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Considering Impacts, Intended and Otherwise

Conversations with nonprofit leaders about evaluation and accountability usually focus on intended outcomes, impacts, and benefits and how to measure them. In our evaluation work, however, we often observe unintended outcomes, which can be favorable or unfavorable. Recently I ran across a provocative paper by Mark J. Stern and Susan Seifert of the University of Pennsylvania’s Social Impact of the Arts Project (SIAP) that explores just such consequences. Their brief about the social effects of creative economy policies addresses the downside of urban policy makers’ reliance on “creative economy” thinking as a strategy for urban revitalization. They acknowledge that “the logic [behind these strategies] is that attracting the ‘creative class’ to [a] region will generate jobs and tax revenue, a trickle down of benefits to all citizens.” In reality, however, the result is too often not only the gentrification of neighborhoods, but also the “gentrification” of culture – unwitting exclusivity. They discuss research and policy related to the role of culture in urban revitalization and propose a new model – a “neighborhood-based creative economy.” Their thinking resonates with my own feelings about the organic, close-at-hand nature (e.g., shared interests and joint efforts) of what spurs creativity, and its power to transform individuals, families, and neighborhoods.

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