Cultural Heritage

The Scope, Finances and Programs of Nonprofit Organizations that Sponsor and Support Ethnic, Traditional, Folk and Noncommercial Popular Culture

Carole Rosenstein, Ph.D., Amy Brimer, and Kanisha Bond

Review by Frances Phillips

May 2005, The Urban Institute, 2100 M Street, N.W. Washington, DC 20037, (202) 833-7200,

"The idea that expressive activities contribute to building and preserving communities has become an increasingly important part of economic development and community revitalization discourse in cities, towns and nations around the world."
Carole Rosenstein, Ph.D.

Researchers at the Urban Institute have been looking at the distinctive social value of "expressive activities," through several different lenses. Their research examines the premise that "arts, culture, and humanities are essential to the quality of life, cohesiveness and development of communities." After decades of concern about graying subscribers and declining numbers of audience members at symphony concerts and ballet performances, such investigations into community building bring forward another way to look at the dimensions of arts participation.

Art's role in supporting community cohesion often is visible in immigrant and other ethnic and culturally specific traditions. By looking at such communities' cultural organizations (or, rather the many kinds of organizations that support cultural heritage in such communities), one can gain a more nuanced and varied perspective on art's role in society and a broader, more inclusive view of the sum of arts participation in the United States.

In her May 2005 paper, Dr. Carole Rosenstein, a researcher for the Urban Institute, takes on a piece of this task by examining nonprofit organizations "that take the promotion and preservation of community identity and ethnic or cultural heritage as their primary and compelling mission." These include language schools, ethnic social clubs, community cultural centers, and even county fairs. Such organizations share an orientation toward people — “living artists, practitioners and participants — rather than collections or repertoire” and she identifies them based on their “primary orientation toward promoting and preserving community.”

The core of “Cultural Heritage” is an examination of the scope, finances, missions, and programs of these kinds of agencies. Dr. Rosenstein addresses this task by examining data drawn from information on the Form 990 that nonprofit organizations file with the IRS and that are provided in the National Center for Charitable Statistics (NCCS) data files. Cultural heritage organizations may be found within several of the primary NCCS classifications and they support an array of activities — from presenting and training, to festivals, language schools, commemorative events, and classes.

NCCS data are limited in excluding very small organizations and religious institutions, yet they offer a wide lens for looking at the field. They reveal the following:

  • Cultural heritage represents a little more than 9 percent of the nonprofit arts, culture, and humanities subsector and, in 2001, controlled only 6 percent of its revenues.
  • Cultural heritage organizations are typically smaller and weaker than other organizations identified within the sector of arts, culture, and humanities. They lack large, highly endowed institutions, and more than 60 percent of ethnic, cultural, and folk organizations have budgets less than $100,000.
  • Earned income provides the greatest source of income for cultural heritage organizations. (In part this is because one segment of the cohort — fairs — gain most of their revenue from booth rentals, admissions, and sales.)
  • Asian/Pacific Islander-affiliated organizations are, by far, the largest (21 percent) category of non-European-affiliated cultural heritage organizations.
  • In comparison to the population, Asian/Pacific Islanders and Native Americans have “very robust shares of the set of ethnic, cultural, and folk organizations. In contrast, African/African-Americans and Hispanics are under-represented by ethnic, cultural, and folk organizations.”

Dr. Rosenstein believes that the scope of this field has generally been under-counted in arts participation and community development research. The priority these organizations give to valuing the cohesion of specific communities often leads them to work in highly cross-sectoral ways. While this is one of their strengths, it also leads to their not fitting neatly into defined categories. Hence, tracking them down and analyzing them as a field requires ingenuity. This leaves them “under-theorized and under-researched,” and understanding the broad reach and deep roots of cul-tural heritage across and within com-munities underlies the pressing need to fill the revenue gap created by the lack of very large institutions addressing this range of cultural activity.

It is clear that Dr. Rosenstein has not exhaustively excavated this body of organizations, and this paper is one in a series of inquiries. She introduces the paper with some of the emerging policy implications of this field and closes with questions for further investigation.

Frances Phillips, senior program officer, Walter and Elise Haas Fund