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In the Arts, SMART Growth Yields Lasting Returns

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Increased fundraising. A larger base of donors. Higher ticket sales.

These are the trends that small arts and cultural organizations hope to achieve. And, with the help of the SMART Growth grant program, 30 Chicago arts groups have done just that—at rates that outpace the national average.

These results come from a new independent evaluation of the second wave of participants in the SMART Growth program. The report assesses measures of organizational health and sustainability, incorporating data from the Cultural Data Project to provide a national comparison.

SMART Growth is a four-year capacity-building program at The Chicago Community Trust that helps small cultural organizations strengthen their management practices—enabling them to contribute to the community, pay a living wage to artists and remain resilient in the face of economic changes. The program includes a customized assessment by the Arts & Business Council of Chicago and training in the SMART Growth methodology, followed by 3 years of general operating grants.

The evaluation finds that “SMART Growth methodology had a significant and lasting impact on understanding and practice of arts management… The cohort exhibited significant growth in each of the seven management areas (Concept Development and Planning, Staffing and Structure, Board Governance, Income Generation, Financial Management, Facilities, and Audience Development and Marketing) as evidenced by 40% to 840% growth among the SMART Growth Common Outcomes and Measures.”

“SMART Growth provided a much needed boost at a critical time,” reported a staff member at one participating organization. “We now have a better grasp of the ideal structure that every organization should have in order to be successful in all governance areas.”

Among the most striking improvements for SMART Growth organizations was strong growth in income generation:

  • 81% saw an increase in their contributed revenue, compared with 62% nationally.
  • Total contributed revenue grew by 36%, compared to 12% nationally; median level of contributed revenue grew by 44% while declining by 15% nationally.
  • 67% saw the number of individual donors grow, compared with 48% nationally; the total number of individual donors increased by an average of 6%, compared to a 29% decrease nationally.
  • Paid attendance trended upwards by 90%, as compared with 42% among the national comparison group.

Audience development and marketing also showed notable growth, with significantly more organizations investing in marketing plans and analyzing audience demographics.

Qualitatively, 95% of participating organizations reported that SMART Growth helped to make them more sustainable. The SMART Growth method of strategic planning, benchmarking and measuring was identified as the strongest take-away of their SMART Growth experience. Learn more in the complete evaluation report.

“The SMART Growth program is a proven model that impacts organizational sustainability through improved planning skills, increased board engagement, and advanced income generation results,” says Sandra Aponte, the Trust’s program officer for arts and culture.

“This report on SMART Growth is a testament to the program’s value and positions it in the forefront of capacity building programs.”

In 2014, a longitudinal study looked at the organizations that participated in the first cohort of SMART Growth from 2005-2009. That report found the organizations sustaining improvement in 5 of the 7 management areas, with revenue growth continuing to accelerate—the rewarding result of long-term planning.