There Is No Business Case For Social & Cultural Advancement

H/T to Artsjournal.com for linking to a FastCompany article about the problem with making a business case for diversity. I saw a lot of parallels between the rationale laid out by author, Sarah Kaplan, and the conversations I have been having about trying to justify the value of the arts in terms of economic/educational/social outcomes.

Kaplan writes (my emphasis):

Corporate leaders would be better served if they stopped trying to justify diversity with profit margins and stock charts—a mentality that can ultimately hurt the very groups these policies are meant to help (more on that in a moment)—and instead embrace diversity because it is the right thing to do.

[…]

Why doesn’t the business case work? Recent research suggests that what’s required for transformational action is a moral and legal case. The business case, because it is based in an economic logic, undermines moral arguments and weakens resolve to make anything other than incremental change. Indeed, experiments show that making the “business case for diversity” can increase bias against diverse groups while the legal case can inhibit bias and increase equitable behavior.

The business case for diversity also provokes people to focus more on economic than equality-based metrics of success. As a consequence, when there are downturns in organizational performance, believers in the business case are more likely to see diversity efforts as ineffective and to support dropping the organization’s investment in diversity programs.

Rather than go straight to that 3rd paragraph above, I did want to include her thoughts on justifying and implementing diversity because they are just as germane to the daily operations of arts and culture non-profits as anyone else.

There isn’t necessarily a moral and legal case to be made for the value of arts, culture and creative expression. However, there are similar consequences in using economic based metrics of success for arts and culture as there is for diversity goals. If there is a perceived lack of return in terms of economic activity, test scores, etc., interest flags and attention turns to the next big thing promising results in those areas.

In the long term, becoming adept in advocating the support of forms of creative expression because it is the right thing to do is going to be the better strategy.

One thing I was interested to read was Kaplan’s following thoughts that the business case for diversity is something you arrive at having successfully implemented a plan to achieve it. Her point seems to be, we really don’t know the actual benefits until it comes to pass. All the current rationale behind the business case for diversity are made on assumptions based on observations of the past and are focused on a narrow set of outcomes. Not only that, but it envisions that full diversity will unfold in a vacuum independent of everything else, neither affected by or affecting anything else.

It is worth noting that one of the reasons we don’t yet have compelling evidence about the economic impact of diversity is that we haven’t truly moved to inclusion and belonging. Diversity by itself will not produce the benefits that companies and policymakers wish to achieve. My sense is that by taking principled action, we will find myriad ways that more diverse workforces benefit companies and society. Said differently, we will eventually arrive at the business case; we just can’t start there.

In the same way, every claim made about how arts and culture can benefit the economy, education, social interactions, etc is based on piecemeal efforts supported by intermittent, unpredictable funding.  We have no idea what the real impact a unified, consistent, long term investment in cultivating creative expression will have on economic, education, socio-political fronts. I wouldn’t at all be surprised if it were revealed that advancements in diversity were significantly associated with creative expression, and vice versa.

About Joe Patti

I have been writing Butts in the Seats (BitS) on topics of arts and cultural administration since 2004 (yikes!). Given the ever evolving concerns facing the sector, I have yet to exhaust the available subject matter. In addition to BitS, I am a founding contributor to the ArtsHacker (artshacker.com) website where I focus on topics related to boards, law, governance, policy and practice.

I am also an evangelist for the effort to Build Public Will For Arts and Culture being helmed by Arts Midwest and the Metropolitan Group. (http://www.creatingconnection.org/about/)

I am currently the Director of the Grand Opera House in Macon, GA.

Among the things I am most proud are having produced an opera in the Hawaiian language and a dance drama about Hawaii's snow goddess Poli'ahu while working as a Theater Manager in Hawaii. Though there are many more highlights than there is space here to list.

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3 thoughts on “There Is No Business Case For Social & Cultural Advancement”

  1. Great post–thank you. I’m excited to learn more. Can you link to Kaplan’s article here? I’m surprised it isn’t linked, and while I’m happy to google it, I imagine other readers might want to see it too.

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  2. Last week I had an interview for an ED position with an arts organization. The search committee consisted of eight people…all women. Yet they asked me questions about diversity! I tried to keep my cool.

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