Non-Profit Quarterly recently posted a story by Beth Gazley examining how private donations are increasingly being used to subsidize public services as government funding is cut.
One finding arts organizations should perhaps be sensitive to relates to school funding. According to the article, support of schools often exacerbates existing inequities in school funding where wealthier areas tend to provide more private funding to schools that are well supported by public funding.
My own research, with my colleague Ashlyn Aiko Nelson, suggests that DonorsChoose.org is something of an anomaly. Most of the philanthropy directed at public schools is local, meaning that wealthy school districts enjoy a philanthropic advantage and few people are paying attention to fairness and balance. And, indeed, we found clear evidence that across the nation private philanthropy for public schools exacerbates rather than eliminates budgetary inequities across school districts. Specifically, although most school funding still comes from taxpayers, we found that wealthy school districts are able to provide more dollars per pupil overall through this philanthropic “bonus.”8 Simply put, DonorsChoose.org’s successful efforts at raising $80 million in 2014 do not come close to balancing the inequitable impact of the other $880 million raised in 2010 by local PTOs, school foundations, and booster clubs.
Arts organizations are already well aware that arts entities serving wealthier communities tend to receive larger donations than those serving poorer communities. If they are really dedicated to bringing the arts to under served schools, they may have to make an effort to reach further beyond their immediate geographic vicinity.
Speaking from experience, I can attest that this can be difficult because schools that perform poorly are often under more pressure than normal to focus on testing and worry about anything that might distract from that goal.
I could find some pleasure in schools outsourcing arts education to non-profits, but unfortunately that doesn’t generally happen.
The other issue is the question about whether arts organizations are giving a community what they need or what the arts organization thinks they need.
Questions about whether you may be exhibiting this bias plagues every introspective arts organization. This can especially be the case when an organization serving a wealthy clientele reaches out to a far less affluent demographic.
An observation made in the NPQ article that “the narrow focus on school fundraising saps community energy and possibly distracts parents from other forms of political engagement—such as advocating for more public spending overall on public schools in order to end the reliance on fundraising altogether,” resonated with me.
First, because arts organizations have long faced the challenge of shrinking public funding and it is disturbing to me that a core public service like education may end up similarly regarded as something that a private community support should be responsible for.
Second, because that can result in an increasingly insular view by individuals about how education should be funded, shifting it from being beneficial to the commons to have an educated population to being a benefit only to those who can afford it. You can’t entirely blame people if, after putting a lot of effort into raising money for their own school to close a funding gap, they feel that other PTOs ought to do the same for their schools.
People often say arts organizations need to be self supporting and only present shows that can make the profit. I fear that the same sentiments may end up being applied to education.