Donor Myopia

In Grass Is Greener? I recounted discoveries about arts organizations with adequate or more-than-adequate government funding. They face problems that might surprise those of us working in the arts in the U.S. And more to the point of this post, my colleagues in South America and Australia were envious of the ability we have to tap private money–individuals, corporations, and foundations.

In that earlier post I promised a consideration of the “down sides” of our private-funding model. The most obvious issue is the lack of dependable support so that every arts organization spends much of its time–as do politicians for similar reasons–pounding the pavement looking for dollars. In an ideal world the resources spent in pursuit of operating funds could be so much better employed in connecting the arts with communities.

But an even bigger problem with our model is how it diverts arts organizations from paying attention to their communities. The history of support that our nonprofit arts infrastructure replicates is the European patronage system. The focus of artists and those presenting the arts was, inevitably, on those who provided the funds to make it happen.

From the beginning of the establishment of arts organizations in the U.S., with virtually no public money flowing in, they have, understandably, been most concerned with the interests of those who fund the enterprise. This narrowness of attention, this “donor myopia” has created a system in which the broader population can be very nearly unseen. We observe this today in the makeup of boards of directors, content (repertoire) selection, and messaging. Our eyes are on the relatively small number of people who have the money to keep operations going.

As the large- (and medium-) donor business model is breaking down the lack of experience in working with communities is going to be a serious impediment to long-term viability. It is time, actually way past time, to develop “chops” in being part of the fabric of the communities in which we work.




Some rights reserved by National Eye Institute

Grass Is Greener?

In my recent travels to Australia and Chile I saw two places where government funding for the arts is far more generous than is true in the U.S. (Yes, we know that is not a very high bar to leap.) In one, Australia, funding is by our standards significant. In the other, funding is nearly total, so much so that even basic concepts like audience development and audience engagement are foreign. My hosts in Santiago told me that patron loyalty is not an issue many arts organizations there address. (What does concern Chilean arts officials is the attempt to connect broadly with as much of the population as possible. Thus, they have a particular concern for community engagement.)

Sounds like funding heaven, right? Certainly, being valued by the government as an important part of society and the (near) certainty that money will be available for basic operations borders on utopian fantasy for those of us in the States.

And yet . . . in Australia, arts officials were waiting to see if the next budget (set to begin in less than 5 weeks) would force them to eliminate important positions. Chilean managers discussed concerns regarding red tape and unresponsive bureaucracies.

These are both “known issues” that plague government funding. However, the big thing that was new to me was that in both countries lack of trust in the government made it difficult for arts organizations to connect with communities. In Australia, First Nations, recent immigrants, and other marginalized populations are sometimes hesitant to work with recipients of government funds. The same was true in Chile but an even more significant factor there was the impact of the nation’s relatively recent history. The arts workers I met told me that almost no one trusted the government or any of its representatives. [While the country’s dictatorship is almost twenty years in the past, not one person with whom I spoke about Chile’s history ever mentioned the name Pinochet. They always referred to “the dictatorship.”] Arts organizations seeking to develop community relationships there have significant work to do to foster even a modicum of trust.

In both countries, Q&A sessions raised concerns about how to build relationships when communities the arts were seeking to reach did not trust the sources of the funds they were using. (Of course the reason lack of trust in the government is not much of an issue in the U.S. is that the amount of money involved is so small.)

Also, in both places I heard wistfulness about the private funds for the arts that they understand to exist in the U.S. In Australia, private money is limited and in Chile it is virtually non-existent.

The view from over the fence seldom sees that there are problems lurking in the green grass. For the purposes of this blog, understanding how each system can impede relationship building is important. Later (probably in the early fall), I’ll apply the same lens to the negative impact of private funding on building trust in new communities. Until then





Some rights reserved by Tim Green aka atoach