Strategic partnerships between funders & arts orgs: same small grants, more hoop jumping

There were many thoughtful comments to last week’s post, including provocative reflections on the power imbalance between funders and grantees and speculation as to whether restructuring the relationship as a ‘partnership’ might be feasible or desirable. In recent years, a ‘strategic partnership’ approach (commonly used by venture philanthropists seeking to, for example, fund nonprofits to make and distribute mosquito nets in the Third World), has been embraced by some arts funders. But is this a positive development for arts groups?

Most arts funders (even those that are endeavoring to be ‘partners’) are making miniscule grants relative to arts organizations’ operating budgets, or even the budgets of their individual programs in many cases. If an arts organization is cobbling together a bunch of $5-$25,000 grants to fund some portion of its operations (as many of them are), how many authentic ‘partnerships’ (read: masters) can it reasonably fulfill (read: serve)?

For that matter, how many ‘partnerships’ can one funder reasonably sustain? I was interested to learn from a presentation by a major venture philanthropist that his foundation had determined that it could manage no more than about 30 projects at a time, because each ‘partnership’ required sustained financial support and significant time (read: involvement) of foundation staff.

Which raises another question: Do arts organizations want ‘partnership’ if it implies intense involvement? Furthermore, is such involvement appropriate when one is creating operas or art exhibitions? Witness the way some foundations and individual donors have, essentially, sought to coerce the National Portrait Gallery into reinstating A Fire in My Belly by artist David Wojnarowicz on the grounds that they have contributed to the exhibit Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture.

It would appear that the National Portrait Gallery made the decision to remove the exhibit in response to political pressure from representatives of the US government, which might reasonably be considered a ‘partner’ given that the NPG receives several million dollars in federal appropriations each year. That other smaller ‘partners’ of the exhibit disagree with the decision is completely understandable (there seems to be near unanimity in the ‘art world’ that this was a scandalous turn of events); but that they expect to change the outcome, may not be. Unless these other funders and individual donors can pony up millions of dollars per year in operating support for the National Portrait Gallery, they are unlikely to have significant political leverage with it now, or in the future. And, reasonably, should they?  

I sense that grant seekers are keen to use the term ‘partnership’ as they perceive that recasting the relationship as two entities jointly trying to achieve a great goal may help level the playing field and encourage meaningful underwriting in support of core programs for sustained periods of time (think: The Humana Festival at Actors Theatre of Louisville). Realistically, I don’t see many arts funders being able or willing to do this. Cynically, I think calling them partners (particularly those that are flying the ‘strategic philanthropy’ flag) may simply give them more power and lead them to expect more involvement and hoop jumping and achievement of outcomes, in exchange for what still amounts to relatively small amounts of restricted support.

Elephant and Mouse image by Gnurf, licensed at

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  1. says

    Diane: You are right that the proliferation of partnerships in the arts can be problemmatic if expectations are not managed carefully. I think the risk arises from the generic use of the word “partnership” in connection with any agreement between or among two or more organizations to collaborate, without establishing the specific areas in which have a common interest and how they will be operationalized. The increasing pressure from funders and boards of directors to create arts “partnerships” can be a constructive force, but only if there is clarity in advance on whether the focus of the collaboration is programmatic, administrative or organizational and a shared understanding of authority and responsibility for key decisions. If funders want to have authority over programmatic or operational decisions, they should communicate their expectations upfront, so that grant recipients can accept those conditions (or not) with their eyes wide open.

  2. says

    Some great points here! For my part, I’m deeply skeptical that we’ll ever be able to recast the grantor-grantee relationship as an authentic partnership as long as the grantee needs the grantor 1000x as much as the grantor needs the grantee. It’s like asking for a strategic partnership between a drowning man and the captain of a rescue boat. For many non-profit organizations, their very survival depends on the benevolence of their funders. For the funders, there is at best some tepid social pressure not be visibly incompetent, but even that is all stick and no carrot.

    This isn’t going to change until:

    (1) Funders are held accountable – in some kind of quantifiable, public way – for the impact of their grantmaking (this is much easier said that done); and

    (2) Non-profits have enough other sources of revenue that turning down a “bad” grant is a realistic option.

  3. Lance Aaron says

    Your article reinforces the point that Arts Institutions have multiple partners. Directors are wise to first vigorously consult the Curator, the partner who has his/her reputation and that of the curatorial team at stake (they are entrusted with a fiduciary responsibility to the institution and its board) and to the diverse major sponsors/financial stakeholders before potentially creating self inflicted wounds and embarassment for all.

  4. Charles Desmarais says

    I once worked with a private foundation, the principal funder of which was known to loudly announce, “I live by the Golden Rule: he who has the gold makes the rules!” I think that sums up the realities of the matter (if rudely).

  5. says

    The partnership concept is best applied during the application phase. I have always found that working closely with a funder when submitting a proposal ( and I am speaking only of substantial grants of at least $100,000) is beneficial to both parties. On more than one occasion, I have benefitted from insights and knowledge of a program officer , enabling me to refine and rethink the project to our mutual advantage. An important part of this strategy is overcoming the “them and us” mentality , which does not mean allowing the funder to dictate policies and terms which compromise the integrity of the project ( as was the case in the NPG catastrophe). But establishing a real relationship which allows the grantee to communicate frankly with a good program officer, has proven to be an excellent basis for the long term. I have found that grantors welcome real communication, not just giving them what you think they want to hear. For smaller, less complex grants, none of us have the time or energy for anything other than fulfilling the requirements and practicing good, standard stewardship.

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