How can we change public perceptions so that the arts are recognised as REAL charities?

How can we change public perceptions so that the arts are recognised as REAL charities?

“When the arts can feed, clothe and shelter people, that’s when I’ll start giving!”

Even in recession the UK remains a generous society, with the average Britain donating £10 a month to charitable causes. However, the arts remain low, low down in terms of the public’s charities of choice.  Falling far behind medical research, children, animals and sport amongst other causes, the Arts trails in last with only 1% of donations. Not being considered a charity is one problem, arts organisations big and small, must overcome as part of their fundraising efforts. With falling government funding and increased competition for trusts and foundations, it is vital arts organisations are able to establish themselves as a viable option for philanthropy.

So how do we convince people that the arts are a ‘worthy’ cause?

There is no simple answer. But here are my three suggestions to bear in mind when addressing this issue.

1.  Change your mindset

Until you are convinced of your worth as a charity, how can you expect to change the opinion of anyone else? Don’t sell yourself short. It’s not that we’re not a valuable asset to society; we just need to get better at communicating our value. Arts and culture enrich our lives, offering a significant social impact in terms of health and education, promoting social cohesion and regeneration and helping to stimulate our economy.

Few would dismiss the part art plays in contributing to the overall well being of our society. But effectively quantifying these benefits has always posed a dilemma. So how can we measure the impact of the arts through numbers? An Arts Council study reviewing the value of arts and culture came up with the following statistics: for every £1 spent on salaries within the arts and cultural sector, £2 is generated back into the economy. People who engage frequently with the arts are far more likely to report good emotional and physical health. And finally, students from low income families who participate in the arts are three times more likely to obtain a degree than those who do not.

However we measure value, we need to stop seeing fundraising for the Arts as ‘begging’. It is not a one-way transaction. You are giving something back; chances are you just need to be more vocal about what specifically this is.

2. Stop comparing

There are often mixed feelings about the idea of Arts charities ‘taking’ money away from those ‘more’ in need. Since beginning my fellowship, I have often heard arts organisations asking ‘But how can we possibly compete with… (insert name of children’s hospital/endangered animal/terminal illness here.)’ And I think the answer has to be: you don’t. You are an entirely different organisation, working towards a completely different aim, and that does not make your work trivial or unessential. We don’t have to choose one or the other. Finding the cure for heart disease and delivering drama workshops for children with disabilities are mutually exclusive and there’s no reason why we shouldn’t aim to have both!

During my time at the National Arts Fundraising residential, our tutor Bernard Ross shared an interesting analogy with us. On the 15th September 2008 the Lehman Brothers filed for bankruptcy. With $619 billion in debt, it was the largest bankruptcy filling in history, and led the way for a global financial crisis. The next day, Damien Hirst broke records, selling 218 items for £111million. And finally, at the same time, Sue Cunningham was only a few months into her launch of the most ambitious fundraising campaign ever attempted by a European University on behalf of Oxford University. Despite the global economic downturn, she successfully raised £1billion; in record time. (£1bn-through-‘donor-centric’-approach)

The point is there is always money out there. Ultimately, the choice of how and where the money is spent lies with the corporate sponsors, trusts and foundations and individual donors, who will choose to donate wherever they see fit. That is their prerogative. All you can do is ask, which leads me onto my last point…

3.  Let people know you need their support

Tell them. Then tell them again!

One of the main reasons cited as to why someone chose to donate, is surprisingly as simple as: because they were asked! It may feel obvious, but in our panic over loss of funding sources we often fail to think strategically and as a result, actually making  ‘the ask’ is often the thing we forget to do. Start with your beneficiaries and spread the word from there. We often take the arts for granted, myself included. But imagine a world without galleries, theatres, libraries or any other outlet of artistic expression. Nothing seems more valuable than when there is a genuine possibility of that thing being lost forever. They may not be your usual visitors/beneficiaries/donors but that doesn’t mean they are incapable of appreciating the importance of the services that you provide. Maybe they have fond memories of visiting your gallery as a child, or they believe that all children should be given the opportunity to learn an instrument. Sometimes, people just like to know they’re helping to solve a problem, whatever that may be. So let them join you in your mission!

Unfortunately, there will always be those who do not consider the arts to be a charitable cause. And the argument quoted at the top of this blog, probably isn’t going to go away anytime soon. But I hope that by remembering our unique and irreplaceable value to society and not being afraid to ask for support when we need it; we can prove ourselves as a worthy outlet for charitable support. Maybe your organisation won’t find a cure for a cancer and they probably wont save many endangered species. But I’m sure that the world would be a little less well off without your work in it.