Dept. of Pleasant Surprises: What Explains the Surge in Corporate Arts Giving?

photo:  Ira Cvetnaya/shutterstock

photo:  Ira Cvetnaya/shutterstock

A recent study by CECP, a CEO-led coalition founded by actor Paul Newman, analyzed 2016 corporate giving and employee engagement data from the world's largest companies. 

Its most intriguing takeaway? Support for culture and arts is on the rise. According to the study, titled Giving in Numbers, cash giving to culture and arts programs grew by 48 percent between 2014 and 2016, the most among all program areas. (The area with the biggest decrease? Environment, at -24 percent.)

"More and more research is presenting the increasing relevance of culture and arts among companies as a cause area," reads the study's Selected Key Findings Page, "as well as the positive impact this program area has in the well-being of communities."

The takeaway for arts organizations here is pretty stark. Giving in Numbers suggests that CEOs, beholden to boards and shareholders, are amenable to the "ROI mindset" when it comes to arts-related giving. And it suggests that those arts groups that have labored to show their positive impact on communities are on the right track. As for those organizations that resist marketing themselves in such an instrumentalist way? This study offers one more reason to get with the times. 

For context, Giving in Numbers cited some research on the positive effects of the arts, including a study conducted between 2014 and 2016 that documented the positive impact that culture and arts has in terms of improving health, safety and well-being in New York City’s less economically advantaged neighborhoods. Another study, by Americans for the Arts, showed the positive impact that the U.S. arts and culture industry has on the economy overall ($166.3 billion in 2015). 

All this reinforces findings from a study by Animating Democracy arguing that arts organizations should illustrate how the arts positively impact the local community when appealing to corporate donors. "Today's corporations," the authors note, "have a genuine stake in social issues, whether it is ensuring a sustainable market for products, healthier customers, or a better community for their employees."

To that end, corporations also seem increasingly hip to the idea of philanthropy-driven enlightened self-interest.

"The most sophisticated giving programs leverage all the assets a corporation can bring to bear—not just their financial resources," Animating Democracy notes. "Corporate funders have so many tools to use: their brand and customer loyalty, their products and distribution channels."

Using these tools wisely can create win-wins that benefit both communities and the bottom line. Consider the effect of the arts on the balance sheet. Recent studies suggest meaningful arts experiences make happy and productive employees. Happy employees stick around longer and save HR departments tons of money in avoided recruiting fees. Other research has shown that strong cultural institutions can attract highly educated professionals to cities that many corporations seek to hire. 

Add it all up, and it's not actually so surprising that there's been growth in corporate arts giving. But there’s much work to be done.

A closer look at the data reveals that the average corporate funder that responded allocates a mere 7 percent of its giving toward culture and arts. Of the nine listed categories, the most popular were Health and Social Services (26 percent), Education: K-12 (17 percent), and Community and Economic Development, and “Other” (both at 14 percent).

The industry sector allocating the greatest percentage of its philanthropy budget to culture and arts was Communications (13 percent) followed by Consumer Discretionary (10 percent). The sector least jazzed on culture and arts was Energy (1 precent).

But a 48 percent increase in arts giving overall is an impressive jump no matter how you slice it. It's all the more encouraging, given the fact that some blue-chip corporations are dialing back arts-related giving due to financial pressures, local government policy, or a heightened focus on more "high-impact" areas like workforce development, STEM education or Giving in Numbers' most popular area, health and social services.

In a recent piece examining DuPont's philanthropic retreat from its home city of Wilmington, Delaware, Alan Jordan, the executive director of the Delaware Symphony Orchestra, summed up the challenge accordingly:

Remaining corporate leaders, along with smaller companies and entrepreneurial start-ups, will need to see support for the arts as an investment in the community: One that will improve the climate for employee retention and recruitment, draw visitors, and encourage area residents to participate in larger numbers.

Giving in Numbers' encouraging findings suggest this line of thinking is beginning to take hold.