Inside Philanthropy

A blog on philanthropy and nonprofit news and issues. A publication of Philanthropy Journal.

June 19, 2013

How startup culture is transforming philanthropy

Kelsey Campbell-Dollaghan

The target donor for the arts used to be an older, wealthy dude wearing an ascot. Today, it’s a young whippersnapper wearing a $300 flannel shirt, who doesn’t like classical music and who prefers street art over museums. As a recent (and controversial) long read in the East Bay Express points out, the donor base for arts and culture in San Francisco is rapidly changing – and more importantly, the ethos of philanthropic giving is changing with it:

“A lot of this is about the difference between consuming culture and supporting culture,' a startup-world refugee told me a few weeks ago: If Old Money is investing in season tickets to the symphony and writing checks to the Legion of Honor, New Money is buying ultra-limited-edition indie-rock LPs and contributing to art projects on IndieGoGo in exchange for early prints. And if the old conception of art and philanthropy was about, essentially, building a civilization – about funding institutions without expecting anything in return, simply because they present an inherent, sometimes ineffable, sometimes free market-defying value to society, present and future, because they help us understand ourselves and our world in a way that can occasionally transcend popular opinion – the new one is, for better or for worse, about voting with your dollars.”

The article, brilliantly titled The Bacon-Wrapped Economy, gets muddled in descriptions of how companies like Google choose to spend their money (on Smirnoff Ice and pig roasts, natch), but embedded within the cultural commentary is an interesting insight about how Kickstarter and startup culture in general are affecting charitable and philanthropic giving.

These days, donors are less likely to give to institutions than by-the-bootstraps-dreamers, and when they do give, they expect a well-documented return. That’s a 180 from the traditional model for donating to the arts, where a donor gives money with good faith that the theater or symphony will create something great with it. Susan Medak, the managing director of Berkeley Repertory Theatre, explains:

“A lot of those philanthropic dollars are now going to programs with measurable outcomes,” Medak said. “This shift toward a more transactional relationship in philanthropy, where you give something and expect to get something concrete back, has continued to escalate. The entrepreneurial infatuation we have nowand I don’t mean that in a loaded way – come with a notion that the things we’re investing in should have a potential to [make] returns. It’s antithetical to the kind of philanthropy that has built institutions in this country.” 

Medak goes on to term this behavior “impulse giving,” akin to the urge that makes you grab a pack of gum at the grocery store. In some ways, as author Ellen Cushing points out, philanthropy was unchanged since the time of the Medicis. Now, it’s being reformed to fit the needs of a new generation of wealthy donors. For institutions already hit hard by budget cuts, the change couldn’t come at a worse time.

This post first ran on Fast Company, which provides business media branding services. Kelsey Campbell-Dollaghan is a designer, illustrator, and cyclist based in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. Previously, she was the editor of Architizer.

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