"Changing Attitudes." A New Tool Links the Arts to Measurable Social Impacts

With foundations demanding a more socially focused arts experience, “old world” patrons ceding the stage to younger impact-oriented donors, and average Americans frequently bypassing the arts entirely, fundraisers at arts organizations increasingly feel the need to better articulate the benefits of the arts for individuals, communities and society.

Fortunately, there’s a growing body of research devoted to helping organizations recalibrate the pitch.

The Wallace Foundation has allocated tens of millions to study arts engagement, particularly as it applies to the millennial demographic. Funders like Bloomberg Philanthropies have done a good job at documenting how its arts programs “harness the power of the creative sector to improve communities.”

And the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation—arguably the biggest institutional arts advocate of them all—recently published a blog post by Americans for the Arts President and CEO Robert L. Lynch highlighting his organization’s Arts + Social Impact Explorer, a “first-of-its-kind online primer of top-line research, example projects, and national support organizations related to the wide-reaching impact of the arts in 26 different social sectors.”

According to Lynch, the Arts + Social Impact Explorer “consolidates and highlights concrete ways in which the arts intersect with and have an impact on other sectors of society.” For instance, the tool can show how the arts “help people with cancer cope with stress through painting, assist people with Parkinson’s increase their vocal strength through singing, and support patients undergoing treatment or unable to leave their beds with live, in-room performances.”

Toward Greater Social Impact

New thinking about how the arts can drive meaningful social change began to emerge across the funder community in the aftermath of the Great Recession and the Ford Foundation’s pivot to combating inequality “in all its forms” back in 2015.

In the intervening years, funders have dug deep to support “artists as activists,” leveraged the arts to address issues like mass incarceration, and targeted grantmaking to “legacy institutions” and performance arts organizations with an eye on greater social impact.

As a result, arts organizations don’t need to convince institutional funders that the arts can drive meaningful social change. They’d be preaching to the choir. Instead, the big opportunity areas for fundraisers moving forward are younger, more activist-oriented donors and older Americans who rarely give to arts organizations.

Especially key here is connecting with younger heirs, who, according to recent research, have a very different view of philanthropy, market-based capitalism, and the arts than their predecessors. Many of these heirs were forged in the crucible of the Great Recession. Others, having attended liberal private schools and elite colleges, are more attuned to issues like rising inequality than the previous generation. And millennial heirs, like younger people in general, are more likely to hold progressive views on race and sexuality. 

This new crop of donors also happens to be on the receiving end of the largest wealth transfer in generational history.

I recently looked at efforts by the Knight Foundation and business advisory firm M+D to make sense of the profound implications of this demographic sea-change in the world of arts giving. M+D co-founder Sean McManus articulated two key takeaways.

First, would-be arts donors are more socially focused and more amenable to immersive arts experiences than their parents, many of whom were perfectly content to stare at a painting from a safe distance or attend a black-tie dinner. And second, the “social justice issue is huge,” McManus said. “It’s one thing to experience traditional works of art, but what are institutions doing to drive social change?”

Reframing the Value of “The Arts”

Meanwhile, connecting with the average American donor presents a different set of challenges. According to Lynch, Americans remain highly engaged in the arts and profess near-universal support for arts education and the idea that the arts “helps me understand other cultures better.” That said, only one out of four Americans donates to the arts.

Lynch explains this disconnect accordingly: “Americans highly value the arts, but when presented with a list of community issues, respondents cited job security, housing and public safety as the top three. And when asked whether the arts could be a solution to addressing these concerns, the percentage of people who said yes was low.”

This should all sound familiar to arts fundraisers, who’ve long struggled to compete against more urgent causes and have faced even greater hurdles along these lines since the 2016 election. A donor might ask herself why she should give money to the ballet when there are life-and-death issues that need support.

Yet Lynch argues that this needn’t be a zero-sum game, as the arts frequently intersect with critical community, social and health issues. “When people connect their core issues to the arts, and when they learn the impact the arts can have, they are more likely to support arts funding, integration, and pro-arts policy,” he writes. The key, therefore, is for fundraisers to make that connection.

You can view the tool, which was created with support from Mellon and the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, here. Lynch explains how it works:

Perhaps you want to find ways to engage veterans in your community. Visit the Arts + Social Impact Explorer and click on the Military tab. You will get a micro-summary on that intersection, and if you click “Learn More,” you will see more information and a downloadable Fact Sheet to share with a stakeholder, which includes impact points, examples of practice, additional readings, and a list of core organizations working in each sector.

The tool includes more than 1,000 independent data points, examples and links compiled to “fundamentally change attitudes of decision-makers around arts and culture.”

As far as “changing attitudes” is concerned, as noted, few foundations need to be convinced of the importance of linking the arts to meaningful social outcomes. It’s already a huge priority for them. Rather, arts organizations can best leverage the Arts + Social Impact Explorer in their efforts to attract younger, socially conscious donors, as well as older donors less inclined to give to the arts.

By linking the arts to what Lynch calls “concrete” issues like transportation, civic dialogue, “community cohesion,” immigration, and agriculture, the Arts + Social Impact Explorer looks to change the narrative and compel donors to give arts organizations a second look.