Art & Social ChangeOf Love and Concrete

The Tyranny of Low Overhead – A Lover’s Perspective

By April 4, 2013 2 Comments

In last week’s post I explored a recent TED talk by Dan Pallotta, which seeks to re-imagine the non-profit sector. In his talk, Pallotta lays out five key structural and spiritual challenges to meaningful social change. This week I want to illustrate those challenges through my own experiences as I try to utilize art to create social change.

Challenge #1: Inability to provide competitive compensation.

(Translation: why should the best and brightest work for social change when they can go to Wall Street and cut a check for charity?)

Michael Owen, the creator and lead artist of the Baltimore Love Project, thought it would take him three months to paint the word “LOVE” on 20 walls across the sprawling metropolis of Baltimore. He was right — the cumulative time spent painting the word on 20 walls took more or less three months. Gaining permission, telling our story, securing funding, documenting our project and the change it has achieved took four years. And we intend to paint wall number 20 within the next four months (YEAH!). We and many other people completely underestimated how much work it takes to push society and to make meaningful change, even just painting the simple word love on the wall. We frequently underestimate the true value of meaningful change.

When we started out, we made a budget for three months work, including our compensation. Creating our project and experiencing the impact it has made has been a powerful experience for us. But a fulfilling experience does not sustain us. I think society wrongfully assumes that because creating art and social change makes people feel good, that should be sufficient compensation. It is not. If it is valuable to society, society should at least sustain and maybe even reward the change that is created.

Challenge # 2: Non-profits do development, not marketing.

(Translation: we’re encouraged to compete for funding from those who already care; not reach out to those who might, if only…)

We knew very little about putting art in public places when we began the Love Project. We knew even less about raising money to make it happen. We sought advice from a number of sources. I recall meeting with someone in non-profit development. She suggested that we visit the Walters Art Museum and see who’s names are listed on their supporter wall. She suggested that those are the people I should contact to fund a public art project. I realized that development was about fostering relationships with people who ALREADY value what you are doing. Non-profits are very comfortable with development. It is as though the pool of resources is already determined and infinitely deep, which by definition it can’t be. This is not a successful business model; new products can never be introduced.

Business must do marketing! A key part of any successful business is finding new customers, people who previously did not value the product or service being offered. As Pallotta points out, advertising is defined as overhead and not programmatic. It is not the action with tangible social change as a result so it is deemed inefficient use of funds for social change.

Challenge #3: Risk aversion to generating new sources of revenue for driving social change.

(Translation: funders look for a tangible output, rather than taking a risk on something that might fail … or grow.)

It’s a little early in our venture for me to assess the comfort of funders for risk taking to generate new sources of revenue. We have also been fortunate to generate our own revenue through merchandise sales. Merchandise revenue has provided our “risk capital” for new campaigns for marketing and products. I sense that even our wide pool of funders typically want to see paint on walls, not our efforts to capture new audiences and financial supporters. It will be curious to see who stands behind us as we grow internally.

Challenge #4: Punctuated time horizons for creating change.

(Translation: the desire to show what a difference we’re making undermines our long-term ability to make a difference.)

Art has the power to change an individual’s philosophy. Changing philosophy takes time. In another conversation in the early days of the project we were asked by a foundation in a semi-mocking tone how many kids would graduate high school as a result of our love murals. It was a reasonable question, what with their desire to improve educational opportunities in Baltimore. I was too timid to push back and ask what the time horizons were for the question. I know art can alter perspective, but I am not certain it could do so in a measurable way this year or next. It raises the question of what the expectations are for other organizations who work on education. Foundations certainly have requirements for yearly reports and often quarterly updates. But what happens to the organization if the yearly metric or the quarterly quota is not met? How realistic are the expectations?  My guess, based on the snide question from that foundation, is not all that realistic. Foundations can be as short-sighted as our financial markets. Social change takes time.

Challenge #5: A lack of social capital markets for operations.

(Translation: social change advocates have access to funding, not capital to grow — and the difference is crucial.)

Society loves tangible results. We want the name of the child we are supporting in Ghana. We want to see photos of children painting the walls. We want to know that our dollar mattered immediately. We want to pay for the program and not the growth of the program. The love project is in a critical stage. We are nearing the completion of our initial stated goal of 20 walls. As we contemplate what is next, we know that we need more money. Specifically, we need enough funding to sustain the operations side of our organization.

At the moment there is no easy source of funding for this operational cost. We do not have an IPO as an option. I see hope in things like GiveCorps, Crowdrise and, of course, Kickstarter, but those are far off from options like NASDAQ, the NYSE, and even your local bank. Funding options for scaling social change are scarce.

Creating social change by itself is difficult. Sustaining the efforts to create social change is made even more challenging by the limitations that currently exist in the non-profit landscape. In my next post, I’ll delve into some ways to shift the cultural landscape that creates those challenges.

IMAGE CREDIT. Scott Burkholder

Author Scott Burkholder

Scott Burkholder is executive director of the Baltimore Love Project, the largest self-initiated public art project Baltimore has ever seen. Scott grew up in Minnesota and came to Baltimore to attend Johns Hopkins University. He graduated from Hopkins with two engineering degrees. He believes art is powerful in its ability to show the world as it is, and more importantly, as it can be. He promotes art full time in Baltimore and is working to create a Social Venture Capital Firm that serves Baltimore's creative community.

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