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Will Arts Organizations be Left Behind?

As the tech boom grows in cities like Seattle and Silicon Valley, data-driven philanthropy continues to gain momentum. Wealthy young individuals from the “big 3” companies in Seattle (Amazon, Microsoft, and Google) are looking spend their money on projects that have have proven effective in solving major social problems.

As a result of this trend, arts and culture organizations are being left behind. Major Seattle cultural institutions – such as the symphony, opera, and theater – do not receive a significant share of donations that originate from the tech economy. The reason, as articulated in the following article from the Seattle Times, is that these cultural organizations do not have a direct measurable impact on saving individual lives:

During a break at the meeting, the EA group talked about why they chose social justice over culture charities.
One of the members, Ben Schwyn, 26, a soft-spoken software engineer, reasoned: “You could attempt to quantify how much supporting the symphony costs or the probability of someone’s life being affected by that and without doing a lot of research, we don’t know what those are,” he said. “But my estimate is that they are not very effective.”
“And yet,” added Pasha Kamyshev, 28, a software engineer, “for the same amount of money you can distribute iodine for malaria through a charity to thousands in the second or Third World.”

This passage echoes much of the sentiment toward cultural organizations among wealthy young tech philanthropists. Part of this approach is justified; established institutions such as the symphony and the opera have always relied on older (and “old money”) donors, and these institutions will not be under threat of shutting down anytime soon even if they don’t grab a share of tech dollars. It’s easy to understand why young philanthropists would rather devote their resources to fighting Malaria, a massive unsolved global health issue that demands immediate attention. Given a choice of priorities, the latter is obvious.

There’s a lot more grey area once you get beyond this dichotomy, however. The choice doesn’t always have to be between saving a family from a burning building and funding a jazz orchestra, and besides, we would hope that family would be rescued by a well-funded fire department and not a philanthropist. Sometimes, there are smaller arts organizations that make an impact – and help save lives – in low-income and underserved communities, but they don’t have the staffing and infrastructure to provide data showing this impact:

Small nonprofits can be stymied by granular data requests, said Trina Gadsden, executive director of Youth in Focus, a nonprofit that introduces urban children to photography. “Someone comes in with money and says, ‘Hey, I’d like to measure how many youth are graduating.’ We don’t measure that. We don’t have access to that.”

Ultimately, we hope that the young tech philanthropists are willing to dig deeper than looking at a spreadsheet to determine the worth of smaller arts and cultural organizations, and instead make an effort to see these programs in action. Better yet, maybe they can use their wealth to help these organizations build capacity to measure data. We’ve seen many effective small arts organizations in our region, such as Baltimore Clayworks and The Lookout Festival among others; it would be a shame to see them lose out on critical support simply because of a lack of quantifiable results.


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