When does coaxing become coercing?

carrot-stickLast week I wrote a post on the efforts of foundations to encourage diversity (of various forms) in nonprofit arts organizations, in which I suggested that such efforts could be construed as a form of coercion. In particular, I discussed a new initiative at the Irvine Foundation and suggested that Irvine has been trying to “coax” its grantees into uncharted territory and “coerce” them into behavior that some are not ready or willing to adopt. In response to my post, Ted Russell at the Irvine Foundation tweeted the excellent question, “We’re coaxing. But when is that coercive?”

Yesterday, Barry Hessenius at Barry’s Blog wrote a post astutely synthesizing a few of the recent posts on this topic of “funding diversity” (including my own, for which I’m grateful) and offering his own thoughtful perspectives on several issues, including philanthropic coercion:

Individual organizations are less interested in systemic sector wide change, no matter how lofty the purpose or how much they may embrace the concept and agree with the goal.  It’s really not their job to do so.

But, it is the legitimate job of funders; and foundations that have determined that sector wide systemic change (of whatever sort) is one of their objectives, not only have the right, but arguably the obligation to implement strategies – even ones that make demands of their grantees – that they believe may help reach those objectives.  One can argue such strategies are ill conceived, that they don’t work, that being too ambitious without allowing ample time and resource allocation to give the strategies a chance to succeed is a formula for failure – but I don’t think their underlying attempt to make systemic change is necessarily coercive.  Or, if it is, I think they have the right to be coercive (and a lot of change comes about only becomes it is coerced.)  How else can systemic change come about, if no one is permitted to make even the attempt?

I’ve been thinking a lot about Ted Russell’s question the past few days. While I agree with Barry that foundations (to the limits of their tax codes) should be able to set priorities as they see fit, I would suggest that with the power that one wields as a major funder (in a particular field or region) comes the burden to take responsibility for not only where one’s investments are made, but where they are withdrawn.

I once heard a lecture at Stanford University by Jim Phills, Jr. (author of Integrating Mission and Strategy for Nonprofit Organizations) in which he said that the more desperate an organization is for resources the less control it has over its destiny (i.e., the more likely it is to do things that are not in line with its own mission and strategy in order to obtain resources).

To coax is to persuade gently and gradually.

To coerce has many definitions but as I’m using it I would suggest that it entails pressuring another party (through action or inaction) to act in a manner that goes against their will.

For an organization that has a history of funding from Irvine, then the current shift could result in two perceived threats: (1) loss of financial support that is critical and (2) loss of the imprimatur of the Foundation. Given the possible impacts of such losses, such an organization could quite reasonably begin to feel strong pressure to adopt strategies that are not currently in line with its mission, vision or values.

I understand that foundations change their strategies with good reason. As I mentioned in my last post, it seemed that Irvine was quite thoughtful in developing its new strategy. And Irvine may be “coaxing” (from its point of view).

But if its longstanding grantees perceive that they will be out in the cold if they are not on board with the new strategy?

Well, to my mind, this is where coaxing begins to feel like coercion.

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  1. Fielding L Grasty says


    A thought-provoking post (two, actually) as usual! One question leaps to mind: working backward from your distinction drawn between coercion and coaxing, where does this set the bar for both parties entering the funding relationship in the first instance? I’m stuck on reconciling the freedom that funders do (and should) have to define their own priorities with what obligation they have beyond the terms of a grant or series of grants made to an organization. If it is coercion – or even just bordering on coercion – for a funder to change tack in such a way that either threatens ‘(1) loss of financial support that is critical and (2) loss of the imprimatur of the Foundation,’ that seems a high bar for entry, perhaps more akin to a betrothal that assumes indefinite alignment of priorities between funder and grantee rather than a time-bound grant (investment, etc.)? I agree funders have an obligation to consider the ramifications of withdrawing funding, but have trouble with the possible implication this has on initiating funding: if the obligation (ethical barrier to exit, if you will) is sufficiently high, isn’t one likely to be bound to fund less organizations, even assuming an equal level of funding overall?

    Thank you for your always clear, cogent and trenchant (when needed!) analysis and writing.


    • says

      Hi Fielding,

      Thanks for the astute observations and excellent questions (as always). A few thoughts:

      #1 In my last post I suggested that perhaps funders should not endeavor to “change” organizations and I paraphrased Adrian Ellis’s comment from a few years back that the more strategic a funder is the less able it is able to support the strategies of its grantees. Some of these issues arise because funders want to get the field marching in a certain direction and they are often successful in doing so. It strikes me as more than a little ironic that some foundations are now wringing their hands because arts organizations are engaging in ‘spectating’ and are resistant to ‘participatory engagement’, since the shift away from the participatory arts and the engagement of amateurs in the the last century was urged by foundations and others seeking to “professionalize” arts organizations. If the field is frustratingly isomorphic it may be so in large part because of “field-wide systemic interventions” by foundations. I don’t think foundations need to be beholden for life and certainly cycling out current grantees to make room for new entrants is important for ensuring that emerging organizations have a chance to develop and compete with incumbents; but if a foundation is going to fund organizations to do its will rather than their own, then it seems it also needs to stick with them through the long, difficult process of change. How long is that? Depends on the change, I guess.

      #2. As far as the loss of support, it seems that organizations need ample time to replace funds or come up with other strategies for programs that are losing substantial support. Exit grants designed to support the organization through a transition can be one effective way of dealing with this. This implies that once the foundation changes its funding priorities it may need to allow several years to responsibly wrap up old programs before starting new ones.

      #3. As to the imprimatur, sometimes it’s the symbolic closed door and messaging that accompanies these shifts in funding priorities that is more harmful than the actual loss of support. Foundations are sometimes not content to simply give money; the also create a lot of messaging around their support that says, in essence, and in a quite subtle way sometimes: “We’ve now determined that practice X is best and practice Y is no longer best; thus, we’re only going to fund organizations that do X. We will no longer fund organizations that do Y.” This can leave organizations feeling like they are in the doghouse for staying the course with strategies that yesterday seemed to put them in the good graces of the foundation but today are seen as “behind the times”. It also has the effect of “de-legitimizing” behaviors not endorsed by the foundation.

      Perhaps this all just comes down to acting with as much generosity and grace as possible and being cognizant of the asymmetric power dynamics.

      And, again, as I suggested in my last post; sometimes divorces are good. And perhaps, when the writing is on the wall, it is better if organizations consider divorcing their funders rather than waiting to be abandoned. At the very least, it may make them feel as if they are back in the driver’s seat with their destiny.

      • Douglas Clayton says

        Another angle on this is the funder’s appreciation for the specific mix of funders of which they are a part.

        For example, in a city or state with a profusion of culturally-inclined foundations, such as Philadelphia or New York, a foundation changing priorities and knowing that this will mean some currently funded organizations may have to look elsewhere may be less ‘coercive’ because there are other funding opportunities to be had, freeing the grantee to pursue other funding without changing their core strategies.

        On the other hand, a foundation or other funder in an area or region with many fewer alternate funding opportunities, in say, a rural state or a region with less inclination to fund cultural activities, will by nature be more ‘coercive’ with its funding choices because their grantees don’t have other places to go to seek replacement funds for what they lose due to the funder’s new strategy.

        • Keryl McCord says

          Speaking strictly on my own behalf as a thirty plus year veteran in the field, it is both saddening and disheartening to see this discussion about “diversity” come around, yet again. In the theater field vociferous and at times rancorous discussions raged in the 1980s, 1990s, 2000s, and now well into the second decade of the 21st century, here we are again.

          Yet despite the hundreds of millions of dollars invested in various and sundry initiatives to promote “outreach,” “education,” “diversity,” and “community engagement” within the “mainstream” institutions, ethnic, racial, and culturally specific organizations, who in aggregate truly represent the diversity sought, have been dying on the vine for lack of support.

          By example, in the 1970s there were more than two hundred theater companies in the US that identified as black theaters. Today there might be twenty, thirty? Asian, Latino and Hispanic companies haven’t fared much better. (I know that this issue also impacts dance as well.) It begs the question, if we wanted to achieve diversity in the arts, why not fund these diverse organizations? Why not make a commitment to support these artists and their communities? It is frustrating to say the least that our understanding of this issue has not advanced much beyond 1983.

  2. says

    I just want to raise issue with the quote from Jim Phills about desperation for resources leading organizations astray from their destinies. In my experience, it is often an overly comfortable relationship with resources that leads organizations astray–not necessarily to chase money through targeted grant programs, but to behave in a self-satisfied manner that eschews rigorous pursuit of fundamental mission or strategy. Those organizations that are desperate are often the only ones engaged in the kind of painful soul-searching that leads them to dedicate themselves to their missions in new ways, or to pursue new goals with intention. There’s nothing like easy money to help you forget the real challenges at hand.


  1. […] A few weeks back, in a guest-post on Engaging Matters, Roberto Bedoya extended an invitation for others to join him in blogging about “how the White Racial Frame intersects with cultural policies and cultural practices.” The proposition grew out of a series of posts (largely written by a bunch of white people, like me) focused specifically on the Irvine Foundation’s new participatory arts focus and, more generally, on (funding) diversity in the arts. I don’t feel qualified to address this topic and I’m positive I do not do it justice, but this is my sincere attempt to unpack some small part of this large issue. (You can read my previous posts on the the Irvine strategy here and here.) […]

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