Even though the articles on Non-Profit Quarterly’s website are relatively short, I found an article last month about fundraising for the homeless gave me a lot to think about.
According to the article, homeless charities are essentially forced to pander to the image of the homeless as old men living on the street in order to raise money even though the truth is 36% of homeless are families and 65% don’t live on the streets.
Research published in the British journal Sociological Research Online noted (my emphasis)
“Given the homogeneity of the images produced in this research, and further studies which show complex, contextual information can lessen the impact of a fundraising campaign, we could argue that charities are acting rationally in continuing to fundraise in such a way, even though in rooflessness they are focusing on a relatively small element of the overall problem of homelessness: ‘the public must be given what they appear to want: images of charitable beneficiaries that fit comfortably with widely held stereotypes about ‘victims’ and which prompt the largest amount of donations.’”
The article talks about how some charities recognize the need to balance educating the public about the truth while also acknowledging that “you also have the way that people perceive that problem and what they perceive the solutions to be…”
Reading this, I saw some parallels with what arts organizations face. There has been a lot of conversations in recent years about the mismatch between what arts organizations need funding for (i.e. operations) and foundation funding priorities.
What really got me was the idea that non-profits are often slaves to the image the public has of the constituencies it serves. The British researchers had people draw what they envisioned when they thought of homeless people and many people drew the whiskered old guy sleeping on the street. (I should note the study sample size isn’t terribly large so the results may not be entirely conclusive.)
I wondered if arts organizations were to ask their patrons or people in the community to draw their concept of an arts event attendee, would the pictures be of people in suits/tuxedos and evening gowns even if the reality was jeans and khakis with barely a necktie in sight?
In light of this research, I started wondering if arts organizations might be better served by embracing the high society stereotype they are trying to escape, at least when it comes to fundraising efforts.
If regular event attendees end up rendering an image that diverges from reality of the experience, it may be that they associate their self image with the one on paper. In that case, you may not want to do anything to disabuse them of that notion.
Though this is a complicated situation. They may have drawn the pictures they did because all your marketing materials feature performers in tuxedos and evening gowns reinforcing that image even though your audiences largely don’t dress in that manner or identify with that image.
In this case, continuing an effort to have marketing and fundraising materials and events attempt to diverge from the high society stereotype and more closely align with the audience reality may ultimately garner better attendance and donations.
While there are a lot of nuances of audience psychology to factor in, the rather obvious element in all this has always been that wealthy people make large donations that help keep everything operational so the image arts organizations have tried to project is one that appeals to them.
Like those who serve the homeless, arts organizations may be trapped into perpetuating an image that attracts the most donations versus presenting an image the best reflects the reality or ambition of their activities.
All that being said, I am still intrigued by the idea of asking people either to draw or describe the type of person who attends an arts performance. I have this feeling that a survey requesting a picture might actually end up with a higher response rate than a typical survey.
And it may provide some insight into the image the organization should be projecting in order to appeal to the community. (I have to confess, I had an amusing vision of a crayon stick figure drawing of a man in a top hat and woman in an evening gown slamming the door of theater in the sad faces of two less finely dressed people.)
If anyone tries this, I would love to hear what the results are. This isn’t out of line with what people are asked to share on social media sites and there are arts organizations who are already engaging people in this manner. Nina Simon could ask of visitors at the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History to do this and no one would think it particularly novel.
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