The problem with problemization

Snapshot of 2009 foundation funding, from Foundation Center and GIA Reader

I wasn’t sure whether or not problemization was a word until I looked it up and found that it is one. Problemization is to consider or treat as a problem (Merriam Webster).

I’ve been thinking about this a lot. The reason is that increasingly when you look at a foundation’s grant guidelines you are asked: “What problem are you trying to solve?” I put the following into Google: “Foundation funding what problem are you trying to solve.” The search result: 182 million hits that included dozens of foundations’ guidelines and many articles about how to write successful grant proposals. The additional question is “What is the need or problem that will be eliminated if your request is granted?” (And subsequent questions about how you identified and documented the problem, what logic model you followed to design your solution and how will you measure your results.)

I wonder what effect this culture of pathology, of diagnosis and treatment, is having on the nonprofit sector in general and the cultural sector in particular. Do foundations increasingly see themselves in the role of a sort of benevolent physician, identifying social “disease” and using their grants as the medication needed for wellness to be achieved? Not that long ago, a primary framework for organized philanthropy was one of ideas and experimentation; the mindset was one of risk capital and the ability to fuel new ideas that are interesting and should be tried.

The problem/solution framework is especially insidious for the arts. Yes, we do solve problems in the arts, particularly we work on aesthetic and philosophical problems, though these are not problems a foundation could help solve (at least not directly). In fact, the problems we solve are not easily documented, it is difficult to apply a social scientist’s approach to them, and our documentation of results is more likely qualitative than quantitative.

What problems are we trying to solve? Here are a few. More people should encounter beauty as part of their daily lives. Artists who are able to focus uninterrupted time on their creative work will create stronger work, work that will create more meaning and value for those who encounter it. All people deserve access to the transformative power of artmaking, and its ability to simultaneously draw on the physical, intellectual and spiritual aspects of being human. The creative impulse is as basic to our species as the need for food and cultivating individual creativity will result in richer, fuller lives.  Communities should have permanent structures where creativity can be fostered and artists can find meaningful work. There are many more.  But, do we really see these as problems?

I think that people working in the arts see the world through the lens of human potential and not through the lens of disease (or human failing). I wonder whether this accounts for the widening chasm between foundation priorities and arts giving (arts grantmaking is shrinking as a proportion of overall grantmaking, down 21% between 2008 and 2009). Perhaps the reason is that those in the cultural sector are unwilling (and unable) to re-orient their deep-seated belief in human potential to satisfy an analysis by those who look at society and see what’s wrong, rather than what’s right.

Problemization is a world view and the nonprofit sector seems only too willing to embrace it. You may argue that this has meant more rigor, more focus on results, and better outcomes. But something also has been lost. Maybe you can help me put my finger on it.

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  1. Cory Busse says

    This mindset exists dominates the commercial sector, too. It’s endemic of a marketing-driven culture where bringing to market a new “product” is justified only by the identification of a clear need. In my experience, however, very few products begin with the thesis of, “Where is there an unmet need, and what product can we create to meet that need?” Instead, no need exists, but a product does. And the onus falls on the product team to “create a need” or to “create a market.” The cart is before the horse.

    I would argue that products like successful products like the iPhone/iPad or Snuggies or even flat-screen TVs were not filling any unmet need. Instead they created the *illusion* of a need and drove demand.

    If only we could more frequently create that same kind of illusion for the arts and reaffirm in the general public that there is an unmet need–without expectation of financial return on investment–for more beauty in their lives.

  2. Al Jacobsen says

    Thank you for the post. I would add that corporate foundations are also focusing more on problem solving with their giving. Philanthropy should be about solving problems AND maintaining/growing/encouraging what is good in our society.

  3. Flo Golod says

    Thanks very much for identifying & exploring this issue. A very talented local fundraising consultant, Jim
    Scarpetta (who died about two years ago) used to say he hated foundation guidelines because, “They always want to know what the @#/%# problem is.” Individuals want to know what our creative idea is and why it’s a good idea.

    The focus on problems tends to diminish the full shining of the entrepreneurial spirit. Nonprofit leaders and artists still have it but they have to re-frame it inside a problem. It would be so much better if foundations asked, “What’s your idea and why is it a good idea?”

    • Jenny Seidelman says

      “What’s your idea and why is it a good idea?” sounds like the philosophy behind crowdsourcing sites like Kickstarter. I wonder if it will ever catch on with foundations, or if arts organizations will start to spend their energy on these sorts of funding channels, rather than having to apply for grants where they have to make up a “problem” that they’re trying to solve.

  4. Charles Shere says

    Marcel Duchamp: “Il n’ya pas de solution parce qu’il n’y a pas de problème.”

    Wittgenstein: “For an answer which cannot be expressed, the question too cannot be expressed.”

  5. says

    The rhetorical issue you raise is an interesting one. I’m not convinced, however, that problemization is inherently “problematic” for the arts. Problem formulation can itself be considered as an essence of creativity that leads to innovative thinking about whatever the situation is that is before us. Problem formulation does not necessary lead to a “culture of pathology” but it can lead to creative solutions.

  6. Cari Ness Nesje says

    We were having this very discussion in my class tonight (MA of Nonprofit Mgmt at Hamline) and I shared this link with all of my classmates. Many of them work for social services or health nonprofits so it is sometimes difficult to find common ground or even common language between their sub-sector and the arts and culture sub-sector.

    Thanks, Sarah!

  7. says

    Well stated. To focus on only one part of a society is to deny the need for broad, diverse elements that add up to the civilization that benefits us all. Certainly, we need to solve problems of injustice, discrimination and poverty.
    We also need to fill other gaps in our society, and the arts are an important part of a full civic and cultural life, essential in any well-ordered society. The focus of our philanthropy should be public benefit, and, clearly, the public benefits enormously from the arts.

  8. says

    Exactly right. Essentially this approach to grant funding is an attempt to force theatres into the role of social service agencies. Theatres do provide notable social functions in our society, but to suggest — as many foundations do — that theatre and the arts more generally should directly solve social “ills” is a gross misunderstanding of the art form, the role of playwrights, and the nature of the impact theatre can have over time.

  9. says

    I think part of the problem is the scale of foundations. What started as wealthy individuals acting as contributor to the arts, foundations then provided a tax benefit to all those donations. Then foundations became larger and larger. Then professional foundation management became necessary to manage the process, tax, and legal requirements of all of this. And of course these professioanls are accountable, and aren’t in a position to go with the gut or follow their heart, because it’s not their money.

    I don’t know any stats behind this, but I would be willing to bet that the majority of funds that today go to the arts are done on a local level, by individuals still giving their own money, and following their heart and their gut.

  10. says

    This tension also exists in other sectors! In 1993, Kretzmann and McKnight shook up the urban planning world by arguing that community development was more successful if rooted in an asset-based approach vs. the dominant needs/deficiency model. Check out “Building Communities from the Inside Out: A Path Toward Finding and Mobilizing a Community’s Assets” and the website: Local governments and foundations still employ both needs-based thinking, but there is now room and space for this alternate approach.

  11. says

    To me the notion of project based funding and problemization are related. Most funding agencies are project based, being that each “project” is being funded to solve some sort of “problem” . So one is forced to subdivide organizational mission statements into a series of definable “problems” and “projects”. Perhaps a case of not being able to see the forest for the trees?

  12. says

    It is ironical that Sarah can not describe what the problem is with having foundations requesting that they define a problem so that they can provide funding for a solution. It seems to me that there is a semantics issue with using the word ‘problem’, which is also encountered in other worlds besides the art world. If you think of it as an opportunity or challenge to do what you want then you might have a better way to articulate what the opportunity really is, or ask someone that is not even directly involved with it to get a better way to construct your thoughts.

    I remember doing some pro bono consulting to help an artist write her business plan. We spent half a dozen meetings to identify the purpose of her organization. It took time for her to construct and organize her thoughts to describe what she wanted to do with creating art. It turned from a global organization that wanted to educate about people with a shared identity to a regionally focused organization based on a group of individuals with a similar heritage she wanted to reach. Conceptual thinkers sometimes need help to deconstruct their thoughts into more specific ideas that are tangible.

    There is a definite need for creative funding so that artists can go off and experiment and do things that are off the wall and not necessarily a ‘project’. And there are foundations out there that will support that, think of it as your ‘Research and Development’ budget. Like a good business, R&D is a way to develop ideas that don’t necessarily solve a ‘problem’ but ones that expand the world of art, and different types, to a different or greater audience. Maybe the problem/ challenge/ opportunity is that you don’t have the budget to be able to develop new artists or ideas.

  13. Sara says

    Well said. Thanks, Sarah! I am curious what you and others think then of Case of Need and Theory of Changes since as you said our society has gone to such a problem/solution approach. And how we can influence grantmakers to think differently since we can’t reformat the applications.
    I also wanted to commend you for the paragraph on what problems we are solving :)


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