A couple months back I was one of a number of people interviewed for a research project of Grantmakers in the Arts. The interview was aimed at understanding my influences as a funder (when I worked at the Mellon Foundation) and drawng out some lessons learned. At one point in the discussion I found myself saying that I had probably left grantmaking just in time because I was not sure I understood how to be an effective arts grantmaker over the long haul.
While at Mellon I found myself continually questioning whether it was better to provide stable support to a few over a very long period of time (forsaking all others) or to “cycle out” grantees after a reasonable period of time in order to make room for new entrants.
No matter the choice, the questions that ensued were maddening: If “fewer but larger” which few given that so many worthy organizations needed support? If “spreading the wealth” then what was a “reasonable” timeline for ending support given that organizations and their projects were chronically underfunded?
Without a doubt, a common funder’s dilemma.
And there were other aspects that troubled me.
For one, since no single funder is generally a “majority stakeholder” in most arts organization, the fate of any organization is a factor of actions by quite a number of private and public donors, who can have competing values, rationales, measures of success, and goals.
And perhaps most disconcerting, as time went on it felt increasingly difficult to see the sector with clear eyes. As in any organization, attention in a foundation is focused on some problems but not others. The lens is narrowed and the field is seen through the logic of the current “regime” and through the eyes of current grantees. Problems are problems only insofar as they can be addressed by and classified within existing program areas and can be grasped and articulated using the house rhetoric. Whole swaths of the sector and their issues, by necessity, become invisible in order for the funder to maintain any sense of purpose and potency; to think about everything one can’t fund is to invite a nervous breakdown on an organizational level.
About a month ago, I was reading an oft-cited essay from 1970 by Zelda Fichandler, co-founder of Arena Stage in Washington DC and pioneer of the resident theater movement. The essay is called Theatres or Institutions?* Perhaps because this GIA interview had been on my mind I found myself circling back to a couple of paragraphs in which Fichandler questions and reflects upon the impact of first receiving funding (when the Ford Foundation, NEA, and others first began to support theaters) and then losing it a little over a decade later. (Emphases added by me.)
What happens when the money comes in a little? When you get enough from the Ford Foundation or the National Endowment to move ten squares and buy the Atlantic City Boardwalk? Is it migraine headache time? What time is it when you are suddenly endowed with all the blessings of institutionalization? (Mind you, the blessings aren’t something that are forced on you. They’re something you asked for without quite knowing what you’re getting.) Time for the Table of Organization? Time for the specialization of labor? Time to begin to consider the internal distribution of wealth now that you’ve got some? The promoting, marketing and distribution of the product? Ways to increase efficiency, ways to rationalize use of time and manpower, ways to diversify so as to appeal to a broader base, ways to close the gap between income and spending? It’s headache time and Surprise! Surprise! Time. One has become a private enterprise in a capitalistic society. The “not for profit” in your papers really says No Parking. Shades of Adam Smith and the Ford Motor Company of American and Pan, where hast thou fled? (p. 109)
We’ll need more money than we are getting and we must get it in a different way. Arena Stage has just received a terminal grant from the Ford Foundation which, partially matched by a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts will just about cover our deficit for the last season and for this one and the next. We have also received other grants from these and from other foundations, among them a three-year grant for a workshop program for our acting company, a three-year grant for the training at minimal salaries of young craftsmen under a production intern scheme, a three-year grant to increase the salaries of a ten-person nucleus of an acting company. This was very early on, around 1958 or 59—to entice actors from the magnetic field of New York. …
I mention these in particular to make the point that while it may be better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all, these grants had such a seminal meaning for our organization that when they were withdrawn, or, more accurately not renewed, the trauma was so intense that one wondered whether it would have been better not to have had them than to have had them and lost them.
Not knowing from one year to the next whether there will be a spring, or only summer, winter and fall, one simply does not know how to organize one’s closet. I suggest an end to this tithing tease. I suggest a recognition that subsidy is here to stay or we cannot possibly. (p. 110)
Reading this last line, in particular, brings to mind some of Scott Walters’ recent posts on the need for artists to create new business models that are not dependent on contributions in order to maintain their independence (summarized here by Laura Axelrod).
I am compelled by the dead-in-your-tracks ending of the last sentence of Fichandler … or we cannot possibly. Cannot what? Cannot conceive of any way, perhaps, to continue the revolution that the resident theater movement was intended to be if our comrades in the large private foundations and federal arts agency abandon the cause.
Less than a decade after she spoke these words major funding from Ford would be evaporating and funds from the NEA would begin to flatten before beginning their descent. And by 1978 there would be a palpable sense that the resident theater movement had taken a wrong turn at some point along the way.
I keep returning to these paragraphs from Fichandler’s essay because they illustrate poetically and potently what happens in the psyche of a grantee when a little bit of money comes in and when it, inevitably, goes away. In response to the question, Would it have been better not to have received these grants than to have received them and lost them? I finding myself wanting to shout back at the page, “Yes! You would have been better off never having received the money!”
No matter how good the intentions of most foundations over the past several decades it seems the “tithing tease” has debilitated rather than strengthened the sector. And by debilitated I mean weakened the ability of organizations to enact their missions.
So what is the problem? I find myself wanting to push past questions like whether or not the field would benefit from more GOS and less project-based support, or from longer-term rather than shorter-term grants and ask a more philosophical question … Something like …
Is it ethical for funders to start what they cannot finish?
Cannot because they do not have the resources … Or cannot because they are unwilling to commit to full funding or long-term support because it is believed that these create an unhealthy resource dependency … Or because there is a desire to keep options open in order to be able to pursue new initiatives or respond to new grantees at will.
The assumption embedded in the term “start” is that I’m not talking here about the kind of helping hand that simply wants to support ongoing programs or operations. I’m talking about the kind of hand that seems to want to push, pull, prod, coax, launch, build, expand, change, or otherwise disrupt the status quo.
Some follow-on questions …
- Is it ethical to de-fund organizations that are achieving agreed upon goals, if you know that removing support will destabilize the organization or the funded program?
- Is it ethical to provide “seed funding” if the organization is unlikely to be able to raise the remaining funds needed to finance the initiative (in the start up phase and over time).
- Is it ethical to start relationships with new organizations (i.e., cut the pie into smaller pieces) when those that are currently funded are already receiving inadequate support?
Fichandler says it all in those paragraphs: (1) Even small amounts of money can have undue influence. She isn’t just talking about new programs being started, she’s talking about a shift in the logic, the goals, and the processes of her theater. (2) When money goes away it can be traumatic–not simply because it’s hard to replace the cash but because it feels like, and signals to others, a withdrawal of support for the cause.
As far as I can tell not much has changed with funders since 1970. We continue (at times) to give organizations just enough money to encourage them toward one path rather than another (a choice that we know will consequently enable certain future paths and disable others) and then we walk away when they are just far enough down the path that they can’t really turn back.
We still call it philanthropy but perhaps we need another name for an action that essentially amounts to tipping the dominoes and then walking away.
PS – I am delighted (!) to have been asked to attend and blog about the 2013 Grantmakers in the Arts conference in Philadelphia in early October. I will be posting on the GIA website and also on Jumper.
*Essay published by the International Theatre Institute (US) in a journal called Theatre 3 (one of five such journals).