All About Impact: Behind a Community Arts Agency's Startling Fundraising Success

Cincinnati, OH

Cincinnati, OH

The rise of creative placemaking, public art, and arts-related impact investing hasn't occurred in a vacuum. None of these trends would have gained traction over the past few years without organizations giving more attention to convincingly measuring the effectiveness of arts initiatives.

The recent success of ArtsWave, the greater Cincinnati region's local arts agency and the nation's "first and largest community campaign for the arts," is a testament to this development. The organization's Community Campaign Chair Tim Elsbrock recently announced a goal to raise $12,600,000 between now and April 27th. That's a lot of money and an aggressive timetable. But ArtsWave has raised that much money in past campaigns, and clearly remains confident that its pitch will connect with donors. 

ArtsWave President and CEO Alecia Kintner spoke about the importance of measuring impact to Inside Philanthropy all the way back in 2015. The organization adopted an impact-based approach to grantmaking instead of the previous allocations model in response to on-the-ground market dynamics. Kinter said at the time: 

This change was prompted by a changing philanthropic landscape, including the corporate push for metrics and quantifiable results in other sectors like education and health. We believed that if the arts were to compete for their share of the philanthropic pie, we needed to figure out how to talk about outcomes. 

In 2008, ArtsWave—then known as the Fine Arts Fund—published a report, "The Arts Ripple Effect," which added to the growing body of research pointing to the financial ripple effect of the arts on a community. It has since worked to strengthen that case, expanding its staff in 2012 to include a director of impact planning and analysis, and working with grantees to collect more data on the effects of a lively arts scene on neighborhoods. In 2015, it released a 10-year strategic plan, the Blueprint for Collective Action for the Arts, which outlined an ambitious vision for leveraging the arts to create "a more vibrant economy and more connected community."

Here's Kinter again: "It was less about appreciating personal experiences with the arts and instead about the ripple effect of benefits that the public associated the arts with—in particular, a more vibrant regional economy and more socially connected people."

Coincidentally, last week, when ArtsWave announced its new campaign goal, I stumbled upon two related items. First, a report from the Texas Cultural Trust showing that arts and culture industries generate $5.5 billion annually for the Texas economy. Second, an interview with Robert Lynch, president of Americans for the Arts, who points to Department of Commerce figures showing that nearly a fifth of arts-related economic activity, $134 million, is generated by the nation’s 100,000 arts and culture nonprofits, as are millions of jobs.

Now, I realize that by citing these figures, I'm "preaching to the choir," as you, dear reader, are readily aware of the tangible and intangible benefits generated by arts-related activities. But ArtsWave's primary audience isn't arts professionals—which is precisely why they've enjoyed so much success as of late.

Would-be community partners—banks, mom and pop shops, retail outlets, you name it—intuitively know that, say, enabling kids to see a performance of Hamilton is, objectively speaking, a "good thing." But that's not enough. The qualitative must be complemented by the quantitative: the real-dollar amount impact on local communities, workers, and businesses.

What's more, this education needs to be backed up by low-impact giving mechanisms. ArtsWave's workplace giving campaign, for example, is wildly successful, and why wouldn't it be? Such an approach is—for a lack of better term—the "gateway give" for donors who normally don't think about giving to arts organizations.

ArtsWave's success in getting community buy-in has helped them create a formidable fundraising architecture. As previously noted, the organization awarded over $10.4 million to regional arts organizations back in early 2015, thanks to an "expansive fundraising model that includes the strong support of the business community through more than 260 workplace giving campaigns."

Check out its vast network of donors to fully appreciate its depth and breadth. It's Bernie Sanders-esque! Given its ambitious new fundraising drive—close to $13 million in two and half months—ArtsWave's fundraising and community outreach infrastructure has only gained strength and scale over the past 24 months.

But once again, none of this would have been possible without ArtsWave's ability to convincingly communicate the value of the arts experience through qualitative and quantitative methods. That gives this organization a big edge in an era when both private and corporate foundations increasingly embrace metrics.