No One Knows You’re A Non-Profit (Sometimes Even After You Tell Them)

While it has sort of been generally known that visitors to arts and cultural organizations aren’t fully aware of whether the organization is a non-profit or not, Colleen Dilenschneider recently posted research that qualifies just how few visitors are able to make that distinction, (subscription required) what the implication of that lack of knowledge is, and how to reverse that perception.

Basically, even the disciplines with the best levels of awareness of non-profit status don’t even get close to 50% awareness.

Overall, only 38.6% of US adults believe that nonprofit exhibit-based organizations are nonprofits. This number considers visitors and non-visitors alike and the weighted attendance distribution of each organization type in the US.

Nonprofit performing arts organizations are in a similar situation: Fewer than half of recent patrons correctly identify them as nonprofit organizations. Nonprofit live theaters and live theater organizations are least likely to be accurately perceived as nonprofit organizations, and nonprofit orchestras are most likely to be perceived accurately as nonprofit organizations.

The data Dilenschneider presents, solicited and analyzed by her employer IMPACTS, is likely to be rather depressing to most arts and cultural organizations because it not only reveals a lack of awareness, but how few people even think about the business models of places they have recently visited and with which they have participated. When they do try to identify the business model, they are frequently wrong.

This matters because people are willing to donate to organizations they perceive to be non-profits. The implications of not perceiving an organization as a non-profit are pretty clear. There are actually a number of factors outside of an organization’s control that color perceptions. For example, being in Washington DC or a state capital can contribute to the perception of being government run.

From my own experience, organizations who receive office space or residency status within a facility run by another entity can lead to confusion about how the resident organization is funded. In some cases, fans who identify the facility with the work of a favored resident group have assumed the resident owned the large complex rather than a couple small offices and shared access to a copier.

The solution, according to Dilenschneider isn’t to emphasize your organization’s tax status, but rather the organization’s mission:

Here’s where things get interesting (in our nerdy opinions): People are most likely to correctly identify organizations as nonprofits when they can align that entity to its unique meaningful achievements and missions. It may not be shouting a tax status from the rooftops that sticks, but instead the perceived values and impactful initiatives that an organization brings to its respective communities and constituencies.

My emphasis, or perhaps it is better stated, de-emphasis, because she bolded that entire sentence but I wanted to call attention to the terms unique & meaningful. A pretty good sized span of Dilenschneider’s entry is devoted to narrative and charts showing what constitutes meaningful differs based on discipline and organization. The general survey data she presents can give you direction about what is relevant for your organization’s format and discipline, but deeper meaning can be community specific.

Based on the work of people like Nina Simon and Ruth Hartt, these will be things that are relevant and meaningful to the community, not the organization.

According to Dilenschneider’s data there is a cost to not emphasizing meaningful achievements:

People who mistakenly categorize nonprofit organizations as having other funding structures and operational statuses generally cannot name a single meaningful achievement associated with the organization in question, despite being aware of or perhaps even visiting that organization.

Joe Patti
Joe Patti
In addition to writing for ArtHacker, I have been writing the blog, Butts in the Seats ( since 2004. I am also an evangelist for the effort to Build Public Will For Arts and Culture being helmed by Arts Midwest and the Metropolitan Group. ( I am currently the Theater Manager for the Rialto Theater in Loveland, CO. Across my career I have worked as the Executive Director at The Grand Opera House in Macon, GA, at University of Hawaii-Leeward Community College, University of Central Florida, Asolo Theater, Utah Shakespearean Festival, Appel Farm Arts and Music Center and numerous other places both defunct and funky.
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1 thought on “No One Knows You’re A Non-Profit (Sometimes Even After You Tell Them)”

  1. I was both intrigued and bemused by Colleen’s piece when I saw it in my inbox a few weeks ago. I think there’s additionally broad confusion about what it even means for an entity to be “nonprofit,” how that classification is distinct from “501c3,” and on and on. Think there’s a lesson here, as has been widely illustrated elsewhere, that the terminology we use matters and we can’t assume people know our specialized vocabulary. I’m as guilty of this as anyone else!


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