San Francisco Ballet is not exactly a start-up when it comes to cultural organizations. With balanced budgets for seventeen consecutive years and a just-concluded $45 million endowment campaign, the Ballet is a well-oiled cultural machine.

But that doesn’t mean it has nothing left to learn about running a successful cultural institution, and that’s why the Ballet has embraced the California Cultural Data Project.
The Cultural Data Project, the brainchild of The Pew Charitable Trusts, is an effort to gather standardized information about cultural organizations nationwide so they can learn more about themselves and demonstrate their impact on their communities. This spring, with the support of the Hewlett Foundation, The James Irvine Foundation, and other major funders, the project came to California to support cultural organizations large and small throughout the state.

“If we use this tool properly,” says Don Brown, manager of corporate and foundation relations at San Francisco Ballet, “it will give us the opportunity to be much more businesslike-to have pie charts and graphs, to speak the corporate language to potential donors, to really make our case.”

The project will also help organizations streamline their grant applications, see how they compare with peers, better understand their audiences, and, for some, adopt more advanced levels of record-keeping.

“This project will make life easier for cultural groups as they seek funding and help them assess how they are doing so they can do better in the future,” predicts Julie Fry, a Program Officer with the Hewlett Foundation’s Performing Arts Program. And, she adds, “it will build a critical mass of data that will offer a wealth of knowledge to grantees and funders alike.”

A Broad and Deep Database

Ultimately, as many as 5,000 groups of every size and scope-from San Francisco’s Pocket Opera to the California Arts Council-will participate in the project. Over time, the standardized funding application form will create a database that organizations can share with policymakers, the press, and each other to tell the story of the impact of the arts.

 Arts groups may find some similarities between the information gathered in the Cultural Data Project and that already required in federal tax forms. However, the information the project collects and processes will add key nonfinancial elements to the mix, yielding the most comprehensive view possible of organizational and financial activity, attendance, and other aspects of daily operations. Data are based on an organization’s financial audits, and therefore reflect the most accurate information.

Pew staffers created the project in consultation with development, finance, and marketing directors from arts organizations, then tested it with twenty cultural groups before launching it in Pennsylvania four years ago. Maryland’s arts groups were added the following year.
The creative nature-and romance-of the arts has traditionally meant that financial and operational viability was not always a priority. Yet a healthy financial profile is what supports emerging artists, or introduces children to their first opera, or helps a community find its own expressive artistic voices. Marshalling wider public support is easier when hard numbers prove that the arts have deep and wide benefits. And having those hard numbers becomes a powerful advocacy tool.

Showing Why the Arts Matter

The project is already providing researchers with tangible evidence-on a large scale-of the  impact a strong arts community can have. This year, in its third annual study of the nonprofit arts and culture industry, Americans for the Arts incorporated information from the project’s database to construct its most comprehensive report, based on information from 6,080 organizations. It tallied $166.2 billion in economic activity in the arts.

This winter, Pew staff began teaching cultural groups in California how to use the project’s Web site to enter data. To date, almost 700 of them have learned how to fill in the blanks, although smaller organizations have admitted that doing so can present challenges. San Francisco Ballet has a financial staff to handle this work, but smaller groups without financial experts can find sorting through the needed data to be difficult. In an anonymous post-training evaluation, the harried member of one small group said she had only a volunteer bookkeeper for this effort. She noted that despite this, “it will get done, and I look forward to seeing the results.”

Stephen Danner of San Francisco-based Frameline says entering data will mean more work at first, “but we’ll save so much time at the end of the road, especially when we’re applying for foundation grants.” The New Century Chamber Orchestra, which performs throughout the Bay Area, will definitely benefit from the information’s immediacy and comparative quality for marketing, development, and staffing, says the Orchestra’s Director of Development and Marketing, Rachel Rossos.

San Francisco Ballet’s Brown has been impressed with the support that the project’s national help desk provides: answers in fifteen minutes, he says. And he is eagerly awaiting the chance to take the information that the project prompted him to gather out for a “test drive,” studying the different sources of the Ballet’s income.

“If I find a dance company that is actually operating with 60 percent earned revenue, I want to talk to them!” he says. “This will allow me to really home in on how we operate.”

Even before the project has been completed, its information has attracted its first user from a national arts advocacy group.  Americans for the Arts last year used Project data from other states as part of a comprehensive study of the economic impact of the arts nationally. The data’s appeal is powerful, says Robert L. Lynch, president and CEO of Americans for the Arts: “The Cultural Data Project is a great example of what happens when funding partners rally around a systemic problem. It will elevate the level of management, service, and funding in the nonprofit arts sector.”