Arts Ed: An opportunity for arts nonprofits to create shared value?

A new acquaintance recently recommended the Jan-Feb 2011 HBR article, “Creating Shared Value” by Michael E. Porter and Mark R. Kramer. The authors define the concept of shared value as “policies and operating practices that enhance the competitiveness of a company while simultaneously advancing the economic and social conditions in the communities in which it operates.”

The article, which is compelling, gives several examples of policies and practices that create shared value, including: food companies traditionally focused on taste and quantity refocusing on the fundamental need for better nutrition; firms focused on holding down wage levels and reducing benefits refocusing on the positive effects that a living wage, safety, and wellness programs can have on employee productivity; and firms re-conceiving products to serve disadvantaged communities and by doing so developing robust new markets. One of the recurring ideas of Porter and Kramer is that companies need to shift the short-term/zero-sum mindset that investing in ‘doing good’ will harm profits. The authors posit that companies that refocus on creating societal and economic value, in the long term, can generate increased profits.

It strikes me that arts nonprofits may have a similar short-term/zero-sum mindset when it comes to investments in arts education: because such investments don’t pay off in immediate returns at the box office, and may siphon resources away from other areas, many will not invest in arts ed, or will invest only in response to incentives, when dedicated funding is available (and available only for that purpose). Moreover, those arts education departments and programs that are created (even with dedicated funding) often seem to receive insuficient organizational attention and resources.  

On Twitter a few days ago, someone referred to education in arts organizations as the ‘tail wagging the dog.’ I wonder if this idea stems from another issue–the sector having at once too liberal and too narrow a conception of what it means to exist for ‘charitable and educational’ purposes? On the one hand we posit that our educational purposes are fulfilled simply by putting on shows or exhibits and creating program notes; on the other, when we decide to invest in ‘education’ programs, they often end up being limited to two types of activity: kids at craft tables or adults listening to erudite lectures.

One of the definitions of education provided by Wikipedia is ‘the act or process of imparting or acquiring particular knowledge or skills’. There seems to exist a far greater range of knowledge and skills and means of imparting and acquiring them than arts nonprofits are currently embracing. Given the newly published NEA report indicating a significant correlation between taking an arts course and adult participation, increased demand for arts education and participation activities (noted by the National Arts Index), and the dearth of such activities for some members of society, there would seem to be tremendous opportunity for nonprofit arts groups to respond to this societal need.

As I suggested a couple weeks ago, it does not seem unreasonable to think that addressing this societal need could provide new (earned and contributed) revenue streams for arts organizations, and (in the long term) increase interest in performances, exhibitions, etc. In my previous post on the subject I suggested arts/ed hybrids as a possible solution– but by no means do I think this is the only or best path forward. What does seem clear, however, is that arts organizations that want to pursue this path need to take the role seriously and invest accordingly.

If doing so seems to be at odds with a mission ‘to produce excellent shows’ then why not consider a dual mission and add the statement ‘and to help members of our community gain the knowledge and skills necessary to have an expressive life’ (thanks Bill Ivey)?

I often hear organizations protest that arts education is the role of government, not arts nonprofits. Perhaps, but nonprofits were created to fill societal needs that government either cannot fill, or chooses not to fill. Who better than nonprofit arts groups to step in and invest in developing quality resources to meet the societal need—and if Porter and Kramer are right—to potentially strengthen themselves while doing so? The Joffrey Ballet’s investments in dance classes for the public, which yielded significant returns to the organizations strikes me as a great example of this. And there are many more, including Elizabeth Streb’s Trapeze Academy, (which I’ve mentioned before), Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s Beyond the Score programs, and  the Metropolitan Opera’s Live in HD broadcasts and ancillary programs. To my mind, these organizations are creating ‘shared value’.

Image of TMobile Do-Re-Mi Flash Mob at Antwerp Central Station.

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  1. Heather Beasley says

    I understand a “rising tide floats all boats” and that we need to create future audiences as well as maintaining existing ones. However, two issues I see are:

    1) Smaller funders who dedicate funding to arts in education often do so to the exclusion of funding the arts in professional performance–that is to say, arts education funding crowds out performing arts funding, especially in the smaller-grant ($10K or less) programs open to emerging theatre companies;
    2) Emerging companies who divert already scarce institutional resources toward arts education are likely to experience mission creep or mission failure UNLESS they redefine their missions as you suggest.

    These two factors put pressure on non-profit theatres to produce at least some works each season suitable for all–or at least for high school–ages, unless you’re willing to “count” adult arts participation activities as education, which few funders are willing to do. This directly shapes artistic content, and not always for the better. The investment a company makes in creating shared social value is connected with the investment it makes in artistic content–how can we be sure these two investments aren’t “zero-sum”?

  2. Daniel Lewis says

    Porter & Kramer, and Heather Beasley make sense to me.

    If you cannot fund an educational activity, chances are something material related to the proposal is flawed; the objective, plan, who is making the proposal, or….

  3. Demetrie B says

    You can always tell an organization’s values by looking at the areas where its money is being allocated. Pull up their 990’s and Education is usually a small budget item compared to other areas. With education funding slashes running rampant, private foundations are investing more and more in education. Consequently, nonprofits could benefit from making education more central to their mission. Look at Bill and Melinda Gates and their fuding priorities– it tells the whole picture.
    If the organization is willing to pay for a highly qualified, visionary person to take on education. And they allow room for innovative ideas, the funding will follow. The issue is that most upper management folks focus more on the scarcity of resources rather than the idea that if you have an amazing grouping of products, the funding will follow.
    Diane, thanks for highlighting the amazing organizations that get it and who are getting out of their own way.

  4. says

    interesting to read 2 days after an article in the newspaper about the Dutch art participation fund having made a reservation of 2.6 million for art organisations to invest more in educational activities. Especially bigger and national art organisations have been doing educational activities for a long time, but more like a very small tail which is following the dog a mile behind. The proposed budget cuts make art organisations realise that their relationship with future public is crucial, so now theyre looking for ties with schools etc. Still very fa away from a dog and tail running together…

  5. says

    I think this is a timely column, and a timely subject. But I also think it is fraught with problems.

    Certainly a strategy based on “shared value” is a very good idea. However, where I may differ with you is on exactly how much the onus of developing such a strategy should fall on the arts organizations themselves. In terms of how the “shared value” of education works in the non-profit arts sector, I would argue that the tail is indeed wag the dog, and until there is structural change at the source there’s not a huge amount the poor dog can do about it.

    I’ll give you a couple of examples. In an address to the UK arts community in 2007, Tony Blair declared that the arts advocates had won the argument, and assured the assembled throng that government arts funding would not be subject to the crippling boom and bust funding cycles that had been officially sanctioned in the 80s and early 90s. He urged the arts world to focus their arguments for government funding on education, because that was a language the politicians understood.

    Boom and bust is now back in the UK with a vengeance. I shudder to think how those arts administrators listening to Blair in 2007 are coping now as the full force of the new government’s draconian cuts looms on the horizon. Not least how they will manage to maintain artistic standards AND implement any kind of meaningful new strategy of “shared value” while they are being forced to lay off staff, curtail new activity, cut public access programs they can no longer afford, etc etc.

    My second example is of tail wagging dog. I know of a grant proposal for a major project which was submitted to a government funding body, on the advice that the proposal had no chance for success unless dedicated education and outreach activities were included. There were already a full roster of education programs in operation at the applicant institution, but incorporating the project into those existing strands wasn’t enough, the activities had to be new. Furthermore, this particular project was “free standing”, in the sense that it was in essence all about enhancing the artistic experience, and it was widely recognized that the applicant had a uniquely powerful context in which to provide said artistic experience as an end in itself. The applicant institution duly put together a raft of new educational activities to pump up the application as requested, even though these went against the grain of the broader aims of the applicant’s educational strategy. While the quality of the resulting application received high praise from a senior source within the funding body itself, it was declined.

    The tail can wag the dog when funding bodies attach instrumental value to arts funding, when they try to achieve their more stubborn and resistant internal targets by using arts organizations as a means to that end. In the example I gave, education was the channel by which the applicant was forced to comply, then denied.

    I certainly think you are on to something with the “shared value” strategy – it’s something I’ve been trying to advance for years now at various arts institutions. But until there is greater understanding of exactly how such shared value works on the part of government representatives and, indeed, the public at large, there’s a real risk of spinning our wheels, not to mention serious human burnout.

  6. says

    Diane’s excellent article is a persuasive call to action for arts organizations and funders. The key to successful execution of this idea is to bring both parties to the table to brainstorm about innovative directions in arts education. Right now there is a disconnect between what funders are doing in the field and how arts organizations can be most effectively utilized to reinvigorate learning. If we want to go beyond giving away tickets to events and “kids at craft tables” arts organizations need to sit down with funders in order to widen the vision of what is possible. Otherwise arts organizations will continue to give arts education low priority.

  7. Charlie R says

    Sorry very late to this conversation.
    here’s an idea: Foundations pay actual working artists,directly, to educate others in the arts.
    “oh, we cant do that”.
    “because we only fund 501(c) 3 Non profit organizations. here’s a grant application. youre a non profit arent you?”
    well, no: Im an artist working in my field, for profit, to pay essential bills, like food, clothing, rent., utilities…
    ‘Well heres an application…” bs.

    The only other thing Ive EVER heard from a funded NonProfit is “Were a non profit. Can you perform for free?”

    Why is this? It occurs to me that this isnt the original idea behind 501c3’s. Werent they orginally intended to define, as a financial body, a non religious shared interest group? Enter Foundations; which decide only to fund non profits, and we have the recipie for the arts funding disaster we are in today.


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