As you might imagine, the staff and Board at the Lark is very focused on fundraising right now. It is nearing the end of the calendar year, so people are turning their attention to their financial positions and what that means in terms of charitable giving and the tax incentives for doing so. While opportunities for philanthropy are by no means limited to any single time of year (the Lark’s fundraising team is always busy!), December is the definitive month for annual giving. Year-end tax deductions are a critical reason for this yearly rhythm, but there is an emotional component as well. December is when a lot of people think a little bit more about the whole idea of “giving.” Cultural traditions like Thanksgiving, Christmas, Chanukah, and Kwanzaa are deeply concerned with generosity and gift-giving as expressions of love, family ties, friendship, and faith, and these holidays are themselves linked to even more primitive rituals associated with harvest blessings, seasonal cycles, sacrifice, and renewal. Even on a secular level, the notion of freedom and fairness in America can take on an almost spiritual dimension. This combination of tax incentives and social responsibility has formed a powerful philanthropic culture that is virtually unique to the United States and its non-profit institutions.
Philanthropy has become the lifeblood of freedom in America. In a society where so many experiences are valued in economic terms almost exclusively, philanthropy has the mission of supporting activities that have other kinds of worth. There is no easy way to place a dollar value on peace, spirituality, education, social justice, good government, and the arts. When we delude ourselves into thinking that the ticket price of a play in any way represents the meaning of a work of art—whether to each individual audience member or to history itself—and weigh the cost value of attending that play against competing consumer opportunities, we have surrendered to the tempting but false assumption that our increasingly complex society can be adequately measured and understood through the language of economics alone.
Philanthropy in its very essence does not respond to market principles except to deny them sovereignty by elevating and celebrating the larger principles of liberty, equality, brotherhood and sisterhood. Philanthropy supports the idea that strength must exist in institutions that care about people as much as money. I believe that the future of the arts and sciences, medicine, environmentalism, foreign relations, and all such studies that are imperative to the survival of the human race and dependent on the cultivation of new ideas by the next generation of young thinkers, is dependent upon how we can deepen and expand our culture of philanthropy. The strange irony, however, is that philanthropy depends upon individual entrepreneurialism, a healthy and wealthy market economy, and a secure democracy to build an ample resource base to be distributed for the social good. I believe that there exists enormous untapped wealth in our society to invest in philanthropic models capable of stimulating the development of new ideas and, consequently, additional wealth.
The Lark depends almost exclusively on philanthropy to stay alive and pursue its mission. Ninety-five percent of our revenues are derived from contributions, from a broad base of supporters, with scarcely any revenues from ticket sales or other earned sources. Because our individual and institutional donors support us financially for the purposes of performing our mission—to identify new and unheard voices and perspectives, support their growth, and foster partnerships that advance these voices to public awareness—we do not need to prove the worth of our organization by succeeding in simple commercial terms. We can take bigger risks, make longer leaps, and measure our success not only by how many people come to see us, but also who comes, why they come, and whether we have been able to form a sustainable community.
We seek philanthropic dollars to sustain and grow the Lark’s mission, but, at the same time, we are committed to making a stronger case for supporting a broad-based, grassroots matrix of creative institutions like ours. This starts by understanding why people give to us already and developing strategies for deepening our relationships with them throughout the year—not just in December.
John Clinton Eisner