Giving to the arts when people are hurt or hungry

In the wake of last week’s giving frenzy, I had a chance to review some of the numbers in a little more detail. After cozying up with a 99 page pdf file over the weekend, and perusing Minnesotans’ generosity, I was left to wonder: how do we decide who to give our money to?

For instance take a look at these numbers from last week’s “Give to the Max Day” – note: they do not reflect the “match” by GiveMN, but simply the donations made by the public.

Guthrie Theater – $40,075

Children’s Theater Company and School – $57,545

Minneapolis Institute of Arts – $19,058

Walker Art Center – $9,120

Animal Humane Society – $67,069

Habitat for Humanity – $12,539

Graywolf Press – $9,185

American Cancer Society – $7,880

American Composers Forum – $20,314

American Red Cross Twin Cities Chapter – $23,825

Dorothy Day Hospitality House (homeless shelter) – $645

Advocates against Domestic Abuse – $255

Second Harvest Heartland – $183,291

YMCA of Greater St. Paul – $117,175

YWCA of St. Paul, Minnesota – $3,230

It’s interesting to see the range in generosity to both arts organizations and those non-profits that provide crisis services such as food and shelter. I realize some of these numbers may simply reflect an organization’s efforts to get the word out, but it also made me think about the decision to give.

How do we balance our giving to the arts alongside the needs of the homeless and hungry? What questions do you ask yourself before you decide to give to a particular non-profit? How do you ‘justify’ giving money to an organization that many see as a luxury, not a necessity? And if you’re willing to share, who are you giving your money to this year, as unemployment is at its highest level in 25 years and social services are being cut?

No answers in today’s post – just questions. I welcome your thoughts.

  • http://www.springboardforthearts.org/blog laura zabel

    First of all, I think this is a false question. I imagine most people who support nonprofits support more than one. Our community needs a lot of different things to be viable and successful – art is one of them. Additionally, I think the GiveMN numbers reflect, exactly as you say, an organization’s ability to get the word out. If you looked at what causes receive designated gifts through United Way, the numbers might be very different.

    Additionally, arts organizations and artists are engaged in many of the issues you raise as well as economic development, healthcare and education.

    I “justify” my support of the arts precisely because culture is not a luxury – it’s a necessity. Artists contribute to the quality of life of our community through sparking dialogue, helping us understand cultures different from our own, educating our children, beautifying our cities, and bringing economic and community development to our neighborhoods. And they often do so at the expense of their own quality of life.

    As Mayor Rybak said at the last State of the Arts convening at Intermedia Arts, “especially in Minnesota, the arts ARE a basic need.”

  • Michelle Hensley

    Our audiences at Ten Thousand Things — those who are homeless, in prison, immigrants, people with few material possessions or comforts — often tell us that the respect for their imaginations and intelligence which they receive when they watch one of our plays is just as important as food or shelter — and certainly just as scarce in their lives. Our marginalized audiences tell us over and over that they receive great sustenance from the arts, and from being included as part of the human community.

  • Michelle Hensley

    Our audiences at Ten Thousand Things — those who are homeless, in prison, immigrants, people with few material possessions or comforts — often tell us that the respect for their imaginations and intelligence which they receive when they watch one of our plays is just as important as food or shelter — and certainly just as scarce in their lives. Our marginalized audiences tell us over and over that they receive great sustenance from the arts, and from being included as part of the human community.

  • Marianne Combs

    Laura -

    Thanks for your response. In my defense, I don’t think this is a false question at all. We all have to make choices, and in a down economy those choices can become even more difficult. Yes, most people give to multiple non-profits – my question is how do they choose? And how do they balance out their giving across different sectors?

    You quote Rybak as saying the arts *are* a basic need. I’m just looking for more proof of that (as MIchelle offered), and I’m looking for donor testimonials about where they place arts orgs within the spectrum of their giving.

  • http://www.compas.org Dan Adolphson

    As Director of United Arts Fund, this has been an issue that I’ve chosen to address head-on in our campaign presentations this year. We’ve talked about the fact that by supporting United Arts Fund, you’re supporting the fourth side of the basic needs square. School and community arts programs offer students the stability they need…help them find their voice, express emotions safely, and keep them from being drawn into unhealthy lifestyle options. Families in crisis discover that the arts help them put their lives back together. The arts are helping heal the communal soul in times like these.

  • Kate Barr

    Marianne –

    I will offer you a donor testimonial. My husband and I took full advantage of the marketing and enthusiasm surrounding Give to the Max Day and made donations to 14 different Minnesota nonprofits. The organizations ranged from those helping with basic needs (homeless shelter and affordable housing), job training and neighborhood development, social justice advocacy, and arts organizations (5 of them). Yes, we made choices about which organizations and how much, but as a donor I don’t think about those choices as reflections of priorities of need. I think that they are more about the depth of connection and commitment that we have to the specific organizations and the work that they do. If we had to limit our donations to 13 rather than 14 organizations we’d have a very hard time choosing which to eliminate. Theater or homeless shelter? Music or job training? That’s not the real choice. The real choice is this: 14 new pairs of shoes, or donations to 14 nonprofits that together help create the community that we choose to live in.

  • Craig

    The arts are not a basic need for any one individual to live. But as a community, if the Twin Cities wish to retain their population of professionals, scientists, leaders,… the arts are mandatory.

    The dollars spent to retain this crucial echelon of the economy have a multiplier effect, benefiting those in need more so than direct contributions. If all of the arts lovers left town we would lose the engines of our economy, and our tax base would be annihilated; leaving those in need with neither public nor private support.

  • Marianne Combs

    Kate – what a great response! Thanks so much for explaining your approach to giving, and for your obvious generosity. I like the basis of using your own personal ‘connection’ to the organization. It works at both an emotional level (attachment) and a pragmatic one (I’ve seen this organization at work, I know it’s doing good things).

    Craig, and Michelle, and Laura – your arguments are all strong ones, and help folks who maybe don’t give to the arts to understand why maybe they should. Thanks for those.

    However I don’t think the reasons you listed are what goes through a donor’s head when making a decision about who they are going to give to. As Kate explained, it’s much more of a personal decision, with personal experiences and personal finances playing important roles. It’s that internal dialogue, that decision making process, that intrigues me.

  • http://www.springboardforthearts.org/blog laura zabel

    Marianne,

    I actually don’t think the reasons I gave are going to convince people to support the arts. But they are the reasons I give when someone asks me to “justify” my support of the arts. That word gets me pretty riled up. :)

    As Kate said so well, people give to organizations they have a personal connection with and whose work they understand and care about.

    That’s one of the things I loved about Give to the Max Day – there was a feeling of a community coming together to support all kinds of things they care about. I didn’t need to support all 3,434 organizations – just the ones I know and care deeply about. And if 38,778 members of my community do the same, then we can make a huge difference across all types of nonprofits who serve all types of people.