Despite the giving spirit — and deep pockets — of young givers in tech, local cultural organizations struggle to garner a share.
It’s an overcast Sunday morning and most of Seattle is glued to the Seahawks game, but John Salvatier and Elizabeth Van Nostrand are waiting for members of the group they help run, Seattle Effective Altruists (EA), to arrive at Salvatier’s house in the Central District.
Salvatier, 30, who has thick black hair cut into a mohawk, pads around barefoot while eating a waffle. Van Nostrand, 31, sits on the couch and peers through wire-framed glasses at her laptop. Today is a “research” day; they’ll work in timed two-minute increments on a work sheet to figure out next year’s philanthropic goals.
Van Nostrand explained that Effective Altruism “is extremely quantitative. ‘How much money does it take them to save a life? Give to the one that saves the most.’ ”
Though millennials like Van Nostrand and Salvatier are a generosity-minded bunch, this data-driven approach has left a traditional beneficiary of charitable giving out in the cold: the arts.
Most Read Entertainment Stories
- Oscars 2019 poll: Our critic shares her predictions, what are yours?
- Now streaming: 'A Star Is Born,' 'Shoplifters,' 'Can You Ever Forgive Me?'
- The Academy is messing with its Oscars formula again. Is that a good thing? Our critic weighs in.
- If proven, Smollett allegations could be a 'career killer' VIEW
- 'Fighting With My Family' is a shaggily likable underdog wrestling tale WATCH
Cultural institutions, which have historically been high on the list of those with flush pockets, as well as smaller arts nonprofits, are straining to attract a new generation of donors that demands a metric for each dollar spent.
Many of the 175 members of Seattle EA — a local collective that is part of an international movement — work in tech. At the meeting are mostly male software engineers in their 20s and early 30s, many current or former employees of the big three: Amazon, Microsoft and Google. (With one exception — a 40-year-old woman who works in solar energy).
Central to EA’s philosophy is that charities specify exactly how money is being spent, which makes it attractive to technologists — as well as a perfect fit for the Kickstarter generation.
“Some find the quantifying of human life really disturbing,” Van Nostrand admitted, “and we’ve lost because of that.”
One local charity Van Nostrand donates to is Treehouse, a group that devotes attention to foster kids. “They gather a lot of data on what they do, and they change their behavior in response to that data,” she said. “That’s actually really rare.”
In 2014, she gave 12.5 percent of her salary to charity some of which Google matched; Salvatier gave over 17.5 percent of his $160,000 salary from his last job, at Amazon.
Such giving is common, even at the upper reaches of their industry: Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, 31, and his wife recently pledged to give away 99 percent of their Facebook shares to charity. But many of the charities favored by millennials tend to be in the social-justice category.
A recent study of millennial giving, “Next Gen Donors,” conducted by the Frey Chair for Family Foundations and Philanthropy program at the Johnson Center in Grand Rapids, Mich., and 21/64, a consulting group specializing in next generation philanthropy, showed that they favored education and basic-needs charities, and preferred animal welfare, environment, civil rights and activism. On the bottom of the list? Arts and culture.
The philanthropic generation gap
With this data-driven outlook, art and culture nonprofits have trouble competing with statistics about dying children saved or impoverished villages in Africa helped, finding it ever more difficult to tap into the city’s young wealth.
“They are not of the generation who will say, ‘I love you. I’m just going to give you $25,000 to your annual fund,’ ” said Seattle Symphony President and CEO Simon Woods. “I think that that’s when we have to do a better job at talking about the impact we make.”
Some organizations such as ArtsFund, a nonprofit that funded grants for 55 different arts organizations in 2014, have used crowdfunding to raise money.
The micro-grant philanthropic organization The Awesome Foundation uses a Kickstarteresque model and frequently distributes $1,000 monthly grants to artists. It is popular with tech employees, says Nathaniel James, 36, a philanthropy-innovation consultant who founded the Seattle chapter.
The recipients submit an application explaining their project; the grant is awarded via a vote by the chapter’s trustees, who can see exactly what they are funding. “It’s social. It’s about choice. And also about seeing the results of their giving,” he said. “They’re filling a gap in the funding ecosystem that the big players won’t touch.”
But small nonprofits can be stymied by granular data requests, said Trina Gadsden, executive director of Youth in Focus, a nonprofit that introduces urban children to photography. “Someone comes in with money and says, ‘Hey, I’d like to measure how many youth are graduating.’ We don’t measure that. We don’t have access to that.”
Smaller nonprofits are missing the manpower to gather such data, said Teri Hein, the executive director of The Greater Seattle Bureau of Fearless Ideas. “You’re asking them to take time away from actually doing their mission to do this next bureaucratic step,” she explained. “Every nonprofit I know is understaffed.”
Representatives from Seattle Theatre Group, Seattle Opera and Seattle Symphony all said legacy-arts organizations have traditionally done better with the older generation. Though the organizations don’t have data on individuals, anecdotally Rick Johnson, the chief financial officer of the Seattle Opera, said, “It’s almost always been the case.” He pointed out that in 1906 at the Metropolitan Opera, “They all had white hair then, too.”
He laughed. “So, yes, our audiences die off, but they are replaced by those who have more time and funds and become greater consumers of the arts at a later stage in life. What we try to do is reach them early on so they don’t think of opera and ballet as alien creatures.”
The institutions are attempting to attract younger audiences through experimental programming such as the Opera’s BRAVO! series, the Seattle Art Museum’s Remix events and the Symphony’s Seattle Pops! concerts.
Nevertheless, the tech boom has been a bust for the arts.
“With the explosion of tech in recent years, we’ve not seen an explosion in revenue, in contributions or ticket sales,” he said. “I’m not aware of anyone who lives within a tech-bubble community that’s had spectacular success in attracting those dollars.”
One organization that was able to share its hard data, the public radio station KEXP, said that only 9 percent of $6.1 million raised in 2013 for KEXP came from Western Washington tech employees — with Microsoft leading. (Because Amazon doesn’t have a matching giving program, Amazon employees who donated wouldn’t be tracked, said Leesa Schandel, KEXP’s director of development).
Even at the corporate level, the money isn’t flowing into most arts organizations. “If you were to look at our sponsors, you would not find Amazon, Facebook, Google at all or with very little financial attribution,” said Vivian Phillips, director of marketing and communications of the Seattle Theatre Group. “And I think we are no different than any other arts organization.”
Still, there’s the sense that there’s a lot of untapped money.
“When I drive around Seattle and I see all the new restaurants, all of them are packed all of the time, I count the number of Teslas that are on the street, and when I look at the luxury apartments going up in Seattle,” she said, “it’s clear there’s a lot of money here.”
The value of culture
Perhaps the disconnect lies in the perceived value in arts and culture. Joy may be immeasurable, but arts and culture also creates work and wealth — according ArtsFund’s most recent economic-impact study, arts organizations created 35,000 jobs and pumped $2.4 billion into the Washington state economy.
Perhaps, too, for a generation raised on the belief that “information wants to be free,” paying for music, film or art is perhaps beyond the scope of many millennials’ imagination.
Scott Finholm, a 39-year-old Microsoftie, and one of the co-founders of the Innovators Network, a fundraising group at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center aimed at the under-45 set, mentioned his young daughters as examples.
He said they “believe that anything with a screen can show them any piece of content that’s ever been created in the history of mankind, immediately, when they want it … They’ve been raised in a world where all of that is available freely and you can be entertained for free.”
During a break at the meeting, the EA group talked about why they chose social justice over culture charities.
One of the members, Ben Schwyn, 26, a soft-spoken software engineer, reasoned: “You could attempt to quantify how much supporting the symphony costs or the probability of someone’s life being affected by that and without doing a lot of research, we don’t know what those are,” he said. “But my estimate is that they are not very effective.”
“And yet,” added Pasha Kamyshev, 28, a software engineer, “for the same amount of money you can distribute iodine for malaria through a charity to thousands in the second or Third World.”
When it comes to making the choice between funding the symphony or saving someone’s life? The choice is easy.
“Having your life changed by music is incredibly privileged,” said Van Nostrand. “People whose lives are changed by not dying — that’s a bigger thing.”
How to attract new donors
According to the Symphony’s Simon Woods, arts and culture nonprofits need to woo millennials with more than data. Legacy organizations in particular, like the symphony, also need to “tell our story better,” he said.
Lisa Bury, the Seattle Opera director of development, recalled showing new tech donors the bells and whistles backstage.
It was an aha moment.
“People don’t know how much tech is involved in creating opera,” she said.
Young tech philanthropists don’t just want to write a check; they want to be directly involved.
“People like flaying the millennials sometimes, I don’t know why,” said Paul Shoemaker, 54, the former director of Social Venture Partners. “They are not as much joiners as they are doers.”
Some organizations, like KEXP, have tapped into techies’ sought-after engineering skills. Microsoft employees helped with the station’s website and helped build its donor database. Civic-minded hackathons — marathon coding sessions — have become popular. One such event this year, “Hack the Commute” run by Candace Faber, focused on solving the city’s transportation issues.
By October, Salvatier was preparing to move to the Bay Area to work at his new gig, AI Impacts, a nonprofit aimed at understanding the long-term impact of artificial intelligence.
“My life now feels a lot more meaningful,” Salvatier said of working with Effective Altruists. “I feel like I’m doing something important, and I feel like I’m chasing a goal in a way that’s really satisfying.”
For those in the arts community, cultural giving can be just as satisfying, but the results can’t be tallied on a spreadsheet.
“There’s an indescribable something that happens when you consume art,” said KEXP’s Schandel. “And each of us have had this experience.”
Just ask Taylor Swift — the consummate wealthy millennial — who recently donated $50,000 to the Seattle Symphony.
In fact, some of that money is earmarked for a program Woods mentioned specifically.
“We had 10,000 kids through Benaroya Hall last week for our schools program, Link Up,” said Woods. “That’s a lot of kids.”