Arts fund-raising model not embraced locally

September 8, 2008

These days, many Indianapolis arts organizations barely know where their next dollar will come from. But an innovative fund-raising model that's found success in other cities might provide that sorely needed cash.

In Cincinnati, a venerable not-for-profit called the United Arts Fund, founded in 1927, stages an annual workplace campaign, then doles out the bountiful proceeds to local arts organizations.

"They raise $12 million a year," said Bryan Orander, president of Charitable Advisors, a consulting firm headquartered in Indianapolis. "They've been doing it for decades." That same model is followed by similar organizations in many other locales. A survey by Washington, D.C.-based Americans for the Arts found 64 "united arts funds" operating in the United States in 2002, producing an average of $1.6 million via their annual campaigns. Two of the biggest--in Charlotte, N.C., and Milwaukee--draw more than $10 million each year.

So far, no one has stepped forward, at least publicly, to suggest creating a united art fund for Indianapolis.

"It's not impossible, but there would definitely have to be some work done," said Greg Charleston, president of the Arts Council of Indianapolis.

Even so, local arts groups are reassessing their options as the slumping economy pinches contributions, and the cash-strapped city of Indianapolis curtails its arts funding.

In 2009, the Arts Council, which funds about 75 local cultural organizations, will get about $500,000 less than the $1.5 million in city money it's slated to receive this year.

Arts advocates say the thriftiness may be shortsighted. According to studies by the Arts Council and others, the city's cultural endeavors generate $468 million in economic activity, produce $52 million in government revenue, and support 15,000 jobs.

Government officials say they're not trying to be stingy. They say they have no choice but to look for cuts to live within the property-tax caps passed by the Indiana General Assembly last spring.

Private money, raised through a united arts fund, could provide relief. It's an approach United Way chapters across the country long have used to raise funds for human-service organizations.

United Way model

The resemblance is purely intentional. The united arts fund movement began in 1949, when Cincinnati and Louisville (the two oldest practitioners of the technique) determined that community-wide fund-raising programs expressly based on the United Way model were a great way to drum up arts funding.

A Hoosier template already exists. Fort Wayne runs its own highly successful program called Arts United. Launched in 1955, it is the country's third-oldest.

"The institution was formed because the community leaders at the time had the foresight to say, 'We need to come up with a system that provides for this in a way that the various groups don't cannibalize each other,'" said Jim Sparrow, Arts United's executive director.

The organization even works closely with the local United Way chapter--a level of synergy that's rare.

"In some communities, it's a real challenge," Sparrow said. "United Way and the arts fund find it difficult to work together for various reasons. We're lucky up here. We have worked well together for a long time.

"We're actually looking at ways to collaborate, to try to elevate the role of community philanthropy. We're basically saying that human services are part of what a community needs, as well as arts and cultural services. Both of them together make up a community."

There's just one problem with Fort Wayne's example--or with Cincinnati's or Louisville's, for that matter. Most of the organizations with successful United Way-style fund-raisers have been conducting them for decades. Starting a new one from scratch, in today's fiscal and political environment, could be problematic.

"There are a number of larger cities that have tried this, and it's been a real effort," Sparrow said. "The ones that are larger that have these--such as Milwaukee, Cincinnati and Louisville--they've been around a long time. And they were around at a time when general operating constraints and competition was less."

Which is a polite way of saying that they came of age and found their footing in a gentler era, when competition for resources was less brutal than it is today.

Locally, experts say the biggest challenge for a United Way-style arts fund-raising campaign might be the United Way itself.

"They have tremendous influence with the Lilly Endowment," a philanthropic powerhouse that doles out millions to cultural institutions, Orander noted. "It would be, I think, kind of awkward. The technological and operational pieces would be easy to pull together. Managing the politics of the thing would be tougher."

Which may be putting it mildly. Local United Ways are famously averse to rival umbrella groups of any kind mounting workplace funding drives, fearing they might siphon off United Way support.

Orander thinks Lilly Endowment also might be less than enthusiastic, both because of its close United Way ties and out of fear of creating an organization that might require years of financial life support.

"I think it's going to take somebody or a group of people who are kind of mavericks, who are willing to step up and say, 'This doesn't have to be bad for United Way,'" he said. "'This can be good for everybody.'"

Logistical challenges

Angela Dabney, vice president for resource development for United Way of Central Indiana, thinks Orander might have it backward.

"I don't think that Indianapolis would be a place where [a fund drive rivalry] would be a big issue," she said. "I think the bigger issue would be the logistics and mechanics of creating the organization. I'm very impressed by the United Way infrastructure, and I would not want to be the one to have to start something like that from scratch."

Planners would have to develop the techniques to raise money, track money, and make sure the organizations that received the money put it to good use. Getting everyone on board would also require the mother of all sell jobs. Even some of the city's larger arts organizations might balk, for fear an umbrella group would hurt their individual efforts to raise cash.

"They've got pretty sophisticated fund-raising programs," Orander said. "And at some level, they could view this as competition to themselves, even though they could get money from it."

Yet he thinks larger groups could benefit. First, the cubicle drones who might make $10 and $20 gifts to a united arts fund would form a completely new revenue stream, augmenting the people who traditionally donate to cultural endeavors.

Plus, a well-organized annual campaign might expose the arts to a new, younger audience.

"It's an opportunity to get their message out in front of a new age group," Orander said. "Because they will readily admit that they don't know what will happen 15 years from now with all their current donors. When I go to the symphony, I'm 51 and I go in there and I feel like a kid. You kind of figure, 20 years from now, they're going to have no audience."

Yet Charleston believes it would be preferable to fund the arts using some sort of tax. Just not property taxes, he said, since that money is highly sought after to fund police and fire protection, schools and other basic services.

"If I look at the 50 largest United States cities, probably 75 or 80 percent of them are funded by visitor taxes," he said. "It makes sense, because what you're doing is similar to what you look at with professional sports. The larger arts institutions are driving the economy. They're adding to that economic impact; they're bringing visitors to town."

But that wouldn't be easy to implement, either. Any funding approach requiring cultural organizations to band together for the greater good is fraught with obstacles.

"When you start the whole general operating quest, it becomes very difficult to get all the players to hold hands and play nice, because there's a lot at risk," Sparrow said. "That will be a challenge."

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