Putting heart into the arts for powerful social change


Arts-based CSR initiatives can have a powerful social impact, and may be the best way of tackling real world challenges, writes Dr Dimitrios Tsivrikos, of University College London and founder of the retail psychologist.

So one may find oneself financing marginalised communities in a far-away galaxy, painting local school fences, or given some free-time to engage in “charitable” projects. Whereas some of these initiatives may create relief in communities that do indeed need all the help they can secure, the cynic in me wonders – do we actually achieve anything beyond glossy and shallow marketing campaigns? In this column I will attempt to explore this rather loaded area that many execs treat as simply a necessary PR stand – for fear of being accused of being unethical, inconsiderate and irresponsible.

In this feature, I will explore a number of great art-based initiatives that enrich both communities in need, as well as employees. Indeed, a survey examining CSR in 140 companies, including FTSE 100 companies, found that over half of the CSR professionals in these companies agreed that arts activities were more effective than other methods at improving local community relations, stakeholder relationships, and developing employees.

A great example of such an initiative is The Educational Theatre Programme. This is a scheme backed by Kaiser Permanente, the largest health plan provider in the US, and it brings health education into communities. Although it began with a magic show in a primary school, the scheme has expanded and been used by over 15 million people. It has also served to bring communities together, with physicians, educators and actors working alongside one another to improve health in the community.

The Adobe Youth Voices programme, which helps youths from deprived areas express themselves through digital storytelling, is another exceptional art-based CSR activity. This scheme enables members of public, who may otherwise be under-represented, to speak out and also helps to re-engage them in education. The programme has had a large impact, for example young people improve their ability to use digital tools, as well as developing their creative thinking and confidence.

This year, creativity was named as one of the most sought-after skills by employers and a key component for leadership success, with 78 per cent of college-educated professionals claiming it is a crucial aspect of their careers. Bearing these statistics in mind, it’s clear that arts-based CSR schemes do not simply make a short-lived impact in a number of communities, but can teach people transferable skills for life.

The cited examples demonstrate the ability of arts-based initiatives to raise awareness of issues within the general population, to create links within communities, to give an alternative medium of expression to those without a voice and develop valuable creativity skills. Art-based CSR projects may be specifically applicable to problems related to youths, such as education and social mobility. Arts activities, such as music and drama, are particularly appealing to and perceived as fun by young people, so these initiatives may be extremely valuable tools for engaging the youth community. In addition, research has shown that both creating and organising artistic activities allows individuals to learn new skills and show greater creativity. Therefore, involving employees in unique arts- based initiatives acts as a form of creativity training.

This research corroborates Google’s 20 per cent rule, in which employees are encouraged to spend 20 per cent of their time researching fun ideas and side projects. As anticipated, this resulted in a more productive and creative workforce, suggesting side projects can enhance work performance. Such evidence strengthens our case that art-based CSR initiatives have the potential to improve employees’ work performance as they lead to relaxation and openness to new ways of doing things, and have been found to increase the likelihood of employees taking on extra roles that are not required in the job description.

In sum, rather than simply handing over a large cheque to a chosen charity, it appears using a company’s full set of expertise can have greater impact. For example, StubHub, a ticket marketplace, was able to bring music education to disadvantaged youths by helping unknown artists to put on a series of concerts as well as donating 100 per cent of the proceeds to the cause. Therefore, companies can make the most of their talents and tools to direct meaningful CSR projects, instead of just offering financial resources.

Given the diverse range of issues we face globally, it seems companies need to align their CSR projects with the context and environment in which they work. For example, firms in India face the issue of high pollution levels, so they have worked to monitor and control pollution in local communities. On the other hand, companies operating in oil- producing areas of Nigeria, which have been neglected by the government, have helped locals by investing in social infrastructure. This is to say that the versatility and engaging nature of CSR art initiatives, as illustrated above, can serve as a platform for such change.

In order to achieve successful change, the company must fully understand the environment it aims to improve and the issues it faces. This enables the organisation to focus its projects and target key problems. For many companies, poverty and disadvantaged communities are significant issues. While conventional CSR strategies may contribute by providing money or creating employment opportunities, this neglects the underlying causes of poverty, which lead people to become marginalised and excluded from labour markets. So now is the time to fully endorse arts-based initiatives. By giving these people a voice, it may allow us to get to the root of the issue and tackle real world challenges above and beyond quick marketing fixes.


Photo Credit: The apocalypse according to (Sommerzeit!) from Flickr