After a somewhat challenging conversation with a member the other day, I was inspired to write the latest rant on corporate funding of nonprofits. This gentleman was in an uproar that we had participated in a charity fundraiser at the invitation of Bloomingdale’s. As on of about 10 Bay Area organizations, we stood to get $5 for every ticket turned in, and $5,000 if we had turned in the most tickets. People who received this invite not only helped support our organization (and got a FREE ticket to our opening), but their ticket included a 15% off coupon for the store. We spent 3 days assembling, stickering and stamping 3,000 pieces of mail, which were received by our members, ticket buyers, friends, family and acquaintances.
Then came the fateful call – a guy who I first thought was mad because he believed the mail came from Bloomies (meaning that we had shared his contact info) yet my explanation that we had assembled and mailed it ourselves wasn’t enough. In fact, he proceeded to go on about how companies and art institutions should not be in partnership. If you can’t finance yourself, you should just close your doors!
I was having a rough week. And to top if off, I had to say things like “Well, I appreciate your opinion…” while trying to keep calm that this ASSHOLE felt that he needed to tell me how this institution should be run. But the truth is – he didn’t have a clue. And as he went on to tell me how he gives thousands of dollars to the place across the street and doesn’t give us much, it only made me more furious. You would be hard pressed to find any mid-sized arts organization that doesn’t take corporate money (including his much-loved institution). The benefits they receive in return perhaps are not as explicit as they were in this situation, but that doesn’t change the fact that money or goods in-kind are changing hands. The bottom line is this – public money for art has been dramatically reduced since the 1980s. California doesn’t even have the money to have art classes in schools. Remember that hour in elementary school where you got to draw and use glue and glitter? Yeah, well, no more.
It’s amazing to find those people who can give large sums of money, but consider that one $250,000 gift is only 1/24th of a 6 million dollar budget. And yes, foundation money is a great social benefit. Yes, people who can afford any sort of gift are helping even in a small way. But the truth of the matter is that many organizations can’t afford to invest in their programs, don’t pay their hardworking staff enough, and work on computers Steve Jobs would laugh at*. Corporate support usually offers easy money with no strings attached.
And here’s where the moral argument applies. Many companies are actively looking to invest in the community and the ethics of the matter come into play when the organization takes money from a company that violates its beliefs or sacrifices its curatorial or directorial duties in exchange for the contribution. Would I take money for my imaginary nonprofit if they wanted to present a Philip Morris curated show? No. Would I take money from the local Philip Morris office who wanted to purchase a corporate membership and give all their employees access to the work I was presenting? Absolutely.
It’s this fundamental difference in the relationship of money and power that my caller obviously didn’t understand. And he’s not required to know, but I certainly didn’t need to be lectured on the subject. In fact, his insistence that we should not accept this kind of money and his attempt to leverage his status as a potential donor is exactly the kind of power play that’s not acceptable. It made me cranky, and all I wanted to do is offer him his $150 back and tell him not to bother, he obviously doesn’t get it.
*I’m not saying these do or do not apply to my current job.Emily asked that I post this link to Jori Finkel's article in the NY Times about the Murakami exhibit currently showing in Los Angeles. I also wanted to post the following, pointed out in Princeton by E. Lakin last week. - Leah