If you follow Inside Philanthropy's arts coverage, you'll know that a growing array of funders views the arts as a key channel through which to improve society. You can see this in more grant opportunities for the "artist as activist," as well as intense funder interest in creative placemaking, which uses arts to revive communities, and especially cities.
Now comes the Upstart Co-Lab, a nonprofit, nationwide collaboration connecting artists with social entrepreneurs, impact investors, social enterprises, and sustainable companies. Its mission, more specifically, is to "promote and help secure impact-investment funding for artists and creative professionals who use their work to raise awareness about societal issues or tackle community's problems."
We haven't seen anything like this venture before, but it's actually not so surprising to see the red-hot trend of impact investing linked up with new thinking about using the arts to drive social progress.
The woman forging this synthesis is founder Laura Callanan.
Callanan has extensive experience in both the finance and art world. Throughout the course of her career, she noted that the language and strategies of what's called "new philanthropy"—the idea that funding is more of an investment than a one-time donation—doesn't apply to the arts world like it should. When it comes to areas like education, the environment, or anti-poverty work, funders often frame their giving as a long-term "investment" that will yield dividends down the line. Many donors specifically scout around for social entrepreneurs who they can underwrite to drive systemic changes. Yet while some of this thinking is seeping into giving in the arts world, as I've said, this sector still lags far behind in its thinking about the value of capitalizing artists and creative innovators.
As a result, there's a gap between what Callanan calls "artists who are functioning as social entrepreneurs" and funding sources that extend beyond your typical institutional grantmakers. This is the niche that Upstart Co-Lab has moved into—and with perfect timing. Beyond the need for artists to find new ways to access capital, a growing legion of impact investors want more options for where to put their money. Right now, it's easy to find impact investment opportunities in areas like the environment, affordable housing, and women-owned businesses. But until Upstart Co-Lab came along, there weren't many accessible opportunities for investors interested in backing artists. Among other things, the organization is working with the Calvert Community Foundation Investment Note program to develop ways to allow individuals to invest in the arts for as a little as $20. (You can read more about the Upstart Co-Lab's projects and strategies here.)
Upstart Co-Lab has received financial support from the Surdna and Ford Foundations as well as Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors. (As we've reported before, RPA CEO Melissa Berman is an interesting thinker about the state of arts philanthropy.)
Upstart has been doing well in creating a new pot of investment capital, reporting that it has reached approximately half of an initial $10 million goal.
"As foundations break down that wall between grantmaking and investing, a sector that can't accept investment capital is going to really get left behind," Callanan says. "We need to work on this now or the arts are really going to be at a huge disadvantage."