Recently, I came across an article about corporate social responsibility (CSR) in the Harvard Business Review.[i] In it, Michael Porter and Mark Kramer argue that “to advance CSR, we must root it in a broad understanding of the interrelationship between a corporation and society.” Substitute “large arts organization” for “corporation” and “community [including the community of artists]” for “society” and you can see why this article could have some relevance for the arts. The authors argue that because of this interdependence, “business decisions and social policies must follow the principle of shared value.” In order to do this, the corporation (or large arts organization) should look from the inside out, examining what business types call “the value chain,”[ii] for the way it impacts society, and look from the outside in at the way society (or the community [including the community of artists]) impacts the organization. Porter and Kramer assert that an integrated CSR approach can net social and economic benefits at the same time. They advocate for “responsive CSR,” an approach that is simultaneously “attuned to the evolving social concerns of stakeholders and mitigating existing or anticipate adverse effects from business activities.”
The concept having been introduced, I turn my attention to the arts and culture sector specifically. Most major cities have large institutional arts corporations (yes, Virginia, nonprofits are corporations). They have a social mission embedded in their mission statement but that does not mean that they enact an integrated or strategic corporate social responsibility program. What social impacts, positive or negative, result from the value chain of a large regional theatre company, for example? The company that sends its AD to New York for casting, hires actors and designers based out of New York or Chicago or LA has added to their social impact the significant environmental cost of flying all of those people around the country, as well as the potential displacement of local talent. Contrast this to a tweet on my feed the other day from Julie Dubiner (@jfdubiner), a dramaturge at Oregon Shakespeare Festival (OSF): “I’d rather look at models – like OSF, where we have 500 ppl (100+) actors who can make a home.” It is not my intention to suggest that everyone must be resident at a large theatre such as that in the first example, but rather that a theatre that hopes to have positive social impact should look at ways to offset the negative impact their policies and practices may have.
Beyond the staffing of a theatre, how else could a large arts entity adopt good CSR principles? Porter and Kramer suggest that cooperative models can be employed to strategically improve a company’s – or even a whole sector’s – position. We have seen, especially in recent years, arts organizations partnering together for projects, productions, “initiatives,” but the motivation to do so is generally cost containment, rather than increasing positive social impact. There are, however, pockets of partnerships that operate from more of a CSR paradigm. The “never be dark” concept adapted by formal and informal consortiums of small theatres is an example. But I can also imagine a model where a large museum decides to offset the negative social/environmental impact of a large touring exhibit by providing free studio space to artists in the community. We could, potentially, have CSR “credits,” that could be bought, sold, and offset, much as carbon credits are already.
Much of CSR has to do with the way the corporation treats its employees (looking inward) and its larger community (looking outward). Perhaps the first step toward greater CSR in our large arts institutions is to adopt a greater mindfulness of not only the direct impact of our programs but of the indirect impact on our internal and external stakeholders.
[i] Porter and Kramer, (Dec. 2006) “Strategy and Society: The Link Between Competitive Advantage and Corporate Social Responsibility”
[ii] The value chain can be thought of as every step a company takes in creating its value proposition, from hiring policies, to contracts with vendors, to transportation of material and so on.