If all the world’s a stage, who can compete with Broadway? While gathering research as a doctoral student at Rutgers University in Newark, NJ, Mirae Kim interviewed numerous arts organizations about funding issues. She spotted a pattern among local nonprofit venues: “Many theaters in New Jersey mentioned their need to compete against Broadway theaters in New York City – which perfectly made sense since they are only about ten to 20 miles away from Broadway,” Kim recalls. “They mentioned they cannot compete against Broadway theaters in the traditional way because of the different financial sizes, so several of them highlighted their community basis as a way of differentiating themselves from ‘commercial’ theaters.”
Kim’s curiosity about this distinction led to an intensive research study – Characteristics of Civically Engaged Nonprofit Arts Organizations: The Results of a National Survey – which she completed over a three-year period while working as an assistant professor at the University of Missouri’s Harry S Truman School of Public Affairs. She broadened her inquiry to survey myriad nonprofit arts organizations throughout the United States, focusing on what differentiates the groups with a 501(c)(3) status from commercially driven ventures.
“It intrigued me whether the need for survival prompted nonprofits to highlight their civic engagement role – or if there were other reasons,” Kim explains. “One of the findings I didn’t expect was the role of associations and collaboratives in encouraging nonprofit arts organizations to recognize ‘civic and community engagement’ as one of the critical factors they should embody.”
A Winning Formula
Another unexpected outcome for Kim: her study won the inaugural Createquity Arts Research Prize, entitling her to a $500 cash award and a platform for sharing her work with a wider audience. In our review of more than 500 arts research studies for the Research Prize, Kim’s publication rose to the top for several reasons: a high-level methodological design, the use of previously validated survey instruments, a widely representative sample, and a topic with resonance in the arts community. This work exemplifies Createquity’s interest in encouraging arts institutions to prioritize community needs ahead of their own prosperity.
First published in 2016 in the Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly, Kim’s article includes and draws on a wide-ranging literature review. The study relies on a varied and robust combination of instruments and data sources including:
- structured interviews with 21 nonprofit arts organization directors
- a survey of 900+ arts organizations, with questions based on the qualitative interview results
- financial data from the National Center for Charitable Statistics to uncover income-source patterns
The survey was used to place arts organizations on a matrix measuring “civic roles” and “market roles,” based on a validated index of organizational behaviors developed by other researchers. Kim used the above methods to test hypotheses about the relationships nonprofit arts organizations have with other types of community organizations, their peer organizations’ emphasis on civic duties, the level of bureaucracy in their governance, and their reliance on program fees for revenue.
Kim uncovers several notable ways in which civically engaged arts organizations differ from more market-driven arts organizations, including:
- they maintain stronger networks with other community organizations such as schools, senior centers, etc.
- they consider civic engagement a key force driving the mission
- they’re consciously aware of their nonprofit status
The study finds that charging and receiving a higher share of program revenue negatively correlates with civic engagement. Indeed, revenue sourcing is one of the inquiry’s driving concerns. Noting that arts nonprofits often rely on a mix of contributions and selling tickets, Kim poses a central question that arts nonprofits confront: “How can they maintain marketable programs and share responsibility for the wellbeing of their community without compromising either?”
Many nonprofits surveyed reported high levels of involvement in both market roles and civic roles, so Kim conducted additional analysis taking market roles into account. She finds a greater correlation between network diversity (the number and variety of other organizations worked with in the past year) and civic engagement, when an organization performs both roles. Interviews with directors reveal that work with outside community groups and organizations helps arts nonprofits implement civically relevant programming and reach new audiences within their markets.
Perhaps surprisingly, “Characteristics” does not find a significant correlation between an arts organization’s reliance on government funding and its level of civic engagement. Kim points out in her literature review that several studies hypothesize a negative relationship between the two, while others argue for a positive correlation – and that empirical results are mixed. (At any rate, as Createquity has noted, the vast majority of arts organizations’ budgets comes from the private sector rather than government funding.)
Kim also hypothesized that a rigid and bureaucratic governance structure would be negatively associated with civic engagement. In fact, however, the survey responses indicate the opposite relationship. Because this finding conflicts with some of her interview data, Kim recommends more research in this area before a conclusion is reached, noting that this study does not establish a causal relationship between these factors.
Room for Growth
Kim notes that these 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 achieving outcomes. However, the article does make a strong argument that partnering with other types of organizations will strengthen ties with communities and potential audiences.
The study’s survey instruments themselves contain a bit of wiggle room in terms of reliability. For example, respondents were asked to rate their involvement in various activities on a scale of 0 to 100, a huge range with no clear benchmarks that may have been vulnerable to bias in unpredictable ways. Future research on this topic would benefit from a lower reliance on self-reported, subjective measures like these.
Nevertheless, we find much to praise about the innovative approach that “Characteristics of Civically Engaged Nonprofit Organizations” uses to uncover and elucidate some of the key questions and priorities that nonprofit arts organizations face in the real world.
“I hope this encourages researchers to study the role of arts nonprofits, as they are critical elements to improve our civic life,” says Kim, now an assistant professor at Georgia State University’s Andrew Young School of Policy Studies. “And I hope it helps arts nonprofit managers recognize the role of associations and informal networks in influencing program decisions at individual organizations.”