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How Much For A Year Of Your Cultural Enjoyment?

Last week I briefly noted that people and businesses often value being in a community in which arts organizations are present, even if they don’t participate in their activities. I mentioned this constitutes an intangible value that the arts organization has in the community.

That reminded me of a post made by Sunil Iyengar, NEA Director of Research and Analysis about a novel approach being used to assess the value of cultural institutions in the UK.

Rather than using Willingness to Pay as a measure of how much people valued an arts/cultural institution (as in, how much would you be willing to pay for…?), they asked how much people would be Willing to Accept in order to maintain quality of life in the temporary absence of that organization.

Crucially,” the report explains, “compensation is only offered to those who previously indicated that their life satisfaction would decrease if the institution were temporarily closed.” To these respondents, a questionnaire asks:

“Now imagine the following situation. Suppose that in order to compensate you for not being able to visit the [cultural institution] during one year, you were given a cash compensation. How much money would you have to receive, as a one-off payment, to give you the same life satisfaction that you have now (not better nor worse, but just the same) during this period until the [institution] re-opened? Think about this for a moment please.”

Think about this concept for a moment and run the hypothetical scenario through you mind. First ask yourself how much you would be willing to pay at your favorite performance hall or museum. Now think about how much you would ask for if someone said they would compensate you for your loss of life satisfaction while that favorite place is closed for a year.

I don’t know about you, but if I am being honest that second number is at least 1.5 times more than the first, sometimes 2 times as high as the first.

Kinda gives you pause to think about your real priorities and values, doesn’t it?

The full research paper evaluating this as a viable approach to researching how much people value a cultural institution notes a few problems with using Willingness to Pay (WTP) as a measure. Among them:

Last, but not least, some have raised ethical concerns about the appropriateness of using WTP at all to value services like health and culture. This may, for example, be because value is related to ability to pay and the prevailing income distribution may be seen as inequitable; or because using money to value health and culture may send an undesirable signal (namely that health and cultural services are just like any other commodity bought and sold in the market place) (Fujiwara and Dolan, 2014)

and when Willingness to Accept may be provide a valuable measure:

…there are times when WTA could be warranted. This may be when respondents come from very poor backgrounds, say, such that their WTP amounts are severely constrained and they feel uncomfortable about being asked to pay (even if they might be prepared to pay a small amount), and hence offer a protest zero. Another scenario which may warrant use of a WTA question is when property rights are such that respondents can be judged to have some intrinsic right to the good/service – and what’s more they recognise this. This may be especially relevant for cultural activities and institutions.

The researchers compared WTP and WTA in relation to the Tate Liverpool Gallery and National History Museum and the differences weren’t as great as I imagined. The mention of intrinsic right to good/service made me wonder if there would be a difference between the U.S. and UK in that the more subsidized access to art of the latter might cause residents of the UK to take access to culture more for granted.

It could be equally possible that as an arts professional, I value arts and culture more highly than regular citizens of either country might.

The paper evaluating WTA as a tool goes into such detail about the relevance and accuracy of data obtained that I felt a little out of my depth trying to understand it all. I would suggest not trying this at home without deeper study because it is not something to blithely toss into audience surveys.

It can be useful as thought experiment (or blog post) to drive a conversation and self examination about how we value arts and culture in our lives.

The prospect of an arts organization’s absence from the community for a year may not be a cause of concern for individuals and businesses that don’t participate in activities, but like the idea of living in a community that provides those activities. If there is going to be any method that comes close to quantifying the intangible value a cultural institution has in the community for these groups, this may it.

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Do I Really Need A Degree For That?

Dan Pink called attention to publisher Penguin Random House’s recent decision to no longer require job applicants to have a university degree. From what I see in corroborating stories, the little catch is that this seems to be limited to the publisher’s UK operations.

The firm wants to have a more varied intake of staff and suggests there is no clear link between holding a degree and performance in a job.


Last autumn, professional services firm Deloitte changed its selection process so recruiters did not know where candidates went to school or university.

Ernst and Young has scrapped a requirement for school leavers to have the equivalent of three B grades at A-level or graduates to have an upper second class degree.

The accountancy firm is removing all academic and education details from its application process.

PricewaterhouseCoopers earlier this year also announced that it would stop using A-levels grades as a threshold for selecting graduate recruits.

As you might imagine from the references to A-levels, these decisions all appear to be limited to the UK operations of these companies.

Still, it got me wondering with all the recent conversation about the legality and morality of unpaid internship practices in the U.S., as well as data showing that arts internships appear to benefit people with higher socio-economic status, should this be the sort of practice the arts should be considering?

My thinking here is that while you don’t need to have a degree or be enrolled to do an internship, internship plus degree tends to have better job prospects which represent a larger financial investment. I’d venture to guess many of the jobs college degree holders are getting can be accomplished by someone with a high school degree and an internship/short training period.

There are definitely different philosophical approaches to job training between the U.S. and the UK. For example, the school leaver program for Deloitte and Ernst and Young make not going to university appear preferable to attending and promises a rigorous 5 year training program. These are typical choices for students in the UK. A quick search for school leaver programs shows similar ones at IBM, Rolls Royce, Pret A Manger and others.

Two years ago I wrote about the UK’s National Skills Academy apprenticeship training programs for creative industries.

These sort of training options are not as widely available in the U.S. The closest we have are co-op programs, which are few and far between and barely promoted as an option.

But while the method of delivering training may be different, the question about whether a university degree best provides that training still remains, regardless of which country we are talking about.

One observation made in the story about Penguin’s decision resonates pretty strongly in relation to the challenges faced by the arts. (my emphasis)

Neil Morrison, human resources director, says they want talented staff “regardless of background”.

“This is the starting point for our concerted action to make publishing far, far more inclusive than it has been to date,” says Mr Morrison.

We believe this is critical to our future – to publish the best books that appeal to readers everywhere, we need to have people from different backgrounds with different perspectives and a workforce that truly reflects today’s society.”

There is already a conversation about how paid internships help to open up opportunities to people from a wider socio-economic range. Perhaps the next aspect of the conversation needs to include an examination into whether a degree really is absolutely necessary to success in the job or not.

The arts are frequently accused of being irrelevant because people don’t see themselves and their stories being portrayed. Penguin saw requiring a university degree as literally inhibiting their ability to do just that.

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The Stakeholders Are Watching

In Non Profit Quarterly, Ruth McCambridge wrote a pretty involved comparison between the stakeholder revolts which reversed board decisions to close San Diego Opera and Sweet Briar College.

There is a lot to be gleaned about how popular support has apparently turned things around for the two organizations. It is worth reading on that basis alone.

There were a few things that popped out at me as general lessons, not necessarily dependent on these scenarios, about the environment in which arts organizations are operating.

First was an observation by current San Diego board chair, Carol Lazier, that:

“…the community was absolutely furious. We had a great opera company, a cultural jewel, and no one wanted to lose it. We had people who didn’t even go to the opera who were fighting closure, saying, ‘This is not right—this is owned by the public; this is not owned by the small group of people on the inside.’”

It is easy to have mixed feelings about this response because indignation by people who never attended doesn’t pay your bills. Yet we clearly know that arts organizations are viewed as a community asset by both individuals and businesses. People may not actually participate in your activities, but they like the idea of living in a community that has an opera, symphony and art museum. Businesses and individuals will relocate to places with these amenities.

While the presence of your arts organization is definitely an intangible asset, the value of which is difficult to quantify to politicians and others who want to cut arts funding, this type of reaction does allow you to answer the question about how your community would be impacted if your organization didn’t exist.

Another observation made about San Diego Opera board governance provided some insight into a downside of a “Get, Give or Get Off” policy of board membership.

The San Diego Opera was one of those organizations where having a large number of people on the board was a function of fundraising. You pay x amount of money and you’re on the board, and no one wants to alienate any of those folk with contentious conversations that cause discomfort. But that is certainly not a good modus operandi for an organization facing the whitewater of the twenty-first-century cultural organization. And, it was not only the business model that had to change but the governance model, too.

The implication that a non profit needs to have a governance structure that allows it to be nimble is something to seriously consider. Scrutiny of non-profits is shifting focus about the role of a board away from fund raising and toward effective governance.

The San Diego Opera board went from 53 to 24 in the course of a few days due to resignations. A quick look at the opera website shows it continues to maintain those numbers two years later.

Not only is there no correlation between the ability to make large donations and the ability to effectively govern an organization, some people may have no interest in doing so. This made me recall a story told by an executive director about a large donor who showed relief when presented the option of NOT serving on the board because they didn’t see it as a reward at all.

Finally, in relation to the Sweet Briar closure, I was quite intrigued to learn that generally those who most supported the closure were from among the earliest graduates. When they attended, a women’s college was the only option for higher education. Now that a woman could attend anywhere they wished, they didn’t feel single gender higher education was relevant any longer.

It is the younger generations that intentionally chose to attend Sweet Briar when hundreds of other options existed that have been the most invested in keeping the institution open.

This information brought to mind the question that arts organizations have increasingly been challenged to ask themselves over the last few decades: Given that so many other options exist for people, are you providing those who intentionally choose to engage with the arts a reason to continue to do so?

The example of Sweet Briar seems to illustrate that answering in the affirmative is what turns people into invested stakeholders.

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Reaching The Unknown Non-Participant

I almost threw money away, literally.

I received piece a mail last week bearing the logo of a state university indicating a survey was enclosed. I was just about to throw it away when I became curious to see if they were doing a market survey to gauge the educational needs of the community.

When I opened it, I saw it was a public health survey. Just as I was about to throw that away, a $2 bill fluttered out on to my coffee table. I understand why they may have chosen to include the money as an inducement to complete the survey, but I wonder how much money has literally been thrown away in unopened envelopes around the state this week.

I feel some empathy for those administering the survey because this illustrates the effort and expense you have to go in order to reach people with whom you don’t have a relationship.

One of the challenges the arts have is to have a conversation with those who aren’t participating in order to learn why they aren’t. There will always be people who will never participate in an activity, regardless of what you do, but there are many who will be willing but do not participate for various reasons.

These reasons might be lack awareness; currently lacking the time due to child rearing obligations which will abate in a few years; perceive they lack the time, knowledge, etc, for whom opportunities exist and can be communicated or created.

Reaching these unknown people to survey them or even communicate with them is even more difficult now than a decade or so ago. So many people lack landlines that there is no destination for even an annoying robocall to reach.

Thanks to the option to receive financial statements, bills and other communications online, it is much easier to identify the few pieces of postal mail that is relevant to you without even opening them. (Those emails about winning $5 million in the Irish-Nigerian lottery that was liberated after a palace coup dispossessed the prince of an oil rich nation still almost fool me.)

As we can see, even trying to bribe people to participate is fraught with its own challenges.

My feeling is that an effective campaign to reach the unreached is going to require much more personal interactions either with organizations reaching out to individuals in an involved, relationship building effort or calling upon people with whom they already have a relationship to reach out to people and encourage them to at least respond to a request for information.

Certainly, technology can facilitate this by allowing people to spread the word quickly over social media. A degree of trust in all involved parties needs to be there. I am thinking, in part, about the post I made last week about a greater lack of willingness to trade privacy for benefits than we have been lead to believe.

It would be great if someone could figure out how to create survey that engaged as many people as asking about what color lightsaber you would wield while yielding, effective, meaningful, actionable results. (Which of Yo Yo Ma’s cellos are you?)

Until then, it may take a lot of asking.

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