When we partnered with Americans for the Arts to conduct an Arts & Economic Prosperity ™ customized economic impact study for Lee County , we were expecting to gain numbers—quantitative benchmarks against which we could eventually measure our progress. We did get numbers, and plenty of them, but the value of the data exceeded all of my expectations. Our community’s Arts & Economic Prosperity story is about funding and advocacy. But above and beyond that, it is about the new ways we found of connecting to one another within the nonprofit arts sector and nationally through the data collection process. It’s about how we learned an entirely new language that has allowed inroads into business and government through the analysis and report. Our community’s story is about rallying the many groups doing important work on the ground, and helping to bring us together through our shared goal of supporting the arts in Lee County. This report belongs to us all. That is why, despite our organization growing from 300 members to 1000, or turning around a deficit into a balanced budget, the customized Arts & Economic Prosperity report is still the piece I am most proud of in my tenure as Executive Director.
The Lee County Alliance for the Arts works hard to support itself, a truth supported by the fact that earned revenue accounts for more than 80 percent of our operating budget. For that reason, we carefully considered our decision to spend those dollars on an economic impact study. But there is no doubt in my mind that the return on investment has more than made up for it. Today, we are still reaping the benefits of our commitment. Before the study, we were not speaking the same language as our business and government leaders. With the economic impact findings, we are now able to prove, with hard numbers and data, that the arts community is a socio-economic driver and an important partner in the economic revitalization of Lee County. We, the nonprofit arts community, are part of the solution.
The results have been tangible and wide-ranging in our community. We shared our customized report with other arts organizations throughout the County, and those organizations were able to use the results to leverage grants from new funders and reaffirm commitments from existing funders. And last September, when our local government was considering completely eliminating the arts & culture line item in the city budget (along with other arts-friendly funding lines), the Alliance for the Arts, with support from all of our cultural leaders, presented the Arts & Economic Prosperity findings to the mayor and to the City Council. As a direct result, the arts line item was left unscathed. The power behind the report is in our work, but the report itself provides an extremely important tool: it speaks the language of elected officials, funders, and business leaders. It speaks to the fact that the arts are not an economic black hole, and the arts are not just an expense line. Instead, the arts provide a positive return on investment. Upon the study’s release, the feature story in our local newspaper led with the fact that the nonprofit arts sector generated 30% more economic impact in 2010 than spring training (baseball) in Lee County! This is no small feat in a community that has always considered baseball to be a major economic driver, with both the Red Sox & Twins training in Lee County. For us, this study proved that our arts industry creates jobs and gives back to state and local coffers. We are not only generating positive impact on the local economy, but also creating and beautifying a community that is a great place to live, work, and play. It’s something we can all understand, all appreciate, and all believe in, but the report puts it in the right terms to make real change at the highest levels.
The potential impacts of a customized Arts & Economic Prosperity study are far-reaching, and have helped us achieve any number of goals, including some that have taken me by surprise. First and foremost, I was excited by the ways in which the data collection process opened up new communication channels within our arts community. Nonprofits that had not collaborated in the past began to turn to each other, sharing their strengths and challenges, and this new sense of interconnectedness has led to deeply rooted collaborations lasting long after the study officially concluded. On the subject of connections, I have also found that the study has plugged me into a national conversation, introducing me to communities of similar sizes and compositions that are dealing with many of the same struggles that we face daily here in Fort Myers. The network across the country has taken me out of my element and allowed me to think strategically about how we can advocate for the arts more effectively.
In that vein, the study has also had an enormous impact on our advocacy efforts, both in terms of increasing funding and helping leaders in other sectors to engage with the power and importance of the arts in our community. By providing new ways of presenting our value, this study has even helped identify new funders and new partners, creating stronger relationships and stronger bonds across our community. In the beginning, all I thought I wanted was numbers and the visibility of talking about them. What I didn’t realize was that our community started talking the moment we began collecting data, and the meaningful dialogue it ignited—and that continues—is its own reward.
The numbers, too, have been invaluable at every level of my work—in advocacy, but also to respond to the requests I still receive to speak and present on the intersections of the arts and economic impact in my community. The final report for Lee County is sitting on my desk right now, always within easy reach. And although it is undoubtedly a sacrifice for us financially, the Lee County Alliance for the Arts, in partnership with the nonprofit arts community, is committed to updating our study every five years. To complete this project is to create a catapult for advocacy, a rallying cry for the arts in my community, and a valuable tool for starting new conversations. It is no magic bullet—we all have to do the work. But with this tool, I really do believe that we are making a difference, making inroads, and making the case for the arts.
Do you have a customized economic impact study for your community? The Americans for the Arts Research Services team is ready to help you make a difference in your community. To learn more, visit our Customized Economic Impact Study Service website here. For answers to any questions, or to request a draft contract for your study, please give us a call at 202-371-2830 or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.