Saturday, November 16, 2013

Let’s Put our Hearts into the Future of our Cultural Life

I urge the Cultural Life Task Force to let go of a half-century old approach and get with the 21st century emphasis on direct involvement in the excitement of the arts, science and history within the Charlotte region—not only as audience members but also and most importantly as donors.

Most of us make tax-deductible contributions to causes or nonprofit organizations each year.  For example, you may give to the university you attended, to a food bank, the Red Cross or the Charlotte Symphony.  You personally make the decision about where your gift will go, because you personally believe in the value of the services of these groups.  You believe strongly in what they do and when you make your gift, you feel good about it.  It’s direct and it’s personal.

This is what true philanthropy is all about.  It comes from our passion about a cause or service.  That kind of feeling is missing with a united-fund approach (aka ‘work-place giving’) that has been operating here for over fifty years.  Gifts by workers under this approach go to the Arts and Science Council which then disperses those funds to the various arts/cultural groups according to certain criteria.  The original donor has no say in how her funds are used.  Recently, there has been some choice included in the campaigns, but the system remains at best an indirect way from the donor’s standpoint of supporting arts and culture.

The recent recession demonstrated a weakness of this system.  The ASC, the ‘middle-man’ of this approach, lost 65% of support from businesses and foundations since the recession.  If direct and personal philanthropy had been the major approach since the late 1950s, the effect of the downturn might not have been so severe.  More importantly, the various arts and cultural groups would not have developed a certain level of dependency upon the ASC.  Most of the larger organizations receive a quarter to a third of their total budgets from their annual ASC grant.  Their staffs get very used to seeing they have to raise only 66% or 75% of their total expenses, because the ASC grant will be there for them.

What should the Cultural Life Task Force do?  What should we do?  The Task Force will be in closed sessions until it issues its recommendations in early 2014. Hopefully they will be willing to hear your ideas.

I recommend that we begin to move to a direct and personal philanthropic model to support our cultural life in Charlotte-Mecklenburg.  Work-place giving does not have to totally disappear, but it should be significantly reduced.  I would suggest a ten-year transition period to the personal philanthropic model.  This would give the organizations time to ramp up their cultivation and direct solicitation programs targeted to individuals who have a direct interest in the organizations’ art, science and history missions.  The ASC can be a catalyst to this change, offering training assistance and other resources encouraging individual involvement and giving.

Let’s connect our fellow citizens and their families directly with the talented and devoted people who make art, explain history and demonstrate science.  Culture is not about selling cars or houses.  Culture is all about an experience.  You can’t buy it, take it home and put it on the shelf.  Culture is all about touching our emotions, our heart.  And personal philanthropy is all about giving from the heart.  Let’s make that happen here.