Over the past month or so there has been a lot of talk (online and off) about competitions like Chase Community Giving. I missed my chance to add my voice on the 2AM Theatre blog a few weeks ago because I go to sleep too early but last night’s tweet from Lincoln Center regarding American Express’ Members Project brought a lot of my feelings back to the surface.
While I could use this space to talk about how no company, including arts organizations, should allow anyone to tweet for them without implementing social media guidelines (like “don’t bash the competition”), I’ll save that for next week. Right now I want to talk about whether all this focus on public competitions is a good thing for arts funding. My knee-jerk reaction to the Chase program is no. I’ve always disliked popularity contests and I don’t think that continuously asking for votes is the way to build the relationships our organizations need in order to sustain once the spotlight of Chase moves on. It is superficial and cheap and has the potential to wear thin on our constituents (especially with Chase where you needed to keep the votes coming in throughout the run of the contest).
I can completely see why it makes sense to the companies running the competitions. Chase would never have received anywhere near the same amount of exposure had they simply sponsored 200 events or hand-picked 200 grant recipients. Every time an organization asked for a vote, there was Chase’s logo and the blue hand. In fact, I often had to look twice to figure out which organization was asking for my vote, but I always knew it was Chase.
Then came the ill-advised Lincoln Center tweet. This turned attention on the American Express Members Project. Perhaps I shouldn’t blame AmEx for the misguided Lincoln Center communication, but I have a serious problem with funding mechanisms that pit one organization against another in this public fashion.
While discussing this issue on Twitter earlier today, Aaron Andersen pointed me to his post about the psychological underpinnings for the way we respond to these situations. Aaron writes about how, once a company was officially in the top 200, the situation changed from “Chase’s money that we might win” to “our money to lose.” The trick with the AmEx contest (and why I think the Lincoln Center tweeter said what they did) is that all the organizations chosen to be in the running automatically had “money to lose.” The us-against-them idea is inherent. There isn’t even a way to play the system by working together as the storefront theatres in Chicago did with Chase. Cooperation gets you nowhere with the AmEx Members Project.
I worry that a continuation and/or expansion of this type of competition is tailor-made to erode the progress our industry has seen over these past two, very difficult, years. We’ve learned to cooperate and collaborate out of necessity and the call from our foundation grantors that we need to work together more. Corporate money has all but disappeared from our income statements as corporate philanthropy departments are shuttered and sponsorships have dried up. Will we sabotage our partnerships with our sister companies (and our foundation funding) for the bright sparkle of these high-profile contests? Is there a way for corporations to get the ROI they are looking for on their philanthropic endeavors without making us compete for “friends” and eye each other’s tactics suspiciously? Am I naive to think that in a time when reality TV reigns and everyone is looking for a way to let the audience feel they are part of the process we could possibly hope that corporations would look seriously at a non-profit’s financial and organizational stability and/or programmatic strength when making funding decisions?
Let me know your thoughts.