Using public funding to incent private sector contributions

Posted by Mr. Jeff A. Hawthorne, Jun 04, 2015 1 comment

I live in a community that clearly values the arts and creativity – arts participation in Portland and in Oregon is among the highest in the country according to the NEA. Even so, private philanthropy lags significantly behind the national average.

How can we convince more Oregonians to support the arts? Anytime we launch a new private sector initiative, we turn to our government partners first. (Perhaps that’s partially because our local arts agency, the Regional Arts & Culture Council, was a city bureau until 1995.) In any event, public-private partnerships have become the standard way of growing the Portland metro region’s arts community.

I realize that many people live in municipalities where public investments in the arts are scarce. Skeptical electeds and tea party mentalities can make public funding for the arts seem like a pipe dream, but even in these situations we have found some success raising funds from the public sector by focusing on private sector leverage and public benefit outcomes.

There are many forms of leverage, of course, including the fact that publicly funded arts organizations generate significant economic activity and tax revenue. And we all know that investments in the arts improve our quality of life, spur community development, and enhance our children’s education. But our government partners in the greater Portland region are particularly keen on experiencing the tangible, immediate gratification of helping get bold new ideas off the ground, and creating incentives for private investments to sustain the program over time. Time and again, our cities and counties have made small but essential contributions that help encourage others to open up their pocketbooks to help make Portland a more vibrant, creative, and equitable community.

  • In 2008 we invited our city and local counties to be the very first investors in our new arts integration program, The Right Brain Initiative – the argument being that our region needs a stronger workforce of creative, whole-brain thinkers. Now serving 25,000 students a year, Right Brain remains a solid 50-50 public-private partnership with public agencies and school districts investing $530,000/year toward the goal of improving student learning in all subjects through the arts.
  • Elected officials often say they want private donors to support the arts, so we asked them to help us create a matching challenge fund to directly leverage private sector contributions to our united arts fund, Work for Art. Since 2006, the City of Portland has contributed $200,000/year to incent workplace gifts and other private donations, and now several other local municipalities and private donors contribute to the matching challenge fund as well. Our annual campaign raises about $750,000/year thanks to and including these public incentives.
  • The state of Oregon provides a similar incentive through the Oregon Cultural Trust: any donor who gives up to $500 to a nonprofit arts and culture organization PLUS $500 to the state’s Cultural Trust receives a $500 tax credit (not a deduction, but a CREDIT) on their state income taxes.
  • The City of Portland has become so fond of public incentives for private investments that they baked the idea into our voter-approved Arts Education & Access Fund. This income tax of $35 per income-earning resident raises about $10 million year for arts specialists in public schools and arts access for nonprofit arts organizations. City code charges our agency to leverage taxpayer dollars by seeking funding from other sources to support these outcomes.

It’s not always easy to establish public-private partnerships like these, but we as local arts agencies and united arts funds are in a stronger position than most discipline-based arts organizations. Here are a few things you’ll probably need to get started:

  • A willing public partner. Local government agencies that already invest in the arts might be easier to pitch, but don’t underestimate public partners who have NOT yet invested in your work -- they may be encouraged by the idea of making a small investment that will leverage significant contributions from the private sector.
  • A good project and a strong case statement. Americans for the Arts has lots of great research you can use to show the economic impact and other benefits of arts-related investments. Be sure to talk about how your program connects with your city’s or county’s mission, and back it up with good research and measurable outcomes.
  • Strong advocates. Who are the business and civic leaders who can endorse your idea? Ask them to lobby elected officials on your behalf – especially if they can say that they too are investing in the project.
  • Follow-through. Your local government agency will need you to deliver on your promise of turning public investment into private sector support, so be sure that you have the proper fundraising plan and staff in place. Success will open the door for more partnership conversations in the future.

I know there are many other examples of strong and sustainable public-private partnerships across the country and would love to hear how they came about and what makes them work so well!

1 responses for Using public funding to incent private sector contributions


June 04, 2015 at 12:26 pm

Fascinating blog post Jeff. I have come to the conclusion that the private sector say one thing in order to quell dissent, and then do another thing in order to protect their interests.

Corporate foundations may participate in arts funding at a peripheral level, but that is not enough. The system has been broken by corporate interests who are profiting mightily from a system in a myriad of ways that produces exactly what they want.

Private interests want a citizenry educated well enough to consume products, take orders, solve corporate problems, do paperwork and maintain the machines without really considering the bigger picture. Do you really believe the corporate sector wants a citizenry with enough creative and critical thinking skills to figure out how big the pile of doo-doo is they are mired in?

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