Long gone are the days when a CEO could simply cut a company check to his favorite charity. Now that it has become clear that companies can get the social kudos they used to get from philanthropy through initiatives that are also “good business,” managers have difficulty justifying any Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) initiatives that don’t either have clear positive effects on the bottom line or compensate for a market failure in which the company is implicated (e.g. compensating society for the pollution they’re producing). So where does this leave the arts in relationship to corporate funding?
This week, Forbes published an article identifying trends in Corporate Social Responsibility, and the popular agenda is clear: environmental sustainability. With the tightening of belts and the increased pressure for transparency, strictly philanthropic dollars have become scarce. Rather, in response to increased consumer demand and regulatory pressure, firms are looking for ways to clean up their act that simultaneously cut costs and appeal to consumers. Over the past half dozen years, plenty of attention has been showered upon the dramatic decline in corporate support for the arts, for example, NYT’s 2007 Arts Organizations Adjust to Decline in Funding and HuffPost’s 2011 Corporate Support for the Arts: A Changing Landscape. These articles focus on the marketing opportunities arts organizations provide for companies to access a high income, culturally savvy demographic. Consumer marketing is a central piece of the value arts organizations have to offer sponsoring firms. In my opinion, there’s another critical piece. The arts can also provide value to the internal operations of the firm’s human capital management. Arts programs can deepen employees’ capacity for critical thinking and innovation and build community. In many industries—consulting firms come to mind as a prime example, as do cutting-edge technology companies—these traits create competitive advantage.
Still, the drive toward “Strategic CSR” that performs a double bottom line function of increasing profits and making a social impact puts arts organizations in a tough position. Corporations are focused on initiatives whose dollar and social impact value are easily measurable, such as reduction in energy usage, recycling materials at lower cost than producing new ones, and designing products that meet consumer demand for environmentally superior goods. In order to compete, arts organizations must similarly figure out how to quantify the impact they can have on the bottom line.
The first step in the process is to collect better data. Pilot programs, funded by individual philanthropists or perhaps foundations, might provide opportunities for arts organizations to demonstrate their ability to affect positive change among employees. The opportunity to fund such pilot program would be attractive to many philanthropists who are interested in a quantifiable return on their “investment.” Perhaps $25,000 now could allow an arts organization to prove their value to a potential corporate partner, resulting in support from the corporation for years to come.
Clearly, corporate sponsorships and partnerships are not a good fit for all arts organizations, and many organizations simply don’t have capacity to devote resources to extensive impact measurement. I’ve said before, an art world completely driven by metrics of value creation would be pathetic. More importantly here, an art world unapologetically driven by corporate agendas wouldn’t even deserve to be called an art world. I’m hoping, though, that there’s space in the arts for creative engagement with the changing face of corporate philanthropy, and that in some cases, the arts will find new and generous corporate partners.