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Aaron Dworkin, founder of the Sphinx Organization, welcomes attendees to the inaugural SphinxCon.

Over the weekend, I had the pleasure of attending the inaugural SphinxCon, a national conference focused on issues of diversity in the arts.

Founded by Aaron Dworkin’s Sphinx Organization and over a dozen national partners, the event featured speakers from across the country and beyond, each with a parcel of wisdom to offer. From successful artists and administrators to a Google exec, each was selected for his or her diversity-building prowess.

Aaron Dworkin, founder of the Sphinx Organization, welcomes attendees to the inaugural SphinxCon.

Aaron Dworkin, founder of the Sphinx Organization, welcomes attendees to the inaugural SphinxCon.

In my career as a grant writer, I have often found myself in the position of having to defend a nonprofit’s approach toward diversity (or lack thereof). Most foundations ask for demographic information in their application guidelines; some explicitly ask the applicant to detail a comprehensive strategy for improving diversity. For some of the organizations I’ve worked with, reaching diverse audiences is a true priority; for others, it is an afterthought that comes up a couple times a year, when applications are due.

In the context of the latter, the idea of diversity is completely dehumanized, reduced to numbers on a page. “Can we count John Doe as Asian? He has a Chinese grandmother, doesn’t he?” “We really need to find a black person to serve on our board. Asians are better than nothing, but the foundations really want to see African Americans.” Perhaps more than anything else, SphinxCon helped to put the humanity back into the dialogue around diversity in the arts — a dialogue that, paradoxically, often involves a group of white people talking about funding.

Truth about diversity in the fine arts

Paul Freeman recently retired from his post with the Chicago Sinfonietta after 24 years. "According to a survey by the Juilliard School," said Freeman, "We are the only orchestra in the U.S. to have diversity in its mission statement."

Paul Freeman recently retired from his post with the Chicago Sinfonietta after 24 years. “According to a survey by the Juilliard School,” said Freeman, “We are the only orchestra in the U.S. to have diversity in its mission statement.”

The most compelling parts of SphinxCon were the true stories of people who have cultivated intentionally inclusive artistic practices. Jim Hirsch of the Chicago Sinfonietta related the story of its founding artistic director, Paul Freeman, who was the first black conductor to appear at over 50 of the world’s great orchestra halls. Drawing on his experiences, Maestro Freeman established the Sinfonietta with a mission to remove participation barriers that limit artists of color. The Sinfonietta is now known as one of the most diverse ensembles in the world. Aaron Dworkin carries on his legacy with the Sphinx Organization, which provides rigorous training programs and performance opportunities to young black and Latino classical musicians.

In his opening address, Aaron Dworkin highlighted some staggering statistics about minorities in the field of orchestral music. One that really floored me was this:

Among works by North American composers performed each year, the percentage written by composers of color is statistically insignificant.

In calculating the percentage, North American Composers were specified, because of the dominance of European composers in classical music. Yet, even when limiting the pool this way, minority composers are so inadequately represented that the number of times their works are played each year may as well be “0” in the eyes of a statistician.

After they refused to let Marian Anderson perform at Constitution Hall, Eleanor Roosevelt resigned from the Daughters of the American Revolution and invited Marian to perform at the Lincoln Memorial.

After they refused to let Marian Anderson perform at Constitution Hall, Eleanor Roosevelt resigned from the Daughters of the American Revolution and invited Marian to perform at the Lincoln Memorial.

Over the course of the weekend, I heard many inspiring stories of minority dancers, singers, conductors and musicians who historically defied such odds and made names for themselves as successful fine artists. It feels good to hear stories like this, and to think about how far we’ve come since celebrated African American contralto Marian Anderson was denied permission to sing at Constitution Hall, or Janet Collins brokenheartedly refused a position with the Ballet Russe after being told she’d have to dance in white face.

But statistics like the one above remind us that we have a long way to go. African Americans still make up less than 3% of orchestral musicians in America; those who do enjoy successful careers are mistaken repeatedly for singers, as described by African American musicians Anthony McGill (clarinet, Metropolitan Opera) and Kelly Hall-Thompkins (violin, Mark O’Connor String Quartet) in an  interview with  WQXR New York’s Terrence McKnight.  Ballerina Misty Copeland has recently risen to fame, not solely for her tremendous talent, but because she is the first African American soloist for the prestigious American Ballet Theatre in twenty years.

When the people on the stage mirror the people on the streets, audiences will come

The United States is changing, and demographers estimate that by mid-century, non-whites will make up the majority of our country’s population. Some researchers and scholars estimate that the change in demographic makeup will happen much sooner; recent census data shows that the majority of babies born today are children of color.

African Americans are not the only group underrepresented in the fine arts — Latinos, Native Americans, Arabs, South Asians, East Asians and many others are often left out of the picture. During SphinxCon, Maria López De León of the National Association of Latino Arts and Culture made a plea to those in the room: “When you see us as a community, you will embrace us. What is the fear?”

In ten or twenty years, the predominantly white organizations that are currently viewed as the quintessential authorities on their art forms may be making a similar plea. As more than one speaker emphasized this weekend, successful organizations are those that look, feel and sound like the communities they serve. Concert halls, opera houses and art galleries are particularly intimidating places when one doesn’t fit the mold. With lower ticket prices, more laid back dress codes and attempts to integrate social media into performances, that mold is slowly changing. But it does not seem to be keeping pace with America’s rapidly changing demographics, and as a result, some of those “quintessential” organizations are floundering.

Denyce Graves sings the role of Margaret Garner during the opera's premiere tour.

Denyce Graves sings the role of Margaret Garner during the opera’s premiere tour.

Others, however, have the right idea. Rather than cling to the eerily eugenic idea of preserving the “purity” of classical art forms, they create programs and works that authentically involve artists of color, and speak to the heritages of our country’s growing non-white populations. A model example highlighted at SphinxCon was the commissioning partnership between the opera companies of Detroit, Cincinnati and Philadelphia that resulted in Margaret Garner, an opera based on the heartbreaking story of a fugitive slave in pre-Civil War America. With a libretto by Toni Morrison and a racially diverse creative team, Margaret Garner set records for opera attendance in Cincinnati, sold out in Philadelphia, and played to unusually large and diverse crowds in Detroit.

Similarly, Rackham Symphony Choir presents an annual production called Too Hot to Handel: The Jazz-Gospel Messiah each year at the Detroit Opera House. This energetic and uplifting piece is a modern-day take on Handel’s baroque-era masterpiece, The Messiah. Blurring the lines between jazz, gospel, pop and classical music, it has returned due to popular demand since its premiere in 2001. With world-renowned African American soloists, a Filipina-American conductor, and an orchestra comprised of classical musicians and Detroit’s finest jazz talent, Too Hot To Handel is one of the most authentic artistic representations of a community that I have seen. Everyone can find something to love, and each year diverse audience members sing, dance and cheer together. In a city that still reels from its history of racial mistrust, violence and segregation, the joyful spirit of the event contributes to the process of racial healing in its own small, but significant, way.

The elusive “how” of building diversity

Rackham Symphony Choir unites the best of Detroit's jazz, gospel, and classical music scenes in its yearly production of "Too Hot to Handel - The Jazz Gospel Messiah."

Rackham Choir unites Detroit’s jazz, gospel, and classical music scenes in its yearly production of “Too Hot to Handel – The Jazz Gospel Messiah.”

As stated by almost every speaker at SphinxCon, there is no easy or obvious path to improving diversity in the arts. All we can do is stay humble and openminded, and learn from our successes and mistakes. But how can we learn from them if we don’t share them?

This was one of the questions that gave rise to SphinxCon, and the conversation sparked by the event represents an unprecedented learning opportunity for all of us.

Presenters spoke to the importance of multicultural programming, collaborations, and leadership. Some organizations have been successful at achieving the first two, but not the third. Periodically highlighting the work of an artist of color does not automatically transform an organization’s demographic makeup. Experience suggests that minority artists and leaders are precursors to audience diversity; yet there is no definitive strategy for improving minority representation in the upper echelons of arts organizations.

Aaron Dworkin raised the thought-provoking idea of formalizing diversity policies, both within single organizations and across the sector. In support of this idea, he spoke of the National Football League’s Rooney Rule, which requires NFL teams to interview minority candidates for head coaching and senior management jobs. Established in 2003, the Rooney Rule requires nothing more than an interview with one minority candidate for each pertinent position. Violators of the rule are subject to hefty fines.

Since the Rooney Rule was put in place, the percentage of high-level positions held by people of color in the NFL has jumped from a mere 6% up to 22%, in a matter of less than ten years. In contrast, noted Dworkin, the number of minority orchestra administrators increased by less than one percent, constituting less than 2% of those in the field today.

Could a policy like the Rooney Rule be effective in the arts?

It wouldn’t be as easy to track, in the absence of a governing authority to oversee compliance. Nevertheless, the possibilities are intriguing. What if arts organizations publicly pledged to try such a policy for a period of time, even just on the honor system? Board members could take responsibility for compliance, and organizations could use a buddy system to monitor progress and support each other in developing more inclusive hiring practices. There would, of course, be the inevitable kinks; but if the results were even a quarter as impressive as the NFL’s, the sector would be a much more inclusive one.

We could call such a policy the “Dworkin Rule.” Given Aaron Dworkin’s beloved status, I don’t think anyone who was in the room this past weekend would dare violate it! To me, this was one of the most unique, out-of-the-box ideas raised at SphinxCon. It is no wonder that it came out of the conference’s innovative namesake organization.

The inaugural SphinxCon came to a close on Sunday. Looking forward to next year's conference!

The inaugural SphinxCon came to a close on Sunday. Looking forward to next year!

Thank you, Sphinx!

This weekend in Detroit, I heard dozens of ideas and opinions. Snippets of speeches and video clips continue to whirl around in my head. As I slowly process them, deciding which ones to carry with me and which to leave behind, I am glad that I heard them all. As Monica O’Connell of the Center for Black Music Research said in her presentation: “A conference of this type and scope is long overdue.”

During his closing statements, Aaron Dworkin had us each send ourselves an email or text message, containing only the word “ACT.” This was to remind to us, after we travelled home and settled back into our routines, of everything we learned at SphinxCon. He urged us to ask ourselves, again and again: “Am I being silent about something that matters?”

I think these are words worth revisiting — ideally, every day.

As debate swirls about how to approach the “fiscal cliff”, the charitable giving tax deduction is at stake.

As the year-end draws near, the U.S. tax code is under the microscope, and the country anxiously awaits a decision on how elected officials will deal with the so-called “fiscal cliff.” Deductions for charitable contributions are among current tax policies under scrutiny. This has understandably generated quite a buzz among nonprofit administrators, who fear the potentially devastating impact that eliminating charitable deductions could have on their organizations.

As a fundraising professional, my Twitter feed and Facebook page have been filled with pleas from my colleagues to sign petitions, call legislators and otherwise vocally oppose changes to the charitable giving tax deduction.  As I sat down to do my due diligence and write to my representatives, I realized that I actually understood very little about the debate. Recognizing the position of bias I’m in, I set out to enlighten myself about the pros and cons of the charitable giving deduction as it stands.

With a little research, I learned about the basic arguments for and against the deduction:

Arguments to keep the deduction as-is

  • Simply put, the charitable giving deduction incentivizes wealthy individuals to donate large sums of money to nonprofit organizations.
  • Although some would call the deduction a “loophole” for wealthy Americans, the charitable giving deduction is of benefit to society. It is one of few things that can theoretically be construed as a win-win for the wealthy and the community as a whole.
  • Money donated to nonprofits as a result of the deduction fuels the nonprofit sector as an important creator of jobs in our country. Unlike many government grants, charitable contributions often provide unrestricted operating funds, which can be used to support the staff positions needed to run effective programs.
  • The charitable tax deduction allows individuals to decide exactly what is done with their public interest dollars. Donors can see the direct impact of their contributions, a great motivator for those who are suspicious of government spending.
  • The charitable tax deduction provides impetus for the nation’s wealthiest individuals to learn the needs of their communities. They must engage in conversations with those who are on the “front lines” of combatting issues such as poverty, violence, homelessness and others, in order to determine where their money will be best spent. The realizations they take away from these conversations fuel a greater involvement in social service.

Arguments to eliminate or cap the deduction

  • Congress’ Joint Committee on Taxation estimates that the government will lose roughly $237 billion to the charitable giving deduction from 2009 to 2013. In comparison, a study by the United Way found that a cap on charitable giving deductions could lead to a loss of $2.9 to $5.6 billion each year. The loss in tax revenues if the deduction is maintained is much greater than the potential loss to nonprofits if it is changed.
  • With the future of many of our nation’s grant-making agencies in question, siphoning off $237 billion from tax revenues could feasibly put an end to the government programs individuals and organizations have come to rely on.

    Senator Max Baucus (D-MN), chair of the Senate Committee on Finance, argues that charitable giving need not be motivated by cash incentives.

  • For the nonprofit sector, the real impact of a cap on charitable deductions is unknown. Research studies vary widely, as is often the case with studies about politicized issues. For example, the United Way published results of a poll that indicated “The vast majority of Americans (79%) believe reducing or eliminating the charitable tax deduction would have a negative impact on charities and the people they serve.” Yet the Indiana University Center on Philanthropy estimates that a cap on deductions would have little effect on overall charitable giving – a decrease of about 0.4 to 1.3 percent.
  • Some opponents of the deduction argue that high-end donors tend to make tax-deductible contributions to the arts and higher education. While many of us would counter with ample evidence that the arts and higher education are essential to society, there are some compelling examples of donors who abuse the deduction (discussed here).
  • The charitable giving deduction does not benefit all tax payers – only those who itemize their deductions. Paraphrasing Sen. Max Baucus (D-MN), Suzanne Perry of The Chronicle of Philanthropy writes: Most Americans now do not get any tax benefits for their donations because they don’t itemize their deductions and some charities get bigger subsidies than others because they attract more high-income donors, who get the biggest tax breaks.

Admittedly, eliminating the deduction would make my job harder. The charitable giving deduction is an invaluable resource in a fundraiser’s toolkit – so compelling, in fact, that many development professionals consciously use it to lure new donors. And I do not mean to make my field sound disingenuous – the deduction is seen as something of mutual benefit, a no-brainer for both nonprofits and their high-end donors.

But if I put my self-interest aside, I honestly feel rather torn about the debate. As my profession would suggest, I am a firm believer in the critical importance of nonprofits, and the role they play in improving our quality of life. That said, I also believe that government-funded programs are an essential safety net – not only for the American public, but also for nonprofit organizations.  The Department of Health and Human Services, the National Endowment for the Arts, the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the Institute of Museum and Library Services: these grant-making agencies have helped sustain thousands of worthy nonprofits for years. And, self-interest-wise, they have provided many opportunities for grant writers to earn a living.

Warren Buffet, billionaire and noted philanthropist, has said that a cap on deductions would not effect his charitable giving.

The necessity of these federal agencies has been called into question recently by conservative legislators, and those of us who work in the nonprofit sector have reacted with outrage. Yet we have reacted with similar outrage to the idea of eliminating the charitable giving deduction, a move which would generate new revenue to support grant-making agencies. Does one take away from the other? By providing large deductions to the nation’s wealthiest donors, are we condemning federal grant-making agencies to a slow death?

In the end, whether or not you choose to support the elimination of the charitable tax deduction comes down to a personal question: how much do you trust our government to spend our money wisely? Who do you feel will best look out for the interests of our communities – the government, or nonprofit organizations?

This is the conundrum I’m struggling with. I’m still not sure where I fall on the issue. I do believe in the importance of government grant-making and social programs, and in the need to address the budget deficit with new revenues. That said, as long as the defense budget accounts for a high percentage of American tax dollars, I’d rather see my wealthy neighbors’ money go to nonprofit organizations.

Can nonprofit professionals be true supporters of government grant-making agencies, and still call for the maintenance of the status quo regarding the charitable tax deduction?