By Kelly Pollock
Typically, when people think of “philanthropy” it conjures ideas of the wealthiest Americans who have the ability to dig into their deep pockets to deploy resources for causes they care about. While notable philanthropists such as Rockefeller, Carnegie, Gates and Oprah have had a considerable impact in our country, the reality is that from our country’s founding, Americans have been rooted in the traditions of volunteerism and giving. In our earliest hours, there wasn’t a strong central government to provide the needed resources, so we relied on common men and women giving their physical, mental and monetary resources to build our schools and churches and to meet the needs of their community.
Personal and corporate philanthropy are by no means exclusively American concepts, but it makes up a much larger piece of the non-profit funding model here than in other countries. This contrast was evident to me when traveling abroad for my 2016 Eisenhower Fellowship in Ireland, Northern Ireland, and Brazil where government funding of the arts is the lion’s share.
I recently had the opportunity to attend a convening of “The Philanthropy Initiative” held at the National Museum of American History in Washington D.C. This annual gathering aims to highlight the extraordinary impact that philanthropy has had, and continues to have, on American life, and this year’s theme was Arts & Culture. It was an incredible line up of thought leaders, including COCA’s very own Co-Artistic Director of Dance, Kirven Douthit-Boyd, speaking on a panel with members of American Ballet Theatre about efforts to diversify the field of dance.
Despite actively working as a fundraiser for more than 20 years, I can honestly say that I haven’t spent too much time thinking about the broader field of philanthropy. Well, this convening provided plenty of food for thought. Here are some reflections from the day:
Philanthropy is an optimistic endeavor
David Skorton, the head of the Smithsonian Institution – a massive collection of 19 museums, 21 libraries, the National Zoo and numerous research & education centers – framed up philanthropy as the belief that we can do things better and make a more equitable world. YES…AND! While I never quite thought of it in that way, it absolutely captures the essence of why I have loved my work at COCA over these last two decades. Those of us who work in the arts, see the impact each and every day. Donors who support arts & culture can have a very significant impact with a relatively small investment, especially compared to other sectors. The arts give dignity to others while calling us to interrogate ourselves. The impact is transformative.
There is tension between social justice and philanthropy
The Ford Foundation’s Darren Walker provided a keynote that called us to consider a “new gospel of wealth,” one in which philanthropy moves beyond generosity….to justice. As he noted, generosity is about charity, but justice is about equity. It is undeniable that there is great power in those who get to decide how resources are distributed. At this moment in time, what an opportunity we have to use our combined resources to spark lasting systemic change. I remain optimistic.
The great power of art to build community
Alberto Ibarguen, President of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, spoke of the power of the arts to bind people to place and to each other. He reminded us that the arts have both a social and aesthetic offer. It is through shared space & experience and through beauty that we come to understand who we are as a people and are called to a better version of ourselves, and our communities. He shared 3 “lessons” for those who are providing funding in the arts:
- Leverage your community’s natural assets. Invest in who you are as a community and what you have to offer that is uniquely yours.
- Fund both institutions and artists. We need institutions to scale impact, but artists often have closer proximity to people and issues.
- Intensify impact by narrowing the geographic focus. Concentrating resources to a specific region/community helps link and leverage resources.
Once again, I’m inspired, reignited and increasingly convinced that we need the arts more than ever to help address and solve our thorniest issues. The arts help us understand that which is beyond our known historical experience and help us take risks, because artists are not afraid to hold up the mirror to us. Culture always precedes change.
Finally, I want to say THANK YOU. Last week, I had a wonderful conversation about the power of “thank you” with one of COCA’s biggest supporters. He is always full of great advice and on this topic we agreed, you can never say thank you too much. He then sent me a beautiful book on the topic of “Gratitude.” So, I want to express my gratitude to each and every person who has ever given your time and/or money to support something you care about. You are a philanthropist! THANK YOU…. the world needs you.
“Nothing is more beautiful or powerful than an individual acting out of his or her conscience, thus helping to bring the collective conscience to life.”
— Norman Cousins, as quoted in “Gratitude”