When Intuition Makes Perfect Sense

Published in: GIA Reader, Vol 17, No 1 (Spring 2006)

Sarah Lutman

Years ago, after reading a case statement from one of my earliest experiences with fundraising, my husband, who is in the wine business, told me the three "s's" of salesmanship. He said that a salesman should have

Something to say
Say it, and
Stop.

He made it sound fairly easy and apparently it works if you are approaching a reluctant wine buyer who should prefer the rare Aglianico you're offering to an ordinary Chianti from your competitor. Sales have been good and my husband has a thriving company.

Our sales strategies for the arts have never been quite so easy to sum up. Recently I heard NEA Chairman Dana Gioia say that among all the justifications that might be made for supporting arts education, the least important is creating future artists and the most important is that without art an individual is missing an essential dimension of being human, and therefore all children deserve exposure to and participation in the arts. It's refreshing to hear the chairman state matters so directly. I've heard him speak many times and he always has fresh examples of how the arts demonstrate the extraordinary capacities we humans have for hearing, feeling, and seeing, and how the arts create the vehicle for sharing experiences that cannot be spoken, but can be sung, danced, painted, or made into stories.

If only it were so easy to write winning grant proposals for the arts today. A proposal that rested on the proposition, for example, that "poetry makes better humans" would seem poorly argued in today's instrumentalist grantmaking environment. Grant seekers have come to rely on a range of arguments, deploying them as needed (including all at once), and hoping, even praying, that one will stick and we'll get the dough.

You need your wits about you and a whole bagful of strategies to raise money for culture today. You can't have only "Something to say" — you must have the all the bases covered. On the one hand you'd best be ready to lay out a well-constructed case for the impact your program is going to make on individuals, communities, or even networked systems, and you'd better have a qualified social scientist as part of your project team who can demonstrate (with appropriate academic rigor) that yes, you are making a difference. On the other hand, the art world can hit you from within, either diss-ing a project that emphasizes community impact as “dumbing down,” or questioning your allegiance to the art that matters most, i.e. high art, when you propose a project that aims at broad participation. Quality and access are still viewed in many quarters as contrary goals. From my perspective, navigating this terrain in private philanthropy at this time in our history has never been more difficult.

At Minnesota Public Radio we are in the final stages of a $50-plus million capital campaign to expand our facilities and strengthen our programming, including our cultural programming. I've been involved extensively in the campaign and have made presentations about our work to dozens of individuals, corporate grantmakers, government program officers, and foundation personnel. I have never been personally involved in so many “asks” in a campaign of this size and have never asked so many individuals for money. It has been a lot of fun and an education for me.

Here's what I've learned. Compared to making the case to a foundation, talking to individuals about the arts invariably results in an emotional connection with them, and this experience is personally enriching. That's because individuals understand the intrinsic values of the arts and can talk relatively openly and easily about them. Inevitably this involves conversation about how art deeply affects them as human beings. They enjoy and are entertained by arts experiences and have a rich set of vocabularies not only about how art has changed them but also how art — music, theater, poetry — makes their lives better. It is not a leap for them to imagine that if they are enriched personally, then others are, too, and that these experiences benefit the larger community.

Alan Brown gave me an earlier version of his interesting diagram. Unlike the current version, the early one incorporated the RAND study's use of categories for “intrinsic” and “instrumental” values. The earlier diagram showed a flow from “intrinsic” to “instrumental” that moved from the lower left to the upper right, through many of the same benefits presented here. Although this one offers added, more “kaleidoscopic,” ways to think about benefits, even the earlier one has been useful.

During our capital campaign, I brought Alan's chart to several dozen donor presentations and afterwards made a note about which values on the diagram resonated with individual donors. Hands down, it's the intrinsic. I shared the diagram with our development group and their reaction was something like, “Duh.” Their comments suggested that, with individuals, they'd never venture to the upper right of the map unless the donor was particularly reluctant. Nearly all donor relations fall to the lower left.

Why does this surprise me, when intuitively it makes perfect sense? I have to point to my years as a grantmaker. After nearly twenty years in professional philanthropy I've realized that I am so used to making the instrumental case for culture that I've had to teach myself to trust the intrinsic case as the stronger one. Inside foundations, arguments for the arts generally start in the right and upper half of Alan's chart, and, in my experience, never venture toward the lower left, to benefits like “flow,” “inspire the spirit,” or, even more dangerous, “sensory pleasure.” Within professional philanthropy, these intrinsic impacts can be viewed as something that artists experience but not ones that merit philanthropic investment so that audiences can be transported there.

I'm happy to see the field of professional philanthropy examine the motivations behind cultural grantmaking by looking at the full map of benefits, from intrinsic to instrumental. I am looking forward to a day when the intrinsic values of the arts are more widely accepted and celebrated as “gifts of the muse.” Perhaps then the case for cultural support will be stronger than it is now, resting on the experience of art itself. And maybe then we will only have to say this, and then stop. The reminder of the experience of art will be enough.

Sarah Lutman is senior vice president, Content and Media, American Public Radio and Minnesota Public Radio. In her life as a grantmaker she was program officer at the Bush Foundation, a GIA board member, and co-editor of the GIA Newsletter.