Dear Nonprofiteer, What am I getting for my money?

A pair of inquiries today that seem oddly related:

Dear Nonprofiteer,

I care about the arts more than any other aspect of the nonprofit world, and about funding individual artists more than any other aspect of the arts.  But if I give my money to individual artists, how can I be sure they use it constructively?  I don’t want to fund wild parties in New York lofts. 

Signed, Strict Constructionist

Dear Strict,

You can’t be sure that individual artists use your money constructively.  Even if they act in good faith–and the overwhelming number of them will, just as the overwhelming number of ordinary citizens abide by the law–you can’t control whether they’re visited by inspiration, or whether they’ve already passed their creative peak, or whether they get struck by glaucoma or arthritis or Parkinson’s. 

What you can do is recognize that art is important to you, and to society; that art is made largely by individuals; and that individual artists have access to very few other resources since the government decided that funding them was too risky–the risk presumably being wild parties in New York lofts.  Given these facts, artists are hard-pressed: as this article from yesterday’s Times shows, many of them lack health insurance, let alone access to travel for education or inspiration.  Who can say what impact those deficits have on their ability to create?

The passion for metrics that currently infects our society, from "No Child Left Behind" ("Johnny can’t read?  Off with the principal’s head!") to philanthropy ("How many addicts have you cured–permanently?  We’ll dock your funding for every relapse!") is bad enough when applied to education and social services.  When applied to the arts, it’s ludicrous.  Your gifts to artists are charity, a word that’s in bad odor for no obvious reason.  The generosity you express by giving is repaid by knowing that you’ve conferred a benefit on someone.  If they’re able to confer a benefit on you in return–in the form of artwork that might not otherwise have come into being–that’s a bonus.

So write the check or don’t, as you’re moved.  This is not a transaction, so much money for so much art; it’s a donation. 

Dear Nonprofiteer,

During the last years of my mother’s life, a truly amazing home health aide took care of her.  We became close and have stayed in touch even after Mom’s death three years ago.  But every time Gigi calls me now it’s to ask for money, and it’s always on some emergency basis that I can’t refuse: her car insurance is about to be cancelled, or something equally dire.  I’m grateful to her–and right after Mom died, I demonstrated that by sending a note cancelling the $5000-plus in debts to me she’d accumulated–but I didn’t intend to adopt her, and I hate feeling like a bank.  I especially hate feeling that Gigi’s only continuing interest in me is as a source of dollars.  On the other hand, I have the money and she doesn’t and it seems chintzy, not to say churlish, to refuse to give it to her.  What can I do?

Signed, In Touch or Just Having the Touch Put On Me?

Dear Touch,

If you didn’t want to feel like a bank, you probably shouldn’t have gotten into the business of lending money.  And while canceling those debts was a lovely gesture, you probably shouldn’t be surprised if your "borrower" interpreted it to mean you’d rather feel like an ATM, dispensing cash on command.

This, too, is charity: giving that is its own reward, except when it isn’t.  You’re not trying to accomplish anything with Gigi except to relieve her need and express your gratitude–whatever service was to be rendered was completed long ago.  So what you have to ask yourself is, "Do I feel generous?"  Well, do ya, punk?

Recognize (as Strict Constructionist has to) that the giving world is divided into two parts: the things you can control and the things you can’t.  You can’t control whether Gigi asks you for money, or whether she only stays in contact with you for the sake of the money you might give her.  (The latter is unlikely, by the way: people are rarely that one-dimensional.)  You can control whether you give.  Do it because it makes you feel good, or because not doing it makes you feel bad, or because the sum means little to you and a great deal to her (which is why we expect rich people to give to the poor and not the other way around, and why we support progressive taxation: the last dollar is worth comparatively less to the person who has millions of them than to the one who has only a few).  Or don’t do it at all. 

Now, you may have to practice saying, "No," because it’s as hard to break the habit of generosity as it is to break the habit of selfishness; but you can do it.  If you decide that enough is enough, the Nonprofiteer suggests you emulate HAL: slowly and calmly say, "I’m afraid I can’t do that . . ."

Seriously: you’ve made a series of free-will offerings (as they say in the religion biz).  That doesn’t entitle you to have Gigi do anything–love you or pay you back or even stop asking for more–but it also doesn’t require you to do anything.  It’s not philanthropy, with its measurements and obligations and reliance: you can come and go as you please.

Or, as Robert Towne’s policeman might have said, "Forget it, Jake.  It’s just charity."

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3 Responses to “Dear Nonprofiteer, What am I getting for my money?”

  1. Holden Says:

    Calling BS on “you can’t measure art.” What would be wrong with an arts charity sticking lots of samples of its work (videos, pictures, documents) on its website? Every grant to an artist is a gamble; not every one will result in something. But if an arts agency, over years and with lots of grants, isn’t getting some wonderful art produced, it’s doing something wrong – and if no one’s checking, I’d bet that’s exactly what’s happening.

    No need to quantify it or have an “objective” evaluation of what good art is. Just put it online and let the donors judge for themselves whether it’s something they want to pay for more of.

    Good measurement gives people a sense of what they’re buying. That’s all it does. I think you and others get caught up in caricaturing it as reducing everything to numbers (which, granted, many measurers do).

  2. Bill Dalton Says:

    Dear Nonprofiteer –

    Thank you for responding (i.e., to the ‘Strict Constructionist’ ..) to
    one of my major dilemmas in Life;
    but I feel you & S.C. missed the main point — i.e., How to get invited
    to those wild parties in the lofts of NYC!!

    Oh, well. I know you’ll make up for it in some future (more fun ..)
    response.

    bd 🙂

  3. Nonprofiteer Says:

    Holden: First, I didn’t say you can’t measure art; I said you couldn’t dictate whether it was produced. Second, I wasn’t talking about either institutional arts funders or about art-producing nonprofits, but about individual donors and individual artists, and I stand by my assertion that the proper relationship of those latter two is that of admiring supporter to inspired creator rather than of overseer to field-hand. Rarely as I agree with the Macarthur Foundation about anything, we share the philosophy underlying the genius grants: that people who’ve done terrific things are entitled to be rewarded and recognized therefor, and that happily these are the same people most likely to do terrific things in the future–or, as it is written, the race may not be to the swift nor the victory to the strong but that’s the way to bet. And the likelihood that artists will produce is not magnified by making them complete reports about how productive they are.

    Arts philanthropies should certainly ask, if they fund the production of a play, whether the play got produced. But if they fund a playwright’s living expenses for a year they’re really not entitled to ask why that hasn’t produced a Pulitzer Prize winner. We have only to the look at some of the second-rate stuff churned out on commission to know that money-in art-out is simply a poor operational model for the arts.

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