Clay Lord has been on fire over this past week with a couple truly substantive and provocative posts—both aimed at issues around ethnic diversity in the arts. The first asserts that (1) valuing diversity and managing it are different (the former relatively easy, the latter not so much) and (2) funders interested in funding organizations to reach more diverse audiences are not as patient as they need to be if they want to see this change realized. The second post examines data from the Bay Area that attests to the (relative) lack of ethnic diversity in audiences among a sample of arts organizations and pleads for greater attention to this particular issue.
In conjunction with the second post, Clay tweeted a question to his followers that drew quite a lot of responses. The question: “Should an arts organization that finds itself located in a more diverse community be expected to serve a more diverse audience?”
Clay asked me a very similar question when he interviewed me a few years back and, as I recall, I responded that I thought that for the major “flagship” theaters in the US it was not at all unreasonable to expect plays to be selected with an eye to reflecting the different values and stories and communities that exist within a the theater’s geographic area over the course of a season or two.
It’s, of course, quite different for organizations that were created with narrower missions. If your mission is to support Hispanic writers and serve Hispanic audiences (because they are under-served by large flagship organizations, even if they may be presenting a Hispanic work every year or two) then why add the burden of being required to also draw non-Hispanic audiences? These organizations exist to compensate for the preponderance of organizations serving white people. On the Boards, where I worked at one time, has distinctive programming that draws younger-than-average audiences who make far less than the medium income in Seattle. This is also diversity.
In other words, the value of such boutique organizations is that they deeply serve particular communities; they are diverse in aggregate. The value of a broad-based organization is that it can more broadly represent the community over the course of a season or two.
We need both.
And, of course, we recognize what keeps the flagship organizations from abandoning their current programming strategies (which are perceived to serve a rather narrow demographic of white, upper middle class, old people) and it is something like Clayton Christensen’s innovator’s dilemma. The major theaters often have loyal, donating subscribers upon whom they depend for annual operating support. As Clay points out in his post, they (rightly) perceive that changing the programming might drive some of them away.
As I’ve written and talked about for years, Centerstage theater in Baltimore went through this. When Irene Lewis arrived the theater was doing white plays with white actors for white audiences. Baltimore is 67% African American. She felt that the theater was not serving its community and so she began changing the programming and (importantly) the marketing. I interviewed Irene about this once and she said that early on they lost subscribers, some patrons were not at all happy with the shift, and she was challenged on the new direction. Centerstage persevered, however, in large part because Irene (and I suspect others) were deeply committed to the change. Centerstage eventually replaced the lost subscribers with others that embraced the new direction of the theater. Irene told me it took ten years for the change to be fully realized. When I spoke to her about five years ago, the “African American plays” in their season were drawing the largest audiences of the season.
There are three lessons I get from this story: (1) Change will come in the arts sector when leaders are committed to change. (Throwing money at “reluctant dragons” is a waste of time and precious resource.); (2) If you want more diverse audiences change the programming; and (3) Once you change the programming, be patient. It takes a long time (ten years!) and you need to be willing to lose some current patrons in order to gain new ones.*
When’s the last time you heard of a ten-year (not initiative) grant? As Clay points out, most foundations are not patient. They want results within a “grant period” often designed to accommodate the needs and cycles of foundations rather than the needs and cycles of institutions and projects.
But impatience isn’t the only issue. I was at a meeting awhile back where someone that used to work at a private foundation (as did I) said, “Private foundations can be recklessly fickle.” Indeed. Or at the very least they can appear to be so when they decide to abandon initiatives because they often fail to provide satisfactory reasons for their actions.
Or even when they are transparent and articulate their new “strategies” and substantiate them with research, they overestimate the value and impact of a $300,000 grant on an organization with a multi-million dollar operating budget that has several large stakeholders, each of whom is giving a bit of money and hoping for value alignment in return.
The laundry list of philanthropic offenses is long and well chronicled by others but these are a few that relate directly to this issue of funding strategies around diversity and their impact on arts organizations.
So let’s talk about funding strategies. As many have noted, foundations are rarely content these days to simply be helpful; they feel compelled to be strategic. We hear quite a bit about strategic philanthropy—which strikes me as an oxymoronic concept. Coercion might be a better word for it (Bob Brustein wrote an essay awhile back called Coercive Philanthropy that has influenced my thinking on this; but I would propose that once it’s coercion it’s no longer philanthropy).
I also remember listening to the brilliant Adrian Ellis of AEA Consulting at an Americans for the Arts Conference in 2010 say something like (and I’m paraphrasing from memory so hope I have this right), “The more strategic a foundation is the less able it is to support the strategies of individual organizations.” I couldn’t agree more.
Hence the dilemma of Irvine (which Nina Simon points out in her post about Irvine’s new strategy): Irvine sets a new strategy around audience participation but is experiencing a mixed response from the field and has not received as many strong applications as it hoped (or this is what I perceive to be the issue from Nina’s post). Irvine appears to be interested in bringing about a kind of diversity (i.e., change) in the arts sector we don’t often talk about: aesthetic diversity. Irvine’s strategy is not fickle. It has done the research. The research has suggested that if Irvine really wants to have impact it will support organizations that engage community members in the co-creation of work rather than organizations that present professional work produced for what are now often referred to as “passive” audiences. I have to believe the research is robust (as it’s a major foundation with sufficient funds to hire smart researchers).
However well-researched and justified, Irvine must recognize (and I think it does) that its strategy is out of line with the missions of a majority of professional arts organizations, which were formed to present work by professionals for audiences that come to appreciate that work, not make it. (Clay also makes this point in his comments to Nina Simon’s post.) It should expect resistance and attempts by organizations to make token adjustments but still appear worthy of a grant. If I ran an arts organization and needed to change the aesthetic orientation of my organization to get a grant I think I would be a very poor leader, indeed, if I applied for that grant in earnest without serious discussion involving the entire staff and board.
There are organizations, like the one lead by the visionary Nina Simon, for whom Irvine’s new guidelines are water in a desert (as she discusses in her post). They share Irvine’s values, and the work they are doing has been undervalued for too long. The Irvine grant is a source of legitimacy for such organizations.
And the rest?
Well, I’m guessing it feels more like a bucket of cold water in the face.
Irvine needs to recognize that it is endeavoring to coax organizations into uncharted territory. It wants to coerce a change that many cannot, or do not want, to make. Again, I’m guessing they know this. Any organization can do a project here or there in which they let the audience participate in the process. But to reorient an organization away from a structure set up to support professionals presenting the work requires more than money. I reckon it requires a shift in leadership (on the board and staff). It is that fundamental.
So what’s the lesson?
One might jump to the conclusion that foundations should perhaps not attempt to fund change in a system unless they are committed to providing funding for as long as it takes for that change to be realized.
Another conclusion might be that foundations shouldn’t try to change fields and sectors at all, and should content themselves with providing support to nonprofits already doing excellent work that aligns with their priorities.
I seriously question whether funding organizations to make them change works. Has any organization that was reluctant to change made substantive long-term change because of a grant? I suspect any change that happens probably has more to do with leadership, other sources of income, and an intent to change that was already solid before the grant arrived.
And when change fails to be manifested? Well, I would wager that a majority of foundations perceive that organizations are at fault in that case (not the grantmaking strategy). And why wouldn’t they? Organizations write proposals in which they promise to change themselves in dramatic ways for ridiculously small amounts of money and over unreasonable periods of time. They lie about what they can do. They choose to do this to get the money. Foundations choose to believe these lies because it’s convenient to believe that it’s possible to change the world in 3-5 year cycles.
Perhaps rather than trying to change the behaviors of foundations (who have proven to be rather immune to such attempts) organizations need to change their responses to such initiatives. For instance, when that next RFP for a new funding initiative is announced:
(1) Don’t apply for the money, no matter how desperate you are for resources, if the proposal guidelines make you roll your eyes. If this is a foundation that has funded you in the past and this change means you are no longer eligible for funding, write a letter to the Foundation articulating the strategy you are following and why you believe it to have merit. Let them know that you will not be applying for a grant because it would destabilize your organization as it would pull you off what you consider to be a sound strategy. Let them know that if they are ever interested in supporting your organization to continue the good work you are already doing, and the positive impact you are already having in the community, you would be most grateful for the opportunity to apply for a grant.
(2) If you read the application and the funder appears to be interested to support a change you do want to make in your organization (cultivating more diverse audiences, for instance), don’t apply for that grant until you have calculated the total cost of that change on your organization over the next decade and can present that number in your application to the funder, letting the funder know (a) how long you reasonably expect it to take for the change to be implemented; (b) how much you expect it to cost; and (c) the amount you would need from the funder to commit to making the change. If the funder wants you to lower the number and shorten the timeline, or for the program to be self-sustaining after three years, don’t apply unless you have in writing a commitment from board members or donors to fund the program (on top of their current contributions) once the initial funding runs out. If those elements are not in place, write a letter to the foundation explaining the work you want to do that aligns with their values and why you will not apply, and walk way.
I know organizations that are desperate for resources feel as though they cannot afford to say no to the possibility of money. However, I can almost guarantee that you will be better off financially five years from now from having stayed the course with your strategy than from having grown an extra appendage or two in order to get a few grants in the door. We know that such grants have an inflationary effect on the operating budget and the money always goes away too soon.
And on the other side of the table, funders need to be prepared to read such letters, take the heat, and keep walking if they believe they are on the right path. Former grantees may feel betrayed; it’s hard to fall out of favor with a foundation. There will be grumbling by people all over the field, I suspect. (I’m assuming, of course, that foundations are making exit grants to longstanding grantees, or giving them ample notice that funding will not be renewed, and not simply pulling the rug out from underneath them.)
Sure, an honest conversation could lead to a necessary and healthy break up (which is hard), but even this would leave both parties free to pursue their preferred and diverging strategies. But perhaps through a candid discussion common ground could be found; such a conversation might also lead to a stronger relationship, if not now, at some point in the future.
*”Reluctant dragons” is a term that was frequently used by a former funding colleague to refer to organizations hesitant to adopt a particular (foundation funded) practice.