Alternately, are you just robotically giving the most money to previous beneficiaries?
In a city in which I no longer live, I served on a local government arts panel evaluating capital requests from arts organizations in the community. We looked at a number of proposals from organizations with small, medium, and large budgets, but the money for such capital expenses came from the same government allocation. We didn’t have enough money to fund them all, nor would we have funded them all given the nature of the requests.
The large organizations asked to fund, for the most part, top-of-the-line technical apparatuses, room renovations (donor parlors, in particular), and updated equipment to replace their current technologies. Many said they would then donate that older equipment to other nonprofit venues.
All the other organizations asked to fund items such as computers for their administrative staff (because they didn’t have any), ticketing systems (to replace handwritten charts and wood racks), chairs (in one case, the organization’s theater chairs were almost 75 years old and, predictably, mostly broken), rudimentary sound and light boards (because they were still just flicking switches on and off), and other comparatively basic needs.
In essence, they were asking for a 12-pack of Ticonderoga pencils while the large organizations asked for a Patron of Art Homage to Victoria Limited Edition 888 Fountain Pen.
Making things exponentially worse, large organizations have a number of people residing in their development departments. These experts have keen insights, knowledge, and experience raising funds. Their grant requests used the best terminology, the most prolific statistics and acumen, and a high level of writing prowess. Almost always, that was due to the single fact that dedicated grantwriters had been tasked to attack this grant application. The only other tasks with which that the large companies’ grantwriters might have had to handle included the search and disposition of other grants and general development work—some of which used the same (or at least similar) language, approach, and persuasive techniques. That’s the advantage of having a bevy of highly-educated, experienced development personnel.
For small and medium-sized organizations, the development department is often a single person. He or she is an underpaid workhorse, handling not only grant writing activities, but also annual galas, correspondence with donors, board committees, and anything else that falls under the umbrella of “unearned income,” an insulting description of the hard work at hand.
In applications from those organizations, often the writing was rushed, inexact, and a grammatical abomination. The request were desperate and not terribly well-supported by data. The amount requested had often only been passed on from the person in charge of the building (costs and all), with no supporting documents verifying the amount requested. There were flowery, obviously repeated phrases from other grant requests. In one case, the copying went too far; the requestor mistakenly kept in the name of the foundation from a previous ask for the same equipment.
Those in the room shook their heads at many of these requests because most in the room either worked for the government or larger arts organizations themselves. And while none of them had a request in to the committee, their friends and colleagues from large organizations seemed to float in the same circles as they. One person went so far as to laugh out loud, saying, “If they really wanted to get a donation, they should have spent more time on this application, don’t you think?”
As someone who has worked for very large and very small organizations (and medium-sized ones, too), I got pissed off.
“Do you know what the person who wrote this does all day? Do you know the circumstance? Do you understand that s/he is a one-person department handling everything under the sun? And do you get it that the person is young, without a great deal of experience, and criminally underpaid? How dare you!”
Yes, I got a little dramatic. But the empathy in the room was in short supply, to say the least.
Clearly, our goal was bifurcated – to serve the people of the region and to fund the arts organizations (those with buildings). These are not the same goals. They’re not even parallel goals. Often—more often than you might think—these are opposing goals.
It reminded me of the greatest negative issue within our current system of capitalism. The cost of a loaf of bread is a fixed cost. It represents a tiny portion of the expense budget of a wealthy person. It also represents a much larger portion of the expense budget of a poor person. The meanness of the system turns relatively sane people into believing that poor people need be punished, somehow, for needing that loaf of bread, a wholly insane outlook. As Rutger Bregman said in his TED talk (with over 4 million views), “Poverty isn’t a lack of character; it’s a lack of cash.” If you have never watched this talk, you’re missing out on some key revelations in the nonprofit business.
The division was made more apparent when the government official required those in the room to fund some large organizations’ requests at the expense of medium and small ones—an order from her superior in government.
The caste system of arts organizations within a community can be made more hellish by foundations, corporations, and governments who lose sight of who their constituents actually are.
Why? When the solutions to the problems in a community are so clearly more targeted, more measurable, and more obvious when a series of smaller organizations—even arts organizations—attack them?
Among nonprofit arts organizations, too many funders continue to fund old friends, not because they offer anything new, but because what they offer is fairly predictable. The words are of high quality, even if the requests are not.
But funders promise equal opportunity to their largesse for every organization. The amounts of the donations and the financial consequences of success (or lack thereof) for the funded programs, however, seem to belie that “equal opportunity.”
In Seattle, several years ago, a major foundation denied funding to a small arts organization (after a 32-page application). I don’t exactly know the details. I do know that the organization had succeeded in drawing exceptionally younger crowds than the rest of the community, averaging 28 years of age. And with youth also came a greater abundance of diversity, both on and off the stage; both in the offices and in the audience.
A large organization that same year received a 6-figure grant from that same major funder to be spent on increasing its youth attendance. Their audience (predictably) was old, white, rich, and relatively elitist. The company spent all the money. The audience did not get younger, except in a couple of one-off programs affecting one or two performances.
And the large organization received another 6-figure grant the following year. Because… hell, I don’t know any good reason why. Why do you think?
Based in Kirkland, Washington, Alan Harrison is a writer and speaker specializing in nonprofit organizations, strategy, the arts, and life politics. His columns appear regularly in major publications. Contact him directly at email@example.com.
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Alan is always looking for good opportunities to write and consult for nonprofits that need a hand. And, of course, that elusive Perfect Opportunity™.
BIG NEWS: Alan’s new book, “Scene Change: Why Today’s Nonprofit Arts Organizations Have to Stop Producing Art and Start Producing Impact” will be published in January. CLICK HERE TO PRE-ORDER IN THE UNITED STATES. If you live in the UK, CLICK HERE. In other places, just use the ISBN code and your bookstore may be able to pre-order it for you: 978-1-80341-446-1.
A few more copies may be made available for those booking conferences, reading engagements, and speaking engagements. Recruit your local bookstore, conference panel, or boardroom to get a visit from Alan. Get on it! (Please.)