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Monday, October 27, 2003

Flocking funders

As I mentioned last week, I participated in the annual Grantmakers in the Arts conference in Seattle, as part of a panel discussing web technology and the arts. The travel and time kept me from posting much to the weblog, but as usual, launched a thousand new questions in my head.

Here's one for today: What's the impact of foundations on the history of arts and cultural organizations?

By all accounts (and according to one of the keynoters at the conference, Lucy Bernholz), foundations make up only a small slice of the total giving pie in the nonprofit world (see this handy chart). Yet, you could argue that they've had a disproportionate impact on the shape and direction of the arts and culture infrastructure.

Why so powerful an impact? Because of the coordinated incentive they provide to arts and cultural leaders. The incentives, or rewarded rules of behavior, provided by foundations in their giving (their grant guidelines, giving restrictions, professional advice, and so on), have had an incremental impact on the choices of thousands of arts leaders over the past four decades.

Let's take a bizarre detour to make the point. Dynamic systems models of animal behavior have found very simple rules behind rather complex behavior. One example is the flocking of birds, or the schooling of fish. As this fascinating web simulation suggests, you can make simulated birds swoop and swarm in a computer model by encoding only three rules of behavior: 'alignment,' 'separation,' and 'cohesion'.

'Alignment' means that a bird tends to turn so that it is moving in the same direction that nearby birds are moving.

'Separation' means that a bird will turn to avoid another bird which gets too close.

'Cohesion' means that a bird will move towards other nearby birds (unless another bird is too close).

When two birds are too close, the 'separation' rule overrides the other two, which are deactivated until the minimum separation is achieved.

So, am I suggesting that arts leaders think like birds and fish...well, no and yes. I'm suggesting that under stress and situations of limited resources, humans tend to respond to the most immediate stimulus (which makes sense, when you see a bear coming at you). In a vague and complex world of multiple funding streams, foundations have provided one of the few clear and direct rules of behavior to artists and arts supporters. Some of the most powerful rules have been:

'Be Nonprofit' - since the 1960s, and the early lead of Ford and Rockefeller foundations, as well as the NEA, the large bulk of foundation giving has been to organizations formed as 501(c)3 nonprofits. As a result, nonprofit is the tax status of choice for arts and culture organizations, whether or not it's an optimal choice for their purpose.

'Grow, Grow, Grow' - The bulk of foundations, throughout history, have funded projects rather than operations, with an additional bias toward NEW projects. To get funding, arts organizations had to add new projects and increase the scope and size of their activities (and their staff, and their budget, etc.). As a result, many nonprofit arts organizations find themselves bigger and more complex than they need to be.

'Lie About Costs' - Okay, perhaps a bit harsh, but a common limit on foundation funding is that they will not cover overhead (rent, heat, light, etc.), only incremental project costs. Since such new projects necessarily take attention and energy away from other activities (staff only has so many hours in a day), and since foundations often won't recognize this fact, arts organizations are left to be dishonest with their funders and with themselves about what things cost (usually by padding their project costs, or just forgetting to account for them). In my humble opinion, the inability to accurately reflect true costs (cash, personnel, opportunity, etc.) to others and to themselves is one of they key structural flaws in arts organizations.

Some will certainly say that foundations don't coordinate with each other to create consistent and thoughtful incentives, to which I will agree. But there are common myths among funders, mostly unstated or unrecognized, that have led to a remarkable similarity in how they give. My point here is twofold: that foundations have had and can have a massive impact on the shape of arts and culture despite their status in the pie chart, and that the power of incentives has rarely been explored in a public and open way among them.

Much of the massive growth in arts and culture is due to the formation and growth of foundations, with many great things to thank them for. But perhaps some of the structural flaws and stumbling points for today's nonprofits should also be traced back to their doorstep.

posted on Monday, October 27, 2003 | permalink