Putting Data to Work for Arts Nonprofits

How the for-profit sector and the nonprofit arts sector treat data differently, and recent Vogl Consulting projects that underscore the value of data to the arts

BY KELLY VARIAN

 
Data Blog 3.png
 

Over the last five years, my professional life has centered on the arts and data.

At first separately, working at a growth strategy consulting firm providing research and data analysis to Fortune 500 companies and performing with a modern dance company in my spare time. Then together, as the Communications and Development Specialist at Sustain Arts, a data platform developed at Harvard University that caters to the arts sector. Now, as an Associate Consultant at Vogl Consulting, I work alongside principal Marc Vogl on a variety of projects with local and national arts organizations, and I specialize in helping clients use data.

My experiences have taught me that the for-profit sector and the nonprofit arts sector treat data differently.

Consulting in the for-profit sector, using data was always a given. I collected and analyzed information to determine the market potential for military drone technology in the then emerging commercial drone sector (huge!) and to determine how many data centers in the U.S. have HVAC systems vulnerable to hackers (too many!). It was an unexpected job, especially for an Art History and Dance graduate, but I learned a lot about using data: how to listen carefully to a client's priorities and concerns, ask the right questions, target the correct data, and apply it to get meaningful answers. 

And while data is as relevant to the nonprofit arts sector as it is to the for-profit corporate sector, using it is not a given in our field. To many, art and data appear antithetical. Why? I think there are many explanations.

First, what we do in the arts can be hard to quantify.

How do you place a numeric value on a heart-stopping exhibition? What measure of central tendency should you use to determine the typical experience of an art student in California's public schools?

Second, we’re overburdened and under-resourced.

Too many artists and cultural organizations lack the time, resources, and training to collect (or buy) data and apply it to their work. “Use data” often falls to the bottom of a long to-do list.

Third, data isn’t typically part of our culture.

Even if we had loads of extra time and money in the nonprofit arts sector (can you imagine?), we still might not be inclined to use data. Data literacy is not a job requirement at many cultural institutions and our dominant data resources have a reputation of being reporting burdens rather than helpful tools.

These are all logical explanations, and as a dancer and arts administrator, I get it. You didn’t pursue a career in the arts for the spreadsheets. But as a consultant and data analyst, I urge clients to embrace data.

I try to convey that applying quantitative and qualitative information to your work in a structured way can help you answer important questions, make more informed decisions, and tell your story better. And in an increasingly data-driven world, it seems shortsighted to do anything else.

 A few recent Vogl Consulting projects have made the value of data especially apparent.

We used data to help an art museum assess how well their audience reflects the diversity of their region.

The critical questions “Who are we serving? Who are we not serving?” often arise early in the strategic planning process. Clients typically have a sense of the answers; they see who comes through their doors, attends classes, or fills theater seats. Yet reviewing objective data, rather than merely speculating, takes the conversation to the next level by getting decision-makers on the same page, forcing them to confront realities, and creating a baseline from which to set goals and measure change. In a recent strategic planning project with an art museum, we gathered and compared demographic data on museum members and local residents to determine how well the museum’s audience reflects the diversity of their region in terms of race, income, and education level. This exercise, combined with nuanced community input, had a profound influence on the organization's priorities moving forward.

We used data to help a contemporary performance artist test the profitability of a new service.

An artist came to Vogl Consulting with an innovative idea to make live performance accessible to a broader audience. He’d identified a clear need and even tested a service, but he didn’t have a business plan to prove viability. To forecast expenses, income, and profit in various scenarios, we created a dynamic business-modeling tool.  We also built in metrics indicative of progress toward mission-related goals. Playing with the tool helped him understand what conditions would make his vision a sustainable and even profitable reality, and prepared him to make a strong case to external stakeholders that this was an idea worth getting behind.

We used data to make a dance company’s board of trustees more effective.

We recently worked with a dance company to help them better leverage the energy, knowledge, and networks that their board members provide. Instead of guessing about trustee satisfaction or how the board could be more productive, we asked for data and analyzed it. We created a 20-minute survey for trustees to provide candid, anonymous input and presented a synthesis of our findings at a daylong board retreat. This data supported trustees to have a fruitful conversation about the organization’s strategic priorities and the board’s role in advancing them.

We used data to help an LGBTQ arts organization identify the funders most likely to support their work.

Data can offer new answers to the perennial question, “Where can I find more funding?”. By using a national grant database and primary research, we helped a local LGBTQ arts organization identify the largest recent funders of Bay Area performing arts organizations and LGBTQ cultural organizations (without hours of ineffective Google searching). We then applied a weighted formula, tailored to meet the organization's needs and interests, to determine which of these funders would be a good match for them. For each attractive prospect, we provided some need-to-know facts like when to apply for a grant and how much money to request.

In all of these consulting engagements we built spreadsheets and crunched numbers, but at the end of the day, each project focused on answering important questions like:

What am I doing now? Is it effective? Sustainable? Equitable? Fun?

What opportunities, challenges, or trends should I be aware of?

How does my work compare to that of my peers and my role models?

All too rarely do we have an opportunity to reflect on how we work and explore alternatives. Applying data – whether to test a new business model, evaluate board effectiveness, research funding opportunities, or ask hard questions about who you are serving (and who you're not serving) - offers us a chance step off the hamster wheel of nonprofit arts work and see ourselves with fresh eyes.

Kelly Varian