WE MEET NEEDS, WE DON’T JUST HAVE NEEDS: Articulating the Value of Our Arts Nonprofits

By Sean Malone and Erika Kent

I get to spend so much time with people who are deeply passionate about the arts – artists themselves, arts educators, arts nonprofit staff, trustees, volunteers, donors, and patrons.  These friends and colleagues are often so articulate and moving when we talk “off the record” about the value and impact of the arts they’ve seen and experienced, created and produced.  They talk about the impact in ways that are both persuasive and emotionally resonant.  I love these conversations.  They are almost always in a hallway or at little café table or on someone’s porch – coffee, or something stronger, in hand.

But something happens when we in the arts sector make the formal case for supporting our art to donors, civic leaders, press, even to our own boards:  we often get the message entirely backwards.  We focus far too heavily on what we, the organization, “need.”  But donors shouldn’t be expected to give because we have needs.  People should support our mission and our work because they know that we can and will meet the deep, meaningful needs of the individuals and communities we exist to serve.  Our need to raise X-number-of-dollars by the end of our fiscal year is not the point of an arts (or any) nonprofit; how those dollars allow us to fill the needs of our community is the point.  We are best served and most successful in our messaging when we talk sincerely and evocatively about our impact, articulating how our organizations (and the arts) serve our communities.  Because, like any nonprofit, we are an instrument to create public benefit.  It is our role to support and serve our communities through the art we produce.  And yet, so often, people talk almost exclusively in terms of the community supporting us.  I think there are a handful of reasons why advocates may understandably fall into this approach in making our case:

Many of us are increasingly worried that the needs of our organization won’t be met. 

We feel a threat to our organizational survival (with similar concerns about the survival and health of the arts in general).  We feel that so much is slipping away: schools abandoning arts education; disappearing government funding; decreasing numbers of subscribers; increasing competition for individual, foundation, and corporate support; increasing competition from digital and for-profit entertainment offerings, a concern about the greying of the audience and donor base, and more.  These concerns may (or may not) be supported by evidence, but many of us who care deeply about the arts in general, and about specific arts organizations in particular, feel disheartened – even under siege.  And so, it’s understandable that we want to talk about and stress those real financial, policy, and resource challenges.  We know the organization and its work are critically important, so we want to convey that sense of urgency to potential donors.  That urgency is definitely real.  But we must to take it to that next “public-benefit-focused” step.  It’s not about our budget; it’s about the work that our budget allows us to do, and the impact of that work.  The explicit bottom line of our messaging has to be about service and impact, not the organization’s own financial challenges – or even its survival.

For many of us, the positive impact of the arts in general (and/or a specific organization) is so self-evident that it doesn’t occur to us that there’s any need to be explicit about that impact.

We might take it as a given that our community will reap significant benefits (that needs will be met) if our organization is able to sustainably offer vibrant artistic programs (aka great art).  So, we end up making our case all about making that possible and we don’t address the element that is so self-evident to us: “WHY are our vibrant artistic programs a good thing?”  We need to include that important outward-facing part of our case (see next paragraph).

Many of us find it difficult articulate the “value of the arts”. 

It can be a hard one; THE BIG QUESTION asked of arts organizations.  And, although there are studies upon studies that we could cite, it can still feel challenging to articulate why the arts matter, why our arts organization’s work matters.  It can immediately start to feel “touchy-feely” or maybe even unprofessional (and we are already working so hard to communicate our legitimacy, “quick, where are those studies?!”) to lean into talking about the needs met by the arts – because art is emotional and transformative and when you’re talking about how an arts organization truly meets the needs of a community, you’re talking about changing lives, challenging ideas, lifting hearts, opening minds.  But this is the work we do, the impact we have, the needs we meet.  And, because the value of the arts is different for everyone, it can seem bold to share our personal interpretation – but that’s exactly what we need to do.  How does your arts organization affect people’s lives and thoughts and perspectives, how does it provide transformational experiences in the community? The answer you come up with is one the best arguments for the “value of the arts.”

We need to feel confident in and able to share how our organization meets meaningful needs in the community, what those needs are, and how we are the best arts organizations to meet those needs – even when they are the broad and amazing needs of transforming lives through art.  When we have THIS conversation with potential supporters, we create life-long relationships with people who are engaged in our actual reason for existence, in the work we do, in the value of our art.  Then, we have their financial support and also their true advocacy – giving us the best opportunity to secure funding for our work, not just the next season, but the next 20 seasons.