Weaving and Data

Guest article by Jonathan VanderBrug, Arts Alliance Illinois

Context makes a difference. The circumstances around an organization, including overall sector trends, impact an organization’s work and should inform its evaluation and planning. Organizations make wiser decisions when they understand their context.

The word “context” comes from the Latin contexere, which means “to weave together” (as in “textile,” from texere). Like an artist weaving together the fibers and textiles of an intricate creation, context weaves together the forces surrounding and connected to an organization.

All organizations are intricately woven into their contexts, and arts and cultural nonprofits are no exception. Whether a regional symphony, storefront theatre, or local ethnic museum, an arts and cultural nonprofit cannot fully know itself and succeed unless it understands its environment, including the nonprofit arts and cultural sector as a whole.

Data plays an indispensable role in this understanding. When gathered with integrity and over a meaningful stretch of time, data enables arts and cultural nonprofits to assess their impact in an ever-changing world and in relation to peer organizations. They can establish baselines, measure growth by comparison, and set realistic yet challenging goals.

A variety of quality data sources exist. Of particular note, the National Center for Arts Research (NCAR) recently released its Fundraising Report. The report provides valuable data, including regional statistics, on the financial support of nonprofit arts and cultural organizations. It looks at growth in fundraising expenses, the extent of government support, contributed versus earned income, contributions by source (such as foundation grants and individual contributions), and other key fundraising indicators.

For example, the report shows that the average nonprofit arts and cultural organization in my region, metro Chicago, brought in $8.28 for every dollar spent on fundraising in 2014, a higher return than in 2011 ($7.43) but still below the national average ($9.42). Metro Chicago arts and cultural nonprofits can evaluate their own performance within this regional and national context, making comparisons that spur further inquiry and discussion about fundraising strategies and performance.

In addition to informing the efforts of individual organizations, the NCAR Fundraising Report serves as a useful tool for leaders, advocates, and policy makers working to strengthen the sector as a whole. Metro Chicago’s theatres, orchestras, galleries, dance studios, arts education groups, museums, and more are all knit together into a regional arts and cultural sector that, like other industries, needs promotion and support.

The NCAR report’s data on metro Chicago informs this support by providing a snapshot of the regional sector’s characteristics and trends. The report shows that metro Chicago’s arts and cultural nonprofits experienced the largest growth (26.2 percent, 2011-2014) in average fundraising expenses when compared to groups in New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Washington, DC. On the positive side, average unrestricted foundation support in metro Chicago grew by 17.4 percent in 2011-2014, the largest increase experienced in any of the large markets studied.

Through these and other findings, the report fosters key questions: Why are average fundraising expenses higher in metro Chicago than in other regions? What factors have influence? How can metro Chicago’s nonprofit arts and cultural sector build upon the strength of its foundation community? The entire sector benefits from evidence-based discussion of questions such as these.

Nonprofit arts and cultural organizations and their context are woven together in shared potential and shared challenges. The NCAR Fundraising Report provides relevant, timely data to help us clarify and wrestle with the pertinent fundraising questions in front of us.


Jonathan VanderBrug is the Policy & Research Director for Arts Alliance Illinois. In directing the Alliance's policy initiatives, Jonathan builds coalitions, manages advocacy campaigns, and analyzes the data needed to influence policy decisions at the local, state, and federal levels. He has over 15 years of diverse experience in policy and advocacy.