Beyond the economic crisis: Portugal’s arts and culture adaptation | Reflections from the 2012 Philanthropy Fellows Conference

This is one of a series of posts by participants reflecting on the 21st Johns Hopkins International Fellows in Philanthropy Conference in Lisbon, Portugal.
From the 4th to the 6th of July, over twenty Johns Hopkins International Fellows in Philanthropy and guests from around the world gathered in Lisbon, Portugal with students, artists, and third sector practitioners for the 21st JHU Fellows Conference entitled “Arts and the Economic Crisis: Opportunities for the Third Sector?” The Conference profiled the current status of the arts and culture sector around the world, and highlighted trends emerging in Portugal as a result of the economic crisis presently gripping the country.
While the challenges facing the arts and culture sector in Portugal, Europe, and other countries as a result of the global recession have been well documented, and were discussed in depth during the Conference, much of the event focused on new models of funding, management, and structure for the arts and culture sector that are helping it to make important contributions to the social and economic well-being of the country despite those challenges, and on further innovations that could enhance its ability to do so moving forward.
The key issue facing the arts sector in Portugal stems from the striking reductions in public sector funding and support of arts and cultural institutions which have taken place as austerity measures have been implemented over the last several years. This withdrawal of public sector support, and the inability of both private sector corporate donations and individual contributions to fill this gap, threatens the viability of many cultural institutions. Indeed, some contend that these funding struggles are a threat to the survival of the arts and culture sector in Portugal altogether. The Portuguese crisis, when compounded with and placed in the context of the widespread economic problems gripping the Euro zone, has created an environment of pessimism and fatalism amongst Portuguese arts organizations, patrons, and artists that is difficult to set aside.

However, as some Fellows and other international guests pointed out, while this situation is new for Portugal, it actually reflects the long-term reality for the nonprofit sector as a whole in many of their countries. Indeed, many Fellows (and other nonprofit practitioners present at the conference) work in organizations that are chronically underfunded, and are frequently ‘underestimated’ in terms of their contribution to the overall wellbeing of society.
While the examples shared by presenters and participants during the Conference painted a grim picture, the issue in our minds is not whether this is the end of Portugal’s arts and culture sector, but whether the sector can help itself out of this crisis by changing the conversation to take into account the sector’s total contribution to the overall quality of life for Portugal’s citizens, its economy, and its social fabric. An improved understanding of the breadth and depth of these contributions amongst sector players themselves would in turn allow the arts and culture sector to better communicate its value, ‘leveling’ the playing field so that government, business, and private citizens can be brought to fully appreciate that the arts and culture sector in Portugal isn’t a luxury that should be eliminated in difficult economic times, but a partner that should be utilized to reduce the impact of those difficulties. We feel strongly that bringing this overall ‘value proposition’ to the fore would help make the case for greater investment—both public and private—in the arts and culture sector despite the ongoing economic crisis.

SEEKING CROSS-SECTOR IMPACTS. From our shared experiences we strongly believe that the arts, and more broadly culture, are effective ways to help restore hope and convey confidence in a better future. The unique contribution of Portugal’s arts and culture community can indeed provide significant and broad social and economic impacts relative to cost. With a prudent investment plan and strategies developed specifically to address social interests and revitalize the economic system, the arts can be leveraged to impact social inclusion, economic development, education, and other broad national goals. There are numerous examples of such impacts from around the world, and several Fellows have seen them at work first hand.
For instance, Brazilian Fellow Diva Moreira, a political scientist specializing in race and gender issues, highlighted a program initiated in Belo Horizonte, Brazil that incorporates African culture into the school curriculum. After this program was initiated, the school system quickly saw a measurable impact—decreased rates of aggressive behavior, lower drop-out rates, and fewer students having to repeat grades—all of which obviously have positive overall educational outcomes. Similarly, Capão Redondo, a formerly violent slum in São Paulo, has experienced significant reductions in violence through the introduction of arts and culture programs that focus on engaging mainly youth.
These innovative programs appear to us to be emerging from ‘cross sector’ efforts in which the civil society sector engages in collaborations with the public and private sectors to achieve a common goal. Some Portuguese arts and culture organizations have already begun working with non-traditional allies; they have started to explore new ways to collaborate with government and business to improve health and education outcomes, to generate new resources, and to protect the long term sustainability of treasured cultural assets. These initiatives are drawing on the core competences and assets of each partner to generate greater results together—the often used 1+1=3 outcome.

What could these collaborations look like on a large scale? Where might arts sector organizations begin to look for ways to marry their artistic or cultural missions to social impacts? One example that occurred to us stems from a serious (and growing) problem in Lisbon—the city today has approximately 85,000 elderly living in societal isolation, an issue which will only grow as the population ages. One way to begin to address this problem would be for artists and cultural organizations to work in collaboration with Lisbon’s public health sector, social work, and social security departments, as well as with both for-profit and nonprofit private sector service providers, to develop appropriate arts and culture outreach and engagement programs that could improve health and social outcomes amongst this at-risk population (e.g. more effective and decreased medicine usage; fewer complicated and expensive medical procedures; reduced dependency on nursing centers or isolation) and to track those impacts for use in the critical ‘value proposition’ argument. Showing measurable impacts in the health and social services sectors could be used to make a strong and compelling case that existing funding assigned to those other fields could be also be provided to support arts and culture.
TAKING ADVANTAGE OF FUNDING INNOVATIONS. Another perspective that strongly emerged was that, now more than ever, civil society organizations should look at their funding sources and realize that while the funding focus may have shifted or been reduced in some areas, there are other emerging potential sources of funds. While traditional funding channels may not be able to meet their needs, civil society arts organizations, like all organizations that make up the civil society sector, should be proactively assessing funding shifts and adapting to these changes.

One such case of adapting to new funding innovations is the growing trend seen in other countries, where businesses and foundations provided funding to civil society organizations by engaging the general public in the selection of causes and organizations through online contests. Becky Gitonga, a fellow from Kenya, highlighted experiences working with a nonprofit organization in the US that benefited from participating in these contests. The organization (as did many competing organizations) submitted a program or a cause along the criteria provided by the contest, and once submitted mobilized their supporters to visit the site and ‘vote’ for the organization to win the offered monetary award. Two of the contests that the organization participated in resulted in close to $30,000 in funding in a span of a couple of months, with other organizations scooping up awards of an even higher value. $30,000 represents a significant amount of funding for any small nonprofit organization, as it would be for most arts and culture organizations. Examples of such online contests include America’s Giving Challenge supported by the Case Foundation; Chase Bank’s Community Giving Challenge; Pepsi’s Refresh Challenge; and Target’s Facebook Challenge.
What these initiatives have in common is the need to build win-win scenarios for all parties; i.e. they advance a company’s corporate social responsibility (CSR) strategy via online visibility while at the same time, creating awareness-raising and funding opportunities for civil society recipients. In light of Portugal’s economic crisis, a civil society organization’s capacity to build mutually beneficial collaborations that support participants’ respective missions and goals will determine its ability to engage and connect across sectors, and its ability to raise the funding it needs to thrive.
In the case of the nonprofit organization highlighted above, participating in the contests not only won them a significant monetary award, but it also provided the platform to engage its supporters globally in a new and exciting way, while at the same time raising online visibility and awareness of the organization itself. This was a major milestone for this organization that had just embarked on adapting to the uses of social media and online tools as a core part of its strategy.
Importantly, such online contests help to highlight the emerging reality that the degree to which a civil society organization can harness social media and online fundraising channels will have a profound effect on their future in this connected age. Indeed, online giving—both through an organization’s website, and increasingly through crowdsourced and peer-to-peer platforms like Kickstarter, Crowdrise, and IndieGoGo—has been rated as one of the fastest growing funding trends, especially when it comes to capturing individual donors and young professionals eager to support social causes. Such platforms are widely used by arts and culture organizations in the United States to support both operating costs and to raise program funds to support individual productions. For a small or struggling arts organization, use of these platforms not only provides access to funds that may not carry many of the administrative costs that even the smallest foundation or public sector grants can, they also have other benefits. Key among those is creating a forum for close and ongoing engagement with potential audience members, who become not only financially invested through their donations, but emotionally invested as well, making them much more likely to return and support the organization again both as contributors and as patrons and to promote it to others both on- and off-line. Exploring the expansion of these platforms in countries like Portugal would therefore open valuable new avenues for fundraising and outreach tools.
IN CONCLUSION. This conference has allowed us to truly appreciate the difficult situation the Portuguese arts and culture community finds itself in, as well as the opportunities that exist to address those difficulties. Constrained by a lack of resources, and immersed in a milieu of pessimism, it is difficult to see the light at the end of the tunnel. However art, by its very nature, is a force for optimism, and is more than capable of creating a role for itself that can help guide Portugal out of the darkness of this economic crisis. In order to facilitate that process, we recommend that third sector leaders consider a sector-wide evaluation of their impact as a first step to make the case for the arts community to take its place in the reemergence of Portugal.

Becky Gitonga, Kenya, Executive Director at Miradi Innovations
Brad Henderson, Canada, Global Partnering Advisor, World Vision International
Diva Moreira, Brazil, Political Scientist and gender expert
Chelsea Newhouse, U.S., Communications Associate, JHU Center for Civil Society Studies
Wino van Veen, Netherlands, Professor Vrije Universiteit


Chelsea Newhouse

View posts by Chelsea Newhouse
Chelsea Newhouse served as the Center's Communications Manager and managed the Nonprofit Economic Data and Philanthropication thru Privatization Projects. Prior to joining the Center in 2008, she worked for the Johns Hopkins University Department of Molecular Biology & Genetics, the Baltimore Sun, and as a community organizer for Clean Water Action and the Democratic National Committee. She holds a degree in Philosophy from the University of Virginia. Following the Center's closing, Chelsea now serves as Project Manager at the East-West Management Institute, where she continues to work on the Philanthropication thru Privatization Project and other civil society development initiatives around the world. Chelsea can be reached at