Making a Difference Online and Off

Posted by Marc Vogl On May - 4 - 2012

Marc Vogl

There are several particularly interesting things about The Awesome Foundation.

First, it’s not a Foundation. It’s 30+ self-organized chapters around the world of individuals kicking in $100/month to get behind ideas they think are cool.

Second, the grants that Awesome Foundation recipients get are $1000.

And for all the variety to be found in the funded  projects a common denominator is that $1000 made a difference.  In other words, a principle of the Awesome Foundation’s philanthropy (as decentralized and informal as it is) is that proposals are ‘right-sized’ if they can make the case that $1000 will tip the project into being successful.

As a former arts program officer at a major foundation I think that’s beautiful and also a simple concept to hang on to as one contemplates increasingly complex (and confusing) methodologies for understanding the impact the arts make.

The topic is definitely hot, and there has been really interesting work from those seeking to measure arts’ intrinsic impact  This includes the work from Theatre Bay Area  and others adding to the catalog of studies on arts’ instrumental impact.

The advent of social media, and sophisticated tools for measuring what people do with it has only added to the menu of things we can count and track and interpret.  As a field grounded in content generation (which I admit is a pretty sterile way to characterize the arts) it’s been thrilling to have new ways of following the journey of a creative work online and across digital platforms.

At BAVC, we want stories that are created and distributed online to effect meaningful change offline. That’s why we work with media makers and producers to engage new media to extend and deepen the impact of their work.

However, as we all know, assessing whether this happens, and to what degree is easier said than done. And the temptation to find proxies in the overflowing cabinet of hi-tech impact measuring tools is great.

But now that we can see how many followers an artist has on Twitter, or how many times a video has been viewed, what does that really mean?  Even the more precise instruments that can reveal not just how many people watched something but where they are, who they are, how they found out about the media and with whom they shared their experience requires the rigorous follow up questions to fill in context before we can assert that a story made a difference, or at least how much of a difference it made.

We know that gathering data about a story’s presence online and across social media is a crucial piece of the impact puzzle alongside qualitative research, expert opinion and anecdotal evidence. But after all the watching and clicking and all the data analysis, what ultimately matters is that lives are transformed.

The danger here is well articulated by Jen Schradie—a digital activist, scholar and former BAVC instructor—who recently suggested that we’re living in a moment when many subscribe to the “utopian belief we can change the world by watching and clicking.”

Just as we at BAVC understand that change in the world occurs not just by watching and clicking, but by engaging and doing it’s imperative that conversations about the impact the arts have (especially when those are surrogate conversations for whether and to what extent to fund the arts) take a page out of the Awesome Foundation’s grantmaking book.

Of course the arts make an impact – there wouldn’t be civilizations without it (and it would be much harder to fall in love) – so the salient question is not whether the arts have an impact but in each instance what impact can an experience making, sharing, enjoying or being edified or exasperated by art have.

I don’t think the Awesome Foundation folks believe that a $1000 contribution in and of itself will herald world peace but it can add enough gas to a creative engine to make something happen – sometimes something awesome. And if we can hold our assessment of the arts to the same standard: that we don’t expect instant revolution but that we do expect something to happen I think we’ll be on our way to constructive conversations informed by new methods of assessment, about what the arts can really do and what support they need, in each instance, to make an impact.

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