Building Bridges for Funders

February 8, 2012

By Nina Stack
President, Council of New Jersey Grantmakers

Yesterday, my organization convened a meeting of our Arts Funders Affinity Group. We were really fortunate to hear a fascinating, fact-filled presentation from Robert Morrison, founder of Quadrant Arts Education Research. There were two points he made that I can’t stop thinking about. The first is research that has come out of Florida tracking student outcomes. For the first time, there is longitudinal data illustrating the profound impact that access to the arts in school has on student performance. Included in this research is a subset considering just the outcomes for students receiving free or reduced lunches. The results are significant and profound. Considering the cumulative GPA, for students receiving 4 or more credits in the arts it was over 3.1. If they were receiving 2.5 to 3 credits, the GPA was 2.9. Looking at dropout rates, for students with 4 or more credits the rate is less than 6%. For those with no arts credits, it climbs to over 25%. Overall student performance improves dramatically when the arts are incorporated into the curriculum.

The second bit of research I found really interesting was that Arizona, which overall comes in quite low in providing access to arts education, scored the highest in dance education. This was fascinating to me. For a state whose overall arts education programming in elementary and secondary schools is so weak, it was surprising that its strongest showing is in the dance curriculum. I would have assumed music or visual art was where they focused what limited resources they have. It turns out that the focus on dance is due to a strategic partnership between three universities in the state to promote dance in the schools. This seems like a model that could be shared successfully.

These two points – the research on improved student performance and the substantive dance curriculum – prompted me to start connecting the dots for the members of CNJG. For instance, my first question was whether there was any research into how this infusion of dance might affect obesity rates for the children.

The Arts Funders affinity group is one of eight affinity groups that CNJG manages for the grantmaking community. Others groups are centered on Camden, Education, Environment, Issues in Aging, Newark, Strong & Thriving Communities, and Finance & Investment. In addition, we have a subgroup of our Newark Funders focused on just education in the city. And there is an emerging group of Early Childhood Education funders coming together. I also fully expect that in the next few months we’ll see the launch of a funders group centered on health.

Foundations are probably the most independent institutions in our country. While this independence enables a great many things – including the freedom to support the causes they care about in flexible, strategic ways – it can also leave foundation staff and trustees quite isolated. We have so little time (or brain space) to look out beyond our immediate priorities these days that professional development or networking with colleagues can seem like a luxury. For a grantmaker focused on health or education or the environment, it can be a hard choice to give up a morning for a meeting with arts funders. This is where CNJG comes in…our sweet spot. Helping grantmakers get out of their silos is one of the central roles we play at the Council. Our affinity groups are a key resource.

When our grantmakers come together through the affinity groups, we see foundations and corporations collaborating and leveraging more and more. When we can cross fertilize, say for example, sharing research done on arts education that speaks to all education, it can feel like the ultimate win-win.

Nina Stack is the President of Council of New Jersey Grantmakers, the statewide association for corporate, family, independent, and community foundations. She is a regular contributor to the Dodge blog.