We’re in This Together

Posted by Laura Otten, Ph.D., Director on June 30th, 2011 in Articles, Thoughts & Commentary


I usually don’t play favorites within the nonprofit sector.  I advocate on behalf of the entire sector, not one part.  But everyone doesn’t play the same way

Arts and culture groups:  you are not the only part of the nonprofit sector that enriches our communities!  If I read one more article, op-ed piece, blog post or tweet that touts the singular benefits that arts and culture organizations bring to a community, I am going to scream.  Why do you push the rest of the sector out of the limelight and grab it all for yourself?

When an arts and culture organization hits the headlines because someone within the organization embezzled from the organization, all nonprofits are taken down a notch.  When a “world class” arts and culture organization makes news because it is filing for bankruptcy, the question mark of fiscally responsibility hovers every nonprofit, regardless of its mission and model (world class, statewide, community-based, etc.)  You are good, don’t get me wrong; but so is the rest of the sector.  I regularly reap the benefits of your great work; but I do as well from contributions from the rest of the sector.

Of the almost 1 million public charities registered with the IRS (as of June 2011, according to the National Center for Charitable Statistics), less than 10% are arts and culture organizations.  Surely, arts and culture organizations don’t mean to suggest that the remaining 90+% add nothing to our communities?  Let’s begin with what we can easily measure.   Whereas the 90+% of the sector reported a total of $1,418,422,523,927 in annual revenue, the arts and culture subsection’s share was a mere 2% ($28,763,467,805).  Not shabby, but not the bulk of the economic impact, either.  Health care nonprofits (physical health, not mental) contributed 56% to that total, education nonprofits almost 17% and human service organizations just over 8%.

Every time there is a financial crisis in this country, regardless of the magnitude, funders reassess their priorities and retarget their dollars to put them where they can do the “most good.”  One of the perpetual tragedies of such reassessments is that the funding of arts and culture always gets moved to the “not a necessity” column, while the more tangible components of Maslow’s hierarchy of need—food, clothing, shelter, security–move to the “necessity” column.  And yet, arts and culture are as vital a part of our survival and successful navigation of tough times as the food we eat, the shelter we seek and the job we secure and maintain.  It is not an either or but a both and; we need it all for our lives to be truly enriched.

The success of the nonprofit sector rests on the successful synergy of its parts, not a scale of value and importance.   Folks are reluctant to go to arts and culture organizations in neighborhoods with too many vacant buildings and vacant lots.  And if your head is hanging low with worry about your next meal or how to get medical treatment for your child, you will not notice the sculpture, mural or street performance.  People prefer going into communities that have been tended to by community development corporations and neighborhood gardens.  A night at the theatre or a stroll through a gallery is far less enjoyable when shared with those who are hacking and sneezing away or expressing the demons that live within them.   The neighborhood clinic and mental health center take care of that.  While the tour of the historic house and garden becomes much more enjoyable by those visitors who can read the signage and learn about the preserved specimens and original furniture because they have benefited from a literacy and/or GED program.  A walking tour of public art is probably less pleasant when participants are trying to avoid panhandlers and those just hanging on the corner.  Fortunately, the rich subsection referred to with the catch phrase of social service, encompassing addiction services to homelessness services, jobs training to financial literacy training support those working to get (back) on their feet.

Each subsection of the nonprofit sector makes its contributions, has its impact felt and enjoyed because of the work of the rest of the subsections that make up the rich and wonderful nonprofit sector.   None is better or worse, greater or lesser societal benefit.  One works because they all work. We are truly all in this together; we sink, we swim, we succeed together.

The opinions expressed in Nonprofit University Blog are those of writer and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of La Salle University or any other institution or individual.