Funder knows best

In a recent thought-provoking Createquity post, Creative Placemaking Has an Outcomes Problem, Ian David Moss examines one of the newer initiatives of the NEA (and its private philanthropy friends) and finds it to be lacking a logic for how it will achieve its aims. Moss criticizes this program and others for attempting to connect the arts with economic development without considering the steps in between. Moss’s post is a call for a clear and detailed theory of change for such initiatives and he goes so far as to share two models (one simple and one quite complex) that he has developed.

When I read Moss’s essay, I immediately thought of the questionable motives and unquestioned assumptions that seem to underpin many philanthropic efforts in the arts. (I thought about saying “these days” at the end of that last sentence but, to be honest, I’m not sure whether it’s ever been any different.) To the best of my knowledge, the king of arts funding, Mac Lowry at the Ford Foundation, didn’t develop a sophisticated framework or a complex theory of change when he set about altering the landscape of the arts in America. (Of course some might suggest that the arts sector would be better off now if he had.)

Moss’s models and theories are impressive (and I am quite eager to see how the work in Cincinnati develops over time); but I suspect that many arts funders would see no reason and feel no pressure to go to such lengths. There are few demands that private foundations justify their strategies and they are rarely, if ever, held accountable for poor decisions. We trust funders, perhaps to a fault. Or perhaps it’s not trust as much as behavioral conditioning. Or enlightened self interest.

While Moss is (rightfully) worried that arts funders are failing to connect the dots between their grantmaking and the goals they are aiming to achieve, I must admit that I get a little nervous when I think about some funders trying to work with logic models like the ones in Moss’s post. I scan various philanthropy announcements each week. Aside from noting the incredible number of very large donations made to universities, lately I’m often struck by how paternalistic, prescriptive, demanding, inflexible, and self-congratulatory arts funding has become.

(Or has it always been this way and I’m just getting cranky with age?)

I am concerned that arts funders are becoming ever more bullish and confident that they know what’s best for the sector. A little bit of theory and systems thinking may be worse than none at all. I worry that dabbling with or employing such models could make funders all the more convinced that they can (and should) strengthen or improve or otherwise re-shape the entire arts sector by making a few dozen grants a year. I worry that funders will blame grantees if their models don’t work. More than anything, I worry about how funders may begin to connect the dots.

POSTSCRIPT ADDED JUNE 1 2012: Here’s a link to some reflections from Jason Schupbach, NEA Director of Design in response to Ian David Moss’s post on Creative Placemaking: Creative Placemaking—two years and counting!




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  1. says

    Diane, thanks for your response and kind words about the work in Cincinnati. I notice that you filed this entry under the category “asymmetric power dynamics,” which along with your title suggests that your chief concern is that logic models have the potential to further distort the already unequal relationship between funder and grantee. I have to say I disagree pretty strongly with this. Traditional, non-strategic grantmaking (such as that still practiced by many family foundations) is based entirely on some combination of intuition and personal connections. Where is the power balance in that? Sure, it’s great if your organization is already part of the club, but good luck getting past the bouncer at the door. At least logic models and theories of change are a step towards transparency and intentionality in resource allocation. They also provide a mechanism that could be used to hold grantmakers (not just grantees) accountable for their work, and if the measures they use are publicly available, there is nothing to prevent us from doing so. Once you put a logic model out there, you can’t pretend it said something different after the fact. By contrast, it’s impossible to say how effective, say, the Bloomberg Philanthropies are, because no one knows what they are trying to do.

    I would be more sympathetic to your argument if you offered evidence that funders are, in fact, getting more paternalistic and difficult to work with because of logic models. But all I see in this post are worries: that it will embolden funders to try to make a difference (and this is a bad thing because…?), or that funders will blame grantees for the failures in their model (has this actually happened?). Much like the role of government, just because it’s possible to do theories of change badly doesn’t, to me, mean we shouldn’t try to do them well.

  2. says

    Ian –
    thanks so much for commenting. I think you and Margy (Waller) are both incredibly smart about this arena (far more than I). I am sincere when I say that the models are impressive and I am enthused about your work. And I agree with you that old school philanthropy perpetuates the power imbalance. My point, which I’m now thinking I did not make very well, is that most funders are happy with the old model of intuition and personal connections and no one is really questioning their decisions (so they are ever more confident in their decisions, etc.) In other words, I don’t see creating models in philanthropy as creating asymmetric power differences; I see the asymmetric power differences and the confidence that funders seem to have that they know what’s best for the field (Lester Salamon’s philanthropic paternalism, perhaps?) as creating a dynamic that’s corrupting to the process (model or no model). I agree that endeavoring to create a logic model or conceptual framework could mean that funders question their assumptions around “step 2”; and endeavoring to connect the dots can perhaps reveal how illogical one’s hunches are. But I’m not persuaded that in and of themselves models will make funders smarter and more responsible. My ‘hunch’ is that models are best approached with curiosity and a bit of humility: a scientist’s mind that is seeking to understand the world. My experience is that some funders can be rather coercive if they set their minds to making something happen (whether smart or completely capricious).

    Thanks, again, for the Creative Placemaking post and for sharing your thoughts here.

  3. says

    Diane, Ian is indeed wicked smart, and thanks for mentioning my name in the same sentence. It’s been a real gift to work with him on the transformation of Cincinnati’s ArtsWave.

    Over on Andrew Taylor’s blog, I posted a long response to some points he and Clayton Lord raised about Ian’s review of the outcomes issues in creative placemaking. While I’m a fan of the approach as one important way to assess arts investments, I do think there are real challenges – two related to your points here, Diane.

    In his original posting, Ian points out that we can make better investments if we know more about what works and why. We can learn from developing a theory and testing it – to the best of our ability. Data of this kind makes it possible to tweak investment strategies or eliminate funding that doesn’t seem to be working to meet our goals. Agreed. This is the reason to do research that may have little to do with our public advocacy. But still….

    • Arts organizations are going to struggle with becoming research organizations. And that’s what is required of them in this developing model. They have to make an informed guess about where they fit into the theory and choose a measure to show the impact of their art on the goal. This is very hard to do well. (If you have any doubts – go check out the Brookings-NEA research event and watch economists wrestle with the existing data sets.)
    • We will struggle to keep the true goal in our sights. It will be hard not to fall victim to the interests of the few, as we focus on community impact. While more public funding may be a hoped-for, long-term outcome of shifting focus, it’s not going to happen right away. In the interim, there are likely to be winners and losers as the funding focus changes. Those who are threatened by this will be objecting — loudly. It can be hard to stand firm in the face of criticism from our friends, especially when they are also donors. But, if funders succumb to the wishes of the powerful few (and especially if they try to hide that fact), their credibility will be shot.

    If the new funding model works the way we want it to, there are certain to be losers. Unless the funding pie gets a lot bigger, the only way to fund new entrants is to decrease funding elsewhere. The staff and board members of the likely losing organizations know this, and they won’t be silent. The pressure on decision-makers to keep these organizations whole is very real and could lead to the kind of funder data blindness or grantee blame that Diane describes. Let’s hope not.

    Despite these difficulties – this is still a right change to make. We know that the public likes the arts for their ability to make places special and exciting. If we want to build broader support for the arts, especially when the public is also the funder (as is true in the Cincinnati united arts campaign funding model), it makes sense to fund what people love. It’s just not easy. As change is ever not….

  4. says

    Thanks for your very helpful elaboration, Diane, and I hope it’s obvious that the respect is mutual. I completely agree that models don’t do anything by themselves. They need to actually be used in order to be effective. Good logic models and theories of change are a symptom of a learning culture at a foundation, not the cause of one, as you point out so astutely. However, I do believe that developing, publishing, and talking about these tools can help to promote such a culture. At least that is my hope!

  5. says

    To me it looks like the danger isn’t based on whether the model itself is good or bad. It seems that the danger is that a traditional funder mindset can easily be just as bad with a good model as a poor one. So the point seems to me to be about how much work there is to do beyond the good science and before you get to good funder behavior. Or, good models are necessary but not sufficient to achieve their stated goals.

  6. says

    I remain skeptical about the justification of the arts in terms of economic development. Like the previous claims concerning student test scores and “art is good for you” , it requires a serious suspension of disbelief. Furthermore, I reject the NEA’s designation of such economic development models as “placemaking,” which is something else entirely. In its current “sit down and shut up in the dark while we specialists create for you,” uni-directional model of communication, I don’t think any of the claims we’ve made justifying the funding of the arts is persuasive.

  7. Ben Donenberg says

    You forget that the NEA is not a private foundation. It is accountable to taxpayers and elected officials who must demonstrate the wisdom of taxpayer expenditure. One if my criticisms of the NEA leadership is that they are making decisions from a private philanthropy mindset. They have failed to embrace the beauty of accountability and neglected designing programs that are aligned with demonstrable access to excellence.

    Theories reliant on indicators merely point to possibilities of impact and outcomes when certain circumstances conspire. Taxpayers deserve more certain certain results for their dollars.

  8. Ben Donenberg says

    Another curious bit of information may be discernable if the locations that are receiving NEA ArtPlace support to are compared 2008 Presidential voting demographics. Just a hunch.

  9. says

    As an artist I almost have to laugh, if it wasn’t do damn sad. After politics kicked artists out into the street we now seem to be at the mercy of art administrations and organizations scrambling to find the reason, the system, the plan to fund “the arts” which in reality means funding their organizations and institutions.

    First the plan was to realize everyone is creative (not), then we all had to build cities where creative people wanted to live (duh), then everything creative was good for business and charts and graphs showing how much “the arts” contributed to the new economy sprang up everywhere. Now ” the arts” is good only if it effects communities and we can measure that effect. We have to know how it effects them and when it will effect them and what is the best way to effect the outcome of affect in these communities. Is this how we really support artists? Is this how we can best foster an environment that makes art happen?

    Art, all art, cannot be created by committee. Art is not democratic, it never has been. Art is not made to appease the needs or wants or taste of communities. Art often, but not always, does have a profound affect on individuals, groups, communities, societies but good art, powerful art, important art in any form leads and the people follow.

    We need to get back to a place where art organizations, art institutions and art advocacy groups support the source of art- the artists.

    • says

      All non-profit, tax exempt organization have to fulfill certain requirements. There is no “arts” category in the 501(c)3 designation — we slide in under “education.” As such, it behooves us to remember that the NEA and all foundation donations made to the arts and taken as a tax write-off should function for the public good, not simply for the good of artists. It is time for artists to see themselves as servants rather than expecting society to serve us. Our metrics for defending our right to public dollars have been lame in the extreme, and I don’t think the economic argument is particularly persuasive — any argument that could equally justify public funding for, say, professional sports, street fairs, or the building of shopping centers needs to be reconsidered, in my opinion. If artists want to be independent, then they should figure out a business model that doesn’t rely on subsidy.

      • says


        Art and artists, I believe, are a special case. Art isn’t produced in a typical business model. It never has been. The founding bill that established the NEA, the 1965 National Foundation on the Arts and the Humanities Act recognized that fact.

        “The practice of art and the study of the humanities require constant dedication and
        devotion. While no government can call a great artist or scholar into existence, it is
        necessary and appropriate for the Federal Government to help create and sustain
        not only a climate encouraging freedom of thought, imagination, and inquiry but
        also the material conditions facilitating the release of this creative talent.”

        And more to the point is that fact that we as a people subsidize all kinds of business, farmers, oil companies, science, the list goes on and on. The 1965 bill realized that fact when it included the following,

        “An advanced civilization must not limit its efforts to science and technology alone,
        but must give full value and support to the other great branches of scholarly and
        cultural activity in order to achieve a better understanding of the past, a better
        analysis of the present, and a better view of the future.”

        • says

          Richard — But notice that the language reflects a service to society aspect, which I feel has been lost. Artists tend to think it is about their personal development, rather than the development of a rich culture. Ads importantly to my mind is the fact that the arts have become increasingly centralized in a few major urban areas, and is totally focused on artist-specialists rather than enhancing the creativity of the populace as a whole. You sneer at the “everyone is creative” idea, but I would argue that it is a better orientation than “only a few specialists are creative,” which leads to the commodified arts economy we currently have. The fact is that the mass media is way better at creating arts commodities than we are, and we should leave it to them. Instead, the arts should be localized and developing a participatory orientation. As far as the business model, you are right — the current model demands huge inputs beyond ticket revenue. However, in my opinion that is a less than ideal model. We need to become more self-sufficient, so that we can operate with government and foundations from a position of strength rather than abject need. The recent report that showed that 55% of non-profit foundation arts support goes to 2% of the arts organizations — organization located in urban areas with a wealthy, white audience — is an example of subsidizing the rich. There needs to be greater diversity — not just racial, but geographic as well — throughout the system.

          • says

            Scott, Thanks for the meaty discussion.
            What is the artist role in society? I contend it’s not to give the public what it wants because it doesn’t know what it wants in the future. Sure, it knows what it likes (taste) now but if you are just to appease that appetite you get the same art form over and over. The current plight of the movie industry is a perfect example. This is the problem with the above discussion focusing the current rage in measuring affect. What you are surveying and polling and trying to prove is what the public’s taste currently are. So they like the LIon King, do they get Lion King 2 or 3?

            Ever since Richard Florida’s pop-sociology books declared everyone creative it has become the new populist mantra for arts advocacy and organizations. The problem is that it’s a wonderful feel good sentiment that just isn’t true. Not everyone is a Sondheim or Hockney or a Gehry. Sure we all can use creative thinking in our daily lives but that’s different than being an artist. And it doesn’t help us make good sound cultural policy by just repeating, politically safe, happy talk. Creativeplacemaking and after school art classes are important and needed localized social development but I think that’s different than real Arts support.

            I think you mistaking an artists “personal” development with their aesthetic development. A rich culture, a culture where we may be enriched, moved, and enlivened by the arts is completely dependent on that individual aesthetic development. Without it you will not have a culturally rich society.


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