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The Tragedy of the Commons
Lee Walton

Notwithstanding CSO music director David Stahl’s lament in his recent Palter and Chatter commentary that “There are no Fortune 500 companies in our area to underwrite the CSO as there are in many other metropolitan areas”, two fundamental flaws are evident in his wishful logic: First, given the deepening national economic crises, there is now ample evidence to support the conclusion that “Fortune 500 companies” have lately becoming oxymorons – current national data doesn’t support long-term corporate charitable contributions to the arts at levels common in previous years. Second, Charleston’s common pasture available to provide charity-program contributions is neither as diverse as that of larger metropolitan areas nor of the member quality and quantity needed to sustain the ever-increasing herds of grazing non-profit organizations seeking the limited financial nourishment that the finite Charleston area commons can provide in this period of economic drought.

As best exhibited by the old financial management parable, The Tragedy of the Commons, over-grazing on limited common pastures by too many ever enlarging herds of livestock eventually results in an unsustainable condition precipitating starvation, disease, and death for most of the herds. Individual herdsmen are unwilling to altruistically trim their own herds for the survival benefit of all who draw sustenance by grazing upon the limited resources within The Commons.

The continuing, rapid decline in donations to and support for Charleston area performing arts groups and tourism related non-profits are but stark reflections of growing national trends in charity-program contributions. According to Ben Pierce, executive director of the Vanguard Charitable Endowment Program, in a recent Wall Street Journal article, ‘Giving’ Season Falls Short, “There’s been an unprecedented fall in philanthropic giving in the U.S. in the past two months.” Donations from just that program fell by 900 grants totaling a $5 million reduction during this past October and November as compared to the previous year. The deepening national recession, now exacerbated by the compounding effects of a ruptured housing bubble, catastrophic declines on world-wide financial markets, sweeping pre-holiday lay-offs, and probable bankruptcies in several major national industry sectors, leaves little doubt that both personal and corporate purse strings are being cinched ever tighter and excluding many charity-program contributions in the process.

The CSO is fortunate to have David Stahl as its music director; he has proven to be an effective and tireless director of the symphony and artistic figurehead for the CSO League. Nonetheless, David Stahl leads with passion in a time of financial crisis when a leader with reason would be more appropriate. One can read Stahl’s recent commentary and readily draw the conclusion that there is only his “Plan-A” - the CSO is speeding headlong toward a financial cliff while proclaiming that it’s the duty and obligation of Charleston area benefactors to divert them from this certain path toward self-destruction. Why is there no “Plan-B”?

Sound financial reason, not misplaced passion, is now needed to save the CSO, other local struggling performing arts groups, and many local tourism related non-profits from impending financial collapse. Logical reasoning necessary to face today’s financial realities may not be in the day-to-day management tool-kit of most non-profits, but it’s the only sound course of action that will allow management boards of these organizations to step back and judge existing circumstances with long-term survival as their only realistic alternative.

The Commons has been cropped bare to the stubble; there simply isn’t enough left to sustain the larger herds of yesterday.

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