“Harmony,” by Flickr user Thad Zajdowicz

Title: Characteristics of Civically Engaged Nonprofit Arts Organizations: The Results of a National Survey

Author(s): Mirae Kim

Publisher: Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly

Year: 2016

URL: http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/0899764016646473

Topics: Non-profit management, arts organizations, civic engagement, arts management

Methods: Survey, Structured interviews, correlation analysis

What it says: The study uses data from a U.S. survey, structured interviews and IRS forms to test four hypotheses about characteristics of civically engaged nonprofit arts organizations. After a series of interviews with 21 nonprofit directors, a survey was developed where respondents reported the extent to which their organization is involved with different nonprofit roles, some of which are market oriented (e.g. producing artistic products) and some of which are civically oriented (e.g. promoting community engagement or bringing together people of different backgrounds). The survey was completed by a stratified sample of 1,049 nonprofit arts directors. Additional organizational characteristics were measured by survey items in the same survey or federal data from the National Center for charitable Statistics (NCCS).

Author Mirae Kim finds that civic engagement among nonprofits strongly correlates with network diversity (i.e. working with a range of types of other organizations like schools or senior centers), and a perception of civic engagement as an industry norm. Both of these findings are validated by the structured interviews. Because many of the nonprofits surveyed reported high levels of involvement in market roles and civic roles, the author conducts additional analysis taking market roles into account. The positive correlation between network diversity and civic engagement is heightened when an organization also performs market roles. This also means that increased network diversity predicts a complementary relationship between the two roles. This is explained through interview statements about how work with outside community groups and organizations helps arts nonprofits identify and implement civically relevant programming, and simultaneously exposes their work to new audiences within the market.

Receiving a higher share of program revenue negatively correlates with civic engagement (though the connection is not as strong) and reliance on government funding is not correlated with civic engagement at all. The author also hypothesizes that a rigid and bureaucratic governance structure would be negatively associated with civic engagement. The study finds an opposite relationship in the data, but because this finding conflicts with some of the interview data, the author recommends more research in this area before a conclusion is reached. The authors note that this study does not establish causality between these factors, and more importantly it does not delve into the outcomes of the work of civically engaged nonprofits, only the extent that they pursue this role.

What I think about it: This study demonstrates how effective familiar (and relatively affordable) methods in arts research (surveys, structured interviews, NCCS data) can be when part of a sound and well-thought-out study design. This particular model includes a theoretical and literature review which directly informs the study design, the use of previously validated survey instruments whenever possible, care taken to achieve a representative sample, and triangulation between interview and survey data. In addition, the study poses questions relevant to real tensions in arts management, which do not already have obvious answers.

What it all means: Beyond the promising study methodology, this work offers some actionable insight about an ongoing discussion in the nonprofit arts sector: how does the role of supplying quality arts products and experiences interact with expectations to positively influence civic life? This study creates a theoretical map of the different components of this complicated question, demonstrates that the two functions interact, but don’t necessarily need to compete, and offers a clear action that correlates with civic engagement, which is even more pronounced for organizations who are also actively playing a market role. It also suggests that hearing about other organization’s effort to promote civic engagement, at a national conference, for example, does actually cause other nonprofits to increase their civic engagement in turn.

As the author notes, the findings cannot tell us definitively whether collaborating with other organizations causes nonprofits to be more civically engaged, or if civically engaged organizations are more likely to seek out collaboration. It also does not shed light on how effective the efforts of civically minded nonprofits are in their communities in terms of outcomes. However, the action that the study recommends (partnering with other types of organizations) is not such a departure from the missions or practices of most arts nonprofits to necessitate stronger evidence before nonprofits seeking to increase their civic engagement consider doubling down on it as a tactic. Even arts organizations doing this already can take away from this research increased confidence that their time and effort to collaborate across sector boundaries set their work apart.

This research also identifies a few bright areas for research going forward, including: examining the conflicting evidence related to organizational structure and governance, further research on outcomes, and deeper investigation about the effects of the quality or depth of collaboration or the type of collaborative organization on civic engagement and civic outcomes.