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A Publication of WTVP

The Illinois Cultural Data Project promises a host of benefits to arts and cultural organizations, grantmakers and the public at large.

One consistent trend in the not-for-profit world has been the emergence of tools to improve quality and prove an organization’s value and effectiveness to its donors. The arts and cultural world, in particular, has long been without a reliable source of data to provide evidence for its contributions to the economy and quality of life. That is changing with the emergence of a national initiative called the Cultural Data Project (CDP). Last year, the CDP came to Illinois, and many local groups are beginning to use its tools to inform their decision-making.

A Nationwide Network
Launched in May 2009, the Illinois Cultural Data Project is an online management tool for arts and cultural organizations. It is designed to strengthen these groups by streamlining operational and financial data, identifying trends, tracking performance and benchmarking against comparable organizations.

This collaborative, statewide effort is part of the national Cultural Data Project, operated by The Pew Charitable Trusts. The project, which launched in Pennsylvania in 2004, was envisioned as a way to streamline the grant application process and build a reliable database of information on the arts and cultural sector.

“[We] made radical changes in our grants process to focus applicants exclusively on past performance,” explained Philip Horn, executive director of the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts, one of the funders of the original program. “We believed we should encourage the nonprofit arts sector to deal with real data rather than developing scenarios for the future to support a larger grant.” Since its launch, project data has been cited by political and business leaders, as well as arts and cultural leaders, when discussing the local impact of these organizations.

In 2007, Maryland became the second state to implement the CDP, followed by California in 2008. The same year, the organization commissioned a detailed business plan to guide the project’s national expansion. In 2009, Illinois became the fourth state to implement the project, and since then, four additional states have signed on, with more than 8,900 participating organizations. By 2014, the CDP envisions operations in up to 22 states, engaging 70 percent of arts and cultural groups across the nation that apply for private or public funding.

How It Works
There is no cost for arts and cultural organizations to participate in the Cultural Data Project. Pew manages the project on behalf of 100 funders who cover its expenses in their respective states. In Illinois, the Illinois Arts Council and a statewide coalition of funders has provided the leadership to get the project off the ground. Additional support from the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation and the Kresge Foundation are helping to facilitate the project’s expansion nationally.

Participating organizations begin by entering their financial, programmatic and operational information into a standardized online form on the CDP website. This is only done once a year, but is no easy task, especially the first time. Suzette Boulais, executive director of ArtsPartners of Central Illinois, characterized it as “one painful, difficult process,” requiring a great many hours of research just to find the required data, and another grueling process to fill out the form.

Fortunately, the CDP offers strong technical and user support to participants through a toll-free help desk, free access to a team of financial consultants, statewide on-location workshops and online training provided throughout the year. A number of orientation sessions were held at Peoria’s Lakeview Museum in September.

Upon its initial submission to the CDP, ArtsPartners received back a list of about a dozen questions regarding the information it provided and was asked to recalculate and clarify several answers. It’s obvious that a great deal of attention is being paid to ensure the quality of the data on the front end. And that’s a very good thing.

Long-Term Benefits
While the initial data entry is rather painful, all that short-term pain is poised to be well worth the long-term gain. Clearly, it will reduce, if not eliminate, the need for participating organizations to reorganize the same information over and over again in different formats. “I hope that the process of filing reports on state grants will be easier and faster,” says Tom Hunt, executive director of WCBU FM, the public radio station at Bradley University. “If other granting organizations adopt the CDP format, then we can realize the efficiencies of inputting one set of data to be used by all.”

Once the data is in place, the CDP can produce a variety of reports to inform organizational decision-making and improve financial and operational management. Organizations can compare themselves to their peers in specific disciplines, geographic regions and budget sizes, and identify financial and programmatic trends. “When we submit our data into this very extensive reporting system,” says Boulais, “we will be able to track the data to show trends in audiences, spending and the types of services that are growing or not growing.” These reports can be included in applications to participating grantmakers at the click of a button.

The CDP will also benefit the more than 170 grantmakers participating nationwide, as it equips them with data to plan and evaluate their grantmaking activities more effectively. “A registry with access to an organization’s financial and administrative output gives prospective contributors and granting institutions an easily accessible information source,” note Bob and Joan Ericksen of the not-for-profit Sun Foundation. As such, participation in the Illinois CDP is now a requirement for Illinois Arts Council grant applicants.

The availability of reliable, objective data will also help arts advocates make the case for the economic impact of arts and culture, both to political decision makers and the public at large. “The CDP helps us see the true financial, educational and social impact of the organizations participating in the project,” say the Ericksens. “It gives credibility and transparency to the organization.”

Affecting Effectiveness
CDP data has already been used in testimony before California’s Joint Committee on the Arts and by NEA Chairman Rocco Landesman in testimony before Congress. Last September, when Pennsylvania lawmakers proposed a new “arts tax” to close a revenue gap in the state budget, CDP data was cited to show that the revenue assumptions of the proposed tax were vastly overstated, and the initiative was defeated.

A Project Streamline study on improving grant application and reporting entitled Drowning in Paperwork, Distracted from Purpose highlighted the effective use of centralized data repositories and called the CDP “the exemplar of this approach.” The Center for Effective Philanthropy and Grantmakers for Effective Organizations have both praised the CDP for its collaborative approach.

The Pennsylvania Council on the Arts, one of the CDP’s founders, recently advanced to the second round of the 2010 Innovations in American Government Award competition for its work on the CDP. Administered by Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, the award acknowledges “outstanding examples of creative problem solving” at various levels of government.

Additionally, the CDP was used as a case study in Breakthroughs in Shared Measurement and Social Impact, a 2009 report by the nonprofit group FSG Social Impact Advisors, which seeks to advance philanthropy and corporate social responsibility. Such comparative performance systems, the report noted, “foreshadow profound changes in the vision and effectiveness of the entire nonprofit sector.”

Setting a National Standard
The CDP’s five-year strategic business plan positions it “to become the national standard for collecting and disseminating financial and organizational information for arts and culture organizations throughout the country.” With today’s funders requiring more and more organizational transparency and proof of return on investment, the CDP’s high-quality data is exactly the type of quality tool these organizations need.

The strategic plan offers four key enhancements that the CDP hopes will maximize its value to all of its users:

  1. Continuous product improvement by soliciting regular feedback from users to enhance its usefulness to cultural organizations, funders and policymakers
  2. Expanded access to data for funders, researchers and others in order to foster greater understanding of the cultural sector
  3. Strengthening nonprofits’ financial and management capacity by helping users learn from the data to change and grow
  4. Building a content-rich national website to aggregate and present all of the research that has been conducted using the data.

As it expands, the CDP will be guided by two priorities:

Additional features to come include online tools to measure how well institutions are capitalized and to test alternative financial scenarios, especially when building expansions or new programs are being considered. These tools are being piloted in the Philadelphia region and will eventually be rolled out to all CDP users.

By building on its success, the CDP is poised to strengthen the nonprofit arts and culture sector for years to come. For more information on the Illinois CDP, visit ilculturaldata.org. The national CDP website can be accessed at culturaldata.org. iBi

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