The Giving Pledge: A Start to Engage Tech Philanthropy

To understand why arts organizations have struggled to capture funds from tech billionaires, arts managers and development professionals would do well to recognize what philanthropic sectors they are losing these dollars to, and why.  Armed with these insights, arts professionals can then adjust their strategies to better appeal to this new and growing donor segment.

A majority of tech wealth is spent on healthcare, development in third world countries, and environmental initiatives.  These are certainly noble causes, and in a world of limited contributed funds certainly worth prioritization, but the gap in funding is significant.  Using The Giving Pledge as an example, the difference in giving by sector is especially stark.

The Giving Pledge is one of the first major gains in philanthropic giving since the age of the robber barons.  It plays on all of the same psychologies of legacy, competition, and impact.  Pioneered by Bill and Melinda Gates and Warren Buffet, billionaires are “invited to commit to giving more than half of their wealth to philanthropy or charitable causes during their lifetime or in their will.”  Of the 127 current pledge members, 24 made their money in the technology and innovation sector, and none of them have made a pledge to the arts.

Understanding the culture of The Giving Pledge requires recognizing that the attitude is largely dictated by founder Bill Gates himself.  Bill Gates has very publicly espoused his belief in regards to arts giving.  When comparing philanthropy in healthcare to arts philanthropy, he deems arts spending as the morale equivalent of blinding museum visitors as opposed to curing illnesses that cause blindness, among a wide range of other outrageous claims.  It is understandable that a new technology “Pledger” would not want to contradict one of the original leaders of the innovation sector.

Returning to the psychologies of legacy, competition, and impact mentioned earlier, while they are all present in today’s philanthropic behaviors, they are approached with a new angle.  The equation of 1 million donated = 1 million vaccinations = 1 million lives saved is a much easier legacy to understand than the impact of visiting a museum.  The result is neatly quantified.  But what does 1 million donated to an arts organization mean?  It all comes back to data collection, and specifically intrinsic impact.  The ability to quantify the transformative experiences that cultural institutions provide their patrons with will be tipping point.  Arts managers must recognize that this is the language these donors will understand.

  Participants at the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History's MuseumCamp 2014 pose for a photo.

Participants at the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History's MuseumCamp 2014 pose for a photo.

One example of an organization that has capitalized on the concept of “intrinsic impact” is the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History’s MuseumCamp.  MuseumCamp is designed to help “campers” understand and analyze evaluations of social impact.  Through the camp, attendees focus on developing meaningful interactions for audience engagement, or “activation”, as they refer to it.  Great conversations and worthwhile interactions are tracked through surveys, Facebook tools, and a continuous feedback loop.  Participants address issues as they arise, and someone is always capturing that information through the necessary channels, be it a follow-up survey or interactive collection method.  The takeaway from this being that “any information retained can be translated and used for future work”.  The continuous evaluation system constantly captures new data points, meaning Santa Cruz is accustomed to quantifying and analyzing their program in a data driven way.  These data points lend powerful support to successful programs, like MuseumCamp, in the following years, and likely when they approach tech philanthropists.

Intrinsic impact data is the key to making one’s case to a technology donor.  They want results, and this approach helps quantify an organization’s worth in a way that makes sense for both sides.  Arts organizations are able to convey the artistic value of their mission and are no longer relegated to using financial impact data alone.  Technologists, on the other hand, are given a road map to how the programs they support will effect genuine change in the community.

Correction:  A previous version of this article misattributed a quote to Bill Gates, the article has been updated to appropriately reflect his remarks.