The Data that Drives Us…Or Not

By Janet Brown from her blog Better Together

The phrase “data-driven decision-making” has become popular with funders.  What decisions are being made based on data and how relevant is the data being collected?  Does the data reflect the reality in which we each work and how does it inform our actions? Does data merely answer questions of how funding proved successful based on outcomes, or does it inform how funders should be changing their portfolios, application guidelines and goals based on the successes or failures of the nonprofit arts field? These are the challenges for researchers and practitioners.

Grantmakers in the Arts fall 2013 Reader includes, among many interesting and inspirational articles, two interesting reports on data.  First is the annual Foundation Center “snapshot” which pulls data from 2011 mined from a set of 1,122 private and corporate foundation grants as reported to the Foundation Center.  It reports on what happened with these foundations in 2011 compared to previous years.  Secondly, we have the report from the National Assembly of State Arts Agencies (NASAA), which cites appropriations from governments to state and local arts agencies for 2013.  In both these reports, we see that arts support is not declining but it is not growing either. This comparable data helps us see trends but in some ways, it is also indicative of how we need to change the questions to meet the times.

Our reports and my recent experience looking at financial data compiled by a national performing arts service organization, makes me believe that the questions we have been asking in the past aren’t giving us a clear picture of the current dilemma facing most arts groups.  Data needs to be broken down in order to understand real implications.  For example, a focus on “total contributions” does not necessarily give us a true picture of how the industry is being supported.  If we were to exclude contributions to endowments and building campaigns, these numbers would most like look very different. So we don't really have a good picture of how we are funding on-going operations because reporting mixes capital campaigns with annual operating support.   Take away this "restricted" money for endowments and buildings and what we have is (back to that nagging capitalization lesson) no cash on hand.

Recently GIA sponsored a web conference entitled “Let’s Talk Numbers: Applying Trend Data of Your Grantmaking” and featuring Bobbie Lippman, Director, The Philadelphia Program, The Pew Charitable Trusts and June Washikita O’Neill, Manager, Philadelphia Cultural Fund. The discussion focused on how grantmakers can use data submitted by grantees to the Cultural Data Project, now available in fourteen states.  It was a very popular web conference, which indicates how interested our members are in using data to inform their practice. 

There are over-arching issues for the nonprofit sector that have been appearing in data for years.  No liquidity continues to plague the sector. Cash reserves are non-existent or are so small most organizations couldn’t survive more than a few months if they were solely dependent on their savings.  Facility needs and overhead drain the creative risk-taking out of many organizations.  Low paid staff, which means frequent turnover, costs an organization even more money. In many cities, audiences and donors for major institutions are not racially diverse or representative of the community despite decades of talking about it and encouraging outreach programs. Audiences are shrinking and not growing for many performing arts organizations.

We’ve seen all this data but how has it driven our actions? Analyzing data can be an interesting theoretical exercise. Changing trends in funding or organizational operations based on the analysis of data seems less successful.  It all takes time and it takes courage.  I believe we are in the best time in decades to make bold changes. I also believe that if we don’t make those changes and begin addressing the seriousness of what we’ve been seeing in data for years, there will be tough consequences for the future.  We are in a time of transition…let’s transition into a more responsive philathropic sector supporting healthier arts organizations informed by meaningful data.