Are public competitions good for arts funding?

Over the past month or so there has been a lot of talk (online and off) about competitions like Chase Community Giving.  I missed my chance to add my voice on the 2AM Theatre blog a few weeks ago because I go to sleep too early but last night’s tweet from Lincoln Center regarding American Express’ Members Project brought a lot of my feelings back to the surface.

While I could use this space to talk about how no company, including arts organizations, should allow anyone to tweet for them without implementing social media guidelines (like “don’t bash the competition”), I’ll save that for next week.  Right now I want to talk about whether all this focus on public competitions is a good thing for arts funding.  My knee-jerk reaction to the Chase program is no.  I’ve always disliked popularity contests and I don’t think that continuously asking for votes is the way to build the relationships our organizations need in order to sustain once the spotlight of Chase moves on.  It is superficial and cheap and has the potential to wear thin on our constituents (especially with Chase where you needed to keep the votes coming in throughout the run of the contest).

I can completely see why it makes sense to the companies running the competitions.  Chase would never have received anywhere near the same amount of exposure had they simply sponsored 200 events or hand-picked 200 grant recipients.  Every time an organization asked for a vote, there was Chase’s logo and the blue hand.  In fact, I often had to look twice to figure out which organization was asking for my vote, but I always knew it was Chase.

Then came the ill-advised Lincoln Center tweet.  This turned attention on the American Express Members Project.  Perhaps I shouldn’t blame AmEx for the misguided Lincoln Center communication, but I have a serious problem with funding mechanisms that pit one organization against another in this public fashion.

While discussing this issue on Twitter earlier today, Aaron Andersen pointed me to his post about the psychological underpinnings for the way we respond to these situations.  Aaron writes about how, once a company was officially in the top 200, the situation changed from “Chase’s money that we might win” to “our money to lose.”  The trick with the AmEx contest (and why I think the Lincoln Center tweeter said what they did) is that all the organizations chosen to be in the running automatically had “money to lose.”  The us-against-them idea is inherent.  There isn’t even a way to play the system by working together as the storefront theatres in Chicago did with Chase.  Cooperation gets you nowhere with the AmEx Members Project.

I worry that a continuation and/or expansion of this type of competition is tailor-made to erode the progress our industry has seen over these past two, very difficult, years.  We’ve learned to cooperate and collaborate out of necessity and the call from our foundation grantors that we need to work together more.  Corporate money has all but disappeared from our income statements as corporate philanthropy departments are shuttered and sponsorships have dried up.  Will we sabotage our partnerships with our sister companies (and our foundation funding) for the bright sparkle of these high-profile contests?  Is there a way for corporations to get the ROI they are looking for on their philanthropic endeavors without making us compete for “friends” and eye each other’s tactics suspiciously?  Am I naive to think that in a time when reality TV reigns and everyone is looking for a way to let the audience feel they are part of the process we could possibly hope that corporations would look seriously at a non-profit’s financial and organizational stability and/or programmatic strength when making funding decisions?

Let me know your thoughts.

9 thoughts on “Are public competitions good for arts funding?

  1. Beautifully written, Amy!

    Some organizations, inevitably, will sacrifice collegiality for sparkle. Every time. But with thoughtful, insightful leaders such as yourself engaging in the larger conversation, I have faith for continued progress across the field.

    Perhaps the next step is getting the funding corporations in on the planning / collaborating phase of the process?

  2. You make a good point about the amount of exposure the funding companies get from the contests, so somehow, through a collaboration or partnership, we have to offer them some semblance of that exposure. Of course, no two organizations that partner on a project (say, my hypothetical proposed StoryCorps booth at Lincoln Center where an archive of Lincoln Center-related conversations is created) can garner the same amount of exposure for the funder. Hmm. Dilemma. But if ten organizations partner on five projects …?

  3. Amy, as a Development Director I agree with you on every count – especially the flimsiness of the constituent relationships gleaned from these types of competitions.

    But as an arts supporter the aspect that bothers me most is that, in order to participate I have to surrender my personal info – something I’m increasingly cagey about. That’s a huge benefit – perhaps THE benefit – to corporations conducting funding competitions: they gain entirely new pools of potential customers to whom they can market – something they never could have achieved under the old corporate sponsorship model. And it’s all on the backs of well-intentioned people who are just trying to help out a favorite non-profit. For corporations this is a genius arrangement: you get free marketing, a boost to your rep as a “corporation that cares”, PLUS new direct marketing contacts. For non-profits it’s an awful lot of effort for little – or in most cases no – return.

    1. Yes, Alex, one of the items discussed at every discussion with potential corporate partners is access to patrons. Under the previous model the organizations acted as gatekeepers for any corporate contact. With this model, it not only takes the gatekeeper aspect away but causes the organization to push the sponsors at their patrons in a much more aggressive way. Is there a way to show corporations that relationship built over time and with care is much more financially lucrative to them in the long run? Do people think of the long run anymore?

  4. Another wrinkle in the Amex competition is that the money isn’t going to come from the American Express Foundation, it’s coming entirely from their marketing budget. That tells you exactly what they consider this to be, and it tells you what kind of strings may well be attached.

    As I said way last month over at, I’m happy to advertise a sponsor and, given even $5000 a year, would happily trumpet their names from the rooftops, blanket my promotional materials with their logos, what have you. That’s a quid pro quo. I’d welcome that. It won’t give them as widespread attention as if hundreds of charities promote their name with little or no return for their time, of course. But it wouldn’t draw the same kind of negative reaction and/or spoil the well for future promotions, either.

  5. As has already been mentioned a few times, corporations and their marketing departments see this as win-win: they get marketing and arts gets money. As often happens within compartmentalized systems, the odds are that the marketing dudes don’t grok the relationship you’re attempting to manage with your patrons, but there are parallels that they can be sensitized to: BP’s losses in the Gulf are only partially related to physical damages.

    I think you’ll see lots of things like this from the financial sector in the near term: it’s no accident that your two examples are Credit Card/Banking firms. They’re desperate for good PR and this gives them a quick fix. How do you sell such companies on long-term benefits? I really have no idea outside of being able to directly contact their shareholders. Boards at these corporations are farsighted if they’re looking at a 10-year horizon. Average age in the 50’s-60’s and an obsession with what the stock has done today don’t lend themselves to far-future thinking.

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