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Wednesday, February 26, 2020

Should arts groups and nonprofits set the pace for equity?

This new report from Boston studies how nonprofits can become “anchor institutions,” pacesetters for community goals. The idea is borrowed from eds and meds, large institutions who can align with community goals (job opportunities, equity, voices for the voiceless, real estate, purchasing policies) and get businesses to come along. How about applying this to the arts?

This anchor strategy is spreading across the nation and is almost certain to show up soon in Seattle, as the debate over arts groups paying overtime foretells. The study shows that not a lot of progress has been made for this idea, and that there are inherent limitations to what hard-pressed, mission-focused arts groups can realistically do. Here’s one warning from the report:

“Indeed, one challenge facing nonprofits—in arts, universities, and hospitals alike—is that while nonprofits are supposed to serve the entire community, donors and boards of trustees typically are more elite. It is therefore not surprising that, absent an explicit equity focus, nonprofit institutions in their actions will often reflect the groups that fund and govern them. Too often, the result can be to deepen resident displacement and gentrification, rather than ameliorate it.”

Image by Tom und Nicki Löschner from Pixabay

David Brewster
David Brewster, a founding member of Post Alley, has a long career in publishing, having founded Seattle Weekly, Sasquatch Books, and Crosscut.com. His civic ventures have been Town Hall Seattle and FolioSeattle.

1 COMMENT

  1. I come late to this piece, David, but it rings a bell for me. As a seasoned (read: old) CEO of cultural nonprofit organizations I can assure you that while most boards are, by and large, selected for their prominence, wealth, and influence (thanks to the American system of funding the arts) their professional leaders and staff tend to be progressive, committed to diversity, access, and inclusion, and increasingly alert to the pernicious effects of privilege, even in themselves. Being a nonprofit executive is a professional pursuit with its own fabric of ethical constraints and best practices, not unlike those that govern the behavior of lawyers and doctors. Most of us try hard (and not always successfully, at least in my experience) to model good civic behavior for our board members and to lead them toward the light. It should be embraced as one of our fundamental leadership obligations. I mean, how can we save the world if we can’t first convert those closest to us?

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