From Public Art to Artful Impact: Seeds of Change at CCA

Source: 2018 IMPACT Award winners

California College of the Arts (CCA) is a renowned art and design college whose faculty and alumni have been at the forefront of every artmovement of the last century. Center for Cultural Innovation (CCI) selected CCA as a CIIN grantee because of their interest in experimenting with developing new types of donors, specifically “impact donors.”

As we shared in the very first post on CCA in 2016, the premise of CCI’s grant was experimental and required a generous interpretation of CCI’s mission to bolster creative economy. The hope was that CCA might attract an impact investment through their efforts, perhaps creating a new model for art and design schools to diversify their fundraising by positioning themselves as generators of creative, social impact enterprises. In re-connecting with CCA, we are pleased to share that CCA has succeeded in securing an impact investment. For the final San Francisco post, we circled back to Karen Weber, CCA’s Senior Director of Engagement & Institutional Partnerships.

First, congratulations are in order! Can you tell us more about your first impact investment award?

Yes, it’s very exciting. The investment came from an alumnus of the College who cares deeply about startups with a community focus. He had his own business as a graduate student here, so he has respect for the startup process on both sides. He understands a straight-up business startup, as well as mission and community-focused work. So the total investment was $50,000, with $25,000 allocated to our Career Development Office for their entrepreneurial initiatives, and $25,000 for our impact investment initiative.

What made it all click for that particular investor?

The proposal just checked all the boxes for him, personally. It was really about community impact, and the stories; it’s all in the examples. And he loves matching funds, so the challenge grant from CCI was definitely a push. From the beginning, we had an understanding that we were going to provide him with metrics, and possibly a monetary dividend down the road, but there are no concrete expectations, and developing the metrics is still in progress. We’re going to bring somebody in on a contract basis to help identify what those are, and perhaps work with our design division to visualize the metrics and make them beautiful and understandable.

And did you have any internal obstacles to overcome to make this a go?

It took a lot of time and patience. It really took us a year just to get our head around it. Folks here were confused by the business model; they didn’t understand a business model where there was no promise of monetary return. That’s a very abstract thing to explain. All of us have 20-plus years in fundraising, so the traditional model is that we get a gift, they get a tax return, and we all agree on metrics…that’s a charitable gift. But how do we translate our work as an investment? Impact investing is a new term, both externally for individual donors in our realm, and for our own internal operations: “What do you mean by that? What do you mean by incubator?” And there are many definitions out there, so what did we really mean by impact investing? So we had to do field research. And then even after that, we still had to convince everyone that this was not going to compete with our own donor pool, but in fact was offering a new option for us.

But what ultimately piqued the interest internally was that this was a model that some of us had heard about, and it simply wasn’t being done in the art and design school environment. That made us really interested, because we’re all about breaking new ground at CCA. Building the airplane while it’s flying? We love that sort of challenge. And we knew that we had an incredibly robust portfolio of projects to offer coming to the table, and we knew that we could continue generating more.

Were there any adjacent models that were helpful since there wasn’t a 1:1 model for you?

In terms of showing metrics that weren’t monetary, organizations like the Tipping Point and the B-Corp model were certainly helpful. It’s all around us, we just had to take a closer look. And we had to be willing to create our own definitions. These days, having a “corporate sustainability initiative” is kind of an antiquated term. Companies are much more comfortable with just being sustainable, and having that be embedded. So hopefully this kind of impact investing in the arts is on a similar path. That it can just become “another option” for investors.

Do you think the culture has shifted in the years since you first tackled this new model?

Well, it’s certainly opened some avenues for me, personally, in terms of new ways to talk about the projects. And there’s a lot more interest now overall. This work has initiated so many conversations about the different types of student startups that we’ve been observing. Some are purely product-based, but many others are very community-minded. So what else can we do with that energy? What kind of incubator can we be?

And finally: what’s next for CCA’s foray into securing impact investments?

We’ve received an additional $25,000 investment from the same alumnus, who was delighted with the initial projects, and we’re currently cultivating at least one more investor at this level. Our Center for Art & Public Life is also changing its name to Center for Impact at CCA, and continuing to seek impact investors to build on the model of CCA as an incubator for art and design projects, with an emphasis on those exploring sustainability solutions.