time we saw the Wallace Foundation, it increased the funding of its Building Audiences for Sustainability initiative, whose goal is to aimed at developing practical insights into how arts organizations can successfully expand their audiences, from $40 to $52 million.

At the time, we noted that Wallace, "acutely aware that many arts nonprofits struggle with dwindling audiences, wants to develop a set of best practices to share with whoever wants them. It's a noble goal, but one that's fraught with operational challenges. After all, who's to say that a killer audience-building program rolled out in Miami will translate to a nonprofit in Denver? Or that a program that serves traditionally under-served communities in Oakland will work when superimposed upon an organization in Vermont?"

Well, now we have an answer. And her name is University of Texas at Austin Professor Francie Ostrower.

Ostrower will lead a six-year study that examines the efforts underway at the 26 performing arts organizations chosen for the Building Audiences for Sustainability initiative. She will, in essence, sift through the data, see what works, what is transferable, and how each organization's efforts affected their financial earnings. It's akin to a kind of best practices consulting gig. The Wallace Foundation awarded her a $3.5 million grant for her efforts.

"This independent research study will assess whether the organizations made audience gains, whether these gains were sustained and how the gains contributed to the organization’s overall financial health," said Rachel Hare Bork, research and evaluation officer at the Wallace Foundation. "We are honored to have Dr. Ostrower join the initiative and help us answer questions of such importance to the field."

We like this approach because it takes the heat of recipient organizations. Of course, it's always important that arts organizations track performance, especially after receiving a grant. But at the same time, an outside analysis may give some arts organizations some breathing room to experiment and take risks.

If any of this sounds vaguely familiar, it's because we recently looked at how Bloomberg Philanthropies expanded funding of its Arts Innovation and Management (AIM) program after it measured the performance of recipient organizations and liked what it saw. 

The bottom line? Performance measurement at recipient arts organizations will only become more important, especially as foundations aim to boost transparency while showing donors that their dollars are being well-spent.