Recently, JP Morgan Chase & Company gave away $5 million to two hundred charities, including some arts organizations, through its Summer 2010 Chase Community Giving campaign. Pepsi has been sending $1.3 million to nonprofit organizations each month this year as part of its Pepsi Refresh campaign, money that would have otherwise gone to Super Bowl ads. American Express is donating $200,000 to each of five organizations every three months. And in all three cases, regular people like you and me are helping to decide the recipients. You’d think we’d be happy about this, right?
Wrong. After largely avoiding controversy in the arts community (though not in the broader nonprofit sphere) when these projects made their first appearance 6-8 months ago, recently philanthropy by popular vote has started to see a strong backlash in these parts. It started with a post from 2am Theatre’s David J. Loehr pointing out the huge marketing gift nonprofits were making to Chase by participating in its program. A week later, Chicago Tribune‘s Chris Jones complained that the spectacle was demeaning to the arts and “yet a further example of the rampant cult of the amateur, masquerading as [a] grass-roots movement.” Then a Twitter controversy (Twitterversy?) erupted last month when no less than Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts got into it with fellow Members Project contestant StoryCorps, prompting the San Francisco Arts Commission’s Luis Cancel to lament in the comments that “marketing and the most venal ethics of pop culture have combined in this misguided effort…to link sponsorship in the arts with [corporations’] need to reach a mass audience.”
From there, the floodgates opened. The Nonprofiteer declared that she doesn’t believe in “crowd-source philanthropy,” calling it a “lazy and manipulative approach to corporate giving.” Technology in the Arts’s Joe Frandoni weighed in, pointing out that “this model has no way of insuring the best organizations reap the rewards or that the most efficient and effective programs receive funding.” And on ArtsBlog, Alison Wade wondered aloud, “the idea of democratizing this process sounds nice, but will the money really be used effectively?” Virtually all the authors complained or mentioned complaints of the deafening volume of solicitations for votes received from nonprofits participating in the sweepstakes.
Earlier this year, I spent quite a bit of time crafting, with co-author Daniel Reid, an article for Edward P. Clapp’s forthcoming 20UNDER40 anthology entitled “Audiences at the Gate: Re-Inventing Arts Philanthropy Through Guided Crowdsourcing.” So you might be surprised to learn that I agree wholeheartedly with the criticisms mentioned above. Indeed, the American Idol model of choosing donation recipients is, in the arts at least, little more than a mild twist on survival of the fittest in the commercial market. Those with the most
pre-existing visibility (update: okay, not really) and inherently broad-based appeal will be at a natural advantage to do well, meaning that worthy grassroots, new, and obscure-yet-influential organizations are likely to be shut out. If widely adopted, this approach could actually do more harm than good by undermining one of the core justifications for subsidization of the arts: the notion that there are some forms and instances of human creation that deserve to exist even if the market won’t support them. Democracy is a wonderful thing, but grand leaps of imagination are not often achieved by group consensus.
Yet one would be hard-pressed to argue that our dominant system of institutional giving is all that much better. The decisions of our corporate and foundation funders have an enormous impact in shaping the field, yet in most cases less than a half-dozen people have meaningful input into those decisions. Sometimes, a single individual might drive essentially the entire agenda for a portfolio of hundreds of thousands, even millions of dollars. That’s an incredible amount of influence accruing to an incredibly small number of people. And individuals, no matter how dedicated or qualified, are increasingly not up to the task of responsibly evaluating the full range of artistic activity within their jurisdictions. There simply are not enough hours in the day or days in the year for a human being to give ongoing, fair, and substantive consideration to the work of the millions of artists and tens of thousands of arts nonprofits in the United States today. For all of Chris Jones’s lauding of the “noble tradition of the corporate giving officer,” what percentage of the participants in Chase Community Giving or Pepsi Refresh have had corporate giving officers regularly (or ever!) attend their performances or exhibits?
So in my opinion, we need to be careful about throwing the baby of crowdsourced philanthropy out with the bathwater of popularity contest philanthropy. The latter is not synonymous with the former; it is merely a poorly executed version of it. What we need, instead, is a way of broadening out the selection and adjudication process to a greater number of people without sacrificing the qualities and expertise that make professional program officers special. To do this, we’ll still want to access the crowd, but rather than treat everyone the same, we’ll need to differentiate between good members of the crowd – the ones who are generous with their time, consider differing viewpoints thoughtfully, and demonstrate personal integrity – and bad members of the crowd – “one-issue” voters, poorly informed fly-by commenters, and vendetta-carriers. Put another way, we want to give anybody the opportunity to participate meaningfully without having to give that opportunity to everybody.
The system that Daniel and I designed addresses this challenge by establishing a new class of “star” voter: the Curator. Instead of having our regular users vote directly on arts projects submitted through our (hypothetical) giving platform, we have them vote on the reviews and commentary devoted to those projects instead. Users who build and then maintain a consistently positive reputation among their peers get elevated to Curator status — and it’s the Curators who then exert direct influence on how philanthropic dollars are distributed. We called this tiered approach “guided crowdsourcing,” in that it fuses open, flexible opportunity at the lower levels with structure and influence at the top. This concept is new to arts philanthropy, but it has found success in other fields. Recently, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported on the sense of community engendered among Yelp’s “Elite Squad” and Amazon’s super-reviewers, who derive considerable intrinsic satisfaction from performing the volunteer labor involved in sharing their experiences with dozens or hundreds of products and local establishments with the broader world. Indeed, as cultural consumers arguably look for deeper engagement with the art that’s important to them, curation represents a way to “do” without dropping everything and becoming a professional artist themselves.
So by all means, rail against the American Idol-ization of giving all you want. Just don’t give up on crowdsourced philanthropy just because we all know Jennifer Hudson should have won in season 3.