When Philanthropy Goes Wrong

Michael Zwiebach on February 20, 2012

As difficult as the last few years have been for arts organizations and the donors and foundations that support them, you constantly hear the refrain that “soon we’ll be back on track.” Donations will start flowing as they have in the past, you’re assured, and your favorite arts organizations will all be “sustainable” and running without deficits. Even if that were likely, however, arts funding would still need a radical rethink.

Just last Friday, the Charleston Post and Courier reported that its city’s biggest ballet company has had seven board members resign, one of them complaining of poor “financial decisions, priorities, and internal financial controls” as reasons for his defection. Opera Boston shut down entirely because its major donor pulled out. And some organizations have discovered that managing donor relationships affects artistic decisions. Metropolitan Opera patron Alberto Vilar only wanted to fund operas produced to his traditionalist taste, for example.

In one of the latest versions of this story, the Miami City Ballet board negotiated the departure of founding director Edward Villella — in part, reports the Miami Herald, because Villella wouldn’t make nice with donors:

“Keeping donors happy is not [Villella’s] strong point,” Esserman said. “We’ve lost some big donors. Some of the big donors [on the board] want him to go. ... The donors want special attention and to have someone pat them on the back. Edward isn’t always capable of that.”

What’s going on here? What about the altruism that is supposed to motivate philanthropy? What happens to an organization when it starts to let donor dollars affect artistic integrity?

One thing that’s clearly happening is “donor fatigue,” the situation in which past donors are frustrated by repeated calls to action and become unresponsive. As several charity officers have pointed out, a better term might be “belief fatigue” — “I don’t believe that, if I give money to your organization, things will get better.” So why give?

Some organizations have discovered that managing donor relationships affects artistic decisions.

Think of the problems that large classical music organizations, like opera companies and symphony orchestras, find themselves in now. They have a cost squeeze: Live performance is expensive, and most revenue streams are finite (only so many seats in an auditorium to sell). For a long time, increasing costs were borne by increasing donations. But now, at least in classical music, the audience has shrunk ... and the donor base with it. So the problem of deficits becomes structural instead of temporary. And that in turn creates donor fatigue.

Another problem is that, in our still relatively wealthy society, we have a large number of artists active in a wide variety of disciplines, and many arts organizations were founded to showcase their work. They chase those fewer patrons, most of whom cluster around big-budget organizations, who confer on them the most social glamour and prestige. Smaller organizations are left often with only a few major donors who mean the difference between life and death. The courting of prime prospects, or the desire to fill more seats, affects the artistic side in all kinds of negative ways, making bold artistic programming much more difficult.

If the arts belong to all of us, then so does the obligation to fund them publically.

The Miami City Ballet should be beyond all this. The company has thrived over 25 years of existence and is internationally recognized, a reputation that was reconfirmed in its recent triumphant tour to France. It’s a major attraction for tourists and a cultural centerpiece to the city. It should belong to all Miamians and yet, in reality, it is captive to what its major donors are willing to support.

Because America won’t give substantial public support to its arts organizations and help assure them of a sustainable future, we are condemned to watch these private dramas unfold in our public arenas over and over again. And that’s not right. We can’t ask great artists to lead and to take chances, and to engage in expensive outreach programs that benefit our children, buoyed only by the hope of a generous patron’s bailout to sustain them in case of a failure or of circumstances beyond their control.

Surely the road to unlocking the public purse is going to be long and filled with the kind of partisan rancor that splits the rest of our political discourse. Yet if we shy away from that battle, we’ll be condemning more arts presenters to a ghostly shadow existence, or implicitly asking them not to fulfill their mission merely in an effort to fill seats. As for our philanthropists, they have supported the ailing system for a long time, but if the arts belong to all of us, then so does the obligation to fund them publically.