Small donations to arts groups define a community

March 10, 2013 

Last year's 36-Hour Giving Challenge was massively successful for the arts in Bradenton. Manatee Players, to use the most obvious example, raised more money than anyone else in the Bradenton-Sarasota area, pulling together almost $200,000 in 1- 1/2days.

One Bradenton arts leader called that number "spectacular," and it would be hard to argue. Manatee Players outscored even the much larger and glitzier performing arts companies in Sarasota.

At first glance, the results weren't quite so spectacular this year. Arts groups in general placed lower on the leader board.

But local arts leaders, including Players officials, are nonetheless thrilled. They're looking at the number of small donors, not the dollar amount. And if you look at that number, the arts in Bradenton fared well -- and the Players were still very near the top.

"We use it (the challenge) to reach our smaller, individual donors," said Manatee Players executive director Janene Witham. "We have other ways to reach our larger donors."

Those smaller donors are much more essential to groups in Bradenton than those in Sarasota, and they're more important now than ever before.

A slow economy has slowed corporate giving across the board, including the arts.

And taken from a perspective of sheer dollar amounts, Manatee arts groups are at a bit of a disadvantage to their neighbors in Sarasota.

The figures are a few years old, but one study cited by Realize Bradenton showed that Sarasota had 180 foundations that donated $54 million in one year. That same year, Bradenton had 45 foundations that gave $11 million. That's a 5-to-1 advantage for Sarasota, even though populations of the two cities are essentially the same. (Those numbers are for all donations for all foundations, not just for the arts.)

But stats don't tell the whole story. Arts groups in Bradenton focus on this community.

The artists who people see on stage or in galleries mostly live and work here. The people who donate even small amounts of money feel a more intense allegiance to their arts groups, and maybe to their town, than people who donate large sums to the glitzier arts organizations elsewhere. And a $50 donation to a community group often has a bigger impact on the arts and to the city than a $100,000 donation to a huge organization.

"Anybody can be a philanthropist," said Johnette Isham, the executive director of Realize Bradenton.

During the 36-Hour Giving Challenge, someone commented to me that he didn't understand why people were giving to arts groups and animal shelters instead of nonprofits that help fight disease. "If you're not going to change the world," he said, "why bother?"

The answer, of course, is that arts do change the world. And perhaps more importantly, they change communities.

"It's my personal belief that people want to make a difference," Isham said. "Some people have had their lives touched by cancer, and they donate to fight cancer. But a lot of people have had their lives touched by the arts."

Arts nonprofits in the United States will always struggle for money. Ticket prices will never come close to covering expenses. The bedrock of small contributions from a lot of individual donors that Bradenton groups build on binds them in a special way to the city and its people. And, as Bradenton grows in regional and national prominence, community-based arts define the city's personality. "That's why we're moving to Bradenton," said long-time Sarasotan Isham.

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