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Equity in Cultural Funding: Let Them Bake Pies

Grantmakers in the Arts has been sponsoring an Online Forum on Equity in Arts Funding, inspired by The National Committee on Responsive Philanthropy’s (NCRP) recent report, authored by Holly Sidford, Fusing Arts, Culture and Social Change: High Impact Strategies for Philanthropy. Nearly two dozen contributors involved in arts funding as researchers, foundation officers, public agency leaders, service organization leaders, and consultants have weighed in on the report’s findings, which document disparities in cultural grantmaking that turn on race, ethnicity, scale, subject, and other factors. (Several of the bloggers were advisers to the study or directly involved in making it happen.) It provides a useful foundation for a discussion of equity, one I want to go much deeper. This essay suggests how.

In brief, the study says that the way the arts and cultural grants pie is sliced:

"…is demonstrably out of balance with our evolving cultural landscape and with the changing demographics of our communities. Current arts grantmaking disregards large segments of cultural practice, and by doing so, it disregards large segments of our society.

"A growing number of artists and cultural groups are working in artistic traditions from Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Pacific Rim, as well as in new technology-based and hybrid forms. They are using the arts in increasingly diverse ways to engage and build communities and address the root causes of persistent societal problems, including issues of economic, educational and environmental injustice as well as inequities in civil and human rights.

"Much of this work is being done at the grassroots and community levels by artists and relatively small cultural organizations. Yet, the majority of arts funding supports large organizations with budgets greater than $5 million. Such organizations, which comprise less than 2 percent of the universe of arts and cultural nonprofits, receive more than half of the sector’s total revenue. These institutions focus primarily on Western European art forms, and their programs serve audiences that are predominantly white and upper income. Only 10 percent of grant dollars made with a primary or secondary purpose of supporting the arts explicitly benefit underserved communities, including lower-income populations, communities of color and other disadvantaged groups. And less than 4 percent focus on advancing social justice goals. These facts suggest that most arts philanthropy is not engaged in addressing inequities that trouble our communities, and is not meeting the needs of our most marginalized populations."

Mostly, GIA’s bloggers welcome findings that confirm their own impressions, expressing the wish that effective documentation from an authoritative source will have more impact than—for instance—their own prior entreaties. I’m also glad to see the situation documented, and hope it has an impact. Sidford makes important points, such as the need to attend to changing demographics and changes in arts practice; why and how to view the cultural landscape as an ecology, in which each sector affects the others; and how to act on the opportunity to advance social healing through cultural funding. Implicitly, the report invites funders into a change of heart, hoping they will be moved to engage with a series of recommended questions, that their answers will help to transform their practice.

Most of the GIA bloggers make modest suggestions as to how funders can channel more resources to the artists and organizations whose social and cultural contributions are now so disproportionately underfunded. Several point to their own organizations’ or allies’ work as models. Understandably, most position themselves as ahead of the curve, already taking steps to increase equity.

So far, at least, there are few comments (the online forum ends on 16 December, so there’s still time). My hunch is that is because there aren’t so many entry points in most of the posts: what is to be debated in a group of thoughtful funders and researchers mostly affirming what they already know?

Instead, the conversation needed now has to dig deeper, looking major obstacles to equity in the face—without flinching. Three stand out for me: entrenched privilege; encoded prejudice; and risk aversion.

I’ve written many times on these subjects without having any evident influence, but what can I say? Hope springs eternal. (For instance, see click here for the half-dozen blogs on philanthropic questions I wrote while live-blogging GIA’s 2010 conference.) I’m not the only one who feels this way. In his blogpost, NCRP Executive Director Aaron Dorfman notes that “During a session at this year’s GIA conference, one funder lamented that we have been discussing equity in arts funding for 40 years and little has changed.”

Why not? The problem is stubborn: it’s not just about doing someting new, but giving up something old, wealth’s presumed right to control power, disguised as noblesse oblige. Mostly, people give up privilege and its benefits in one of two ways. Either overwhelming external pressure forces a change, or personal revelation sparks an epiphany that reshuffles assumptions and behavior. Both are hard to achieve. The former requires sustained organizing, social imagination, and luck. The latter requires an individual with an open heart, open mind, and willingness to break the chain of causality despite peer-pressure, stepping off the familiar and conventional path.

But if we don’t explore the deeper obstacles, neither change is possible. That alone makes it worth spelling each out once more.

ENTRENCHED PRIVILEGE. Who decides? By definition, philanthropy answers that question this way: “the wealthy.” Funding structures are created by those with surplus wealth to invest in social goals, and operated by those they appoint and employ. Our laws regulating private foundations are based on the presumption that wealth entails an expanded right to influence civil society: tax relief and other privileges are granted to those who make charitable contributions, as both incentive and reward.

They are also shaped by the strong personal frame we tend to put around the notion of private property. We are trained to think the same way about the owner of a fortune’s right to dispose of it as about our own right to possess, say, the contents of our refrigerator. But that’s only one way to see it. How would things look different if the law recognized that fortunes are not amassed by an individual, but through the efforts of multitudes, through many social and public support systems, entailing a commensurate obligation to share the wealth?

Most funders manage their money so as to perpetuate their status as philanthropists, granting no more than the minimum percentage of capital required by law each year. Nothing about the system as it is usually practiced calls into question the division that has lately been described as the “1% versus the 99%.” Instead, the tacit expectation is that this power imblance will persist, so that change will not be systemic, but individual. Consequently, the appeal is primarily moral: to think of others, to question one’s assumptions, to be fair.

The moral appeal has power, and what individuals do matters greatly, to be sure, and can be the fulcrum of change. For example, Paulo Freire and Amilcar Cabral talked about “class suicide,” the necessity of breaking with the interests of one’s class of origin in order to ally oneself with advocates of deep social justice. Class suicide is a staple of theology too: Moses and Siddhartha were both princes of the realm who voluntarily surrendered the trappings of royalty to join with those suffering from royalty’s excesses.

It would be very easy to overturn the imbalance in funding simply by changing allegiance: if the people most affected by these decisions were making them, they would be markedly different. A few funders have taken the huge risk of devolving decision-making power to board members deeply connected to the communities and practices Sidford’s report describes. But so far, they are rare exceptions. Some funders take baby steps in this direction, as by assembling diverse grantmaking panels that include people doing grassroots work. But giving someone the right to recommend isn’t the same as surrendering power: being anointed queen for day isn’t the same as occupying the throne.

ENCODED PREJUDICE. Subtle or undigested racial prejudice is a significant factor, one I’ve written about often. By now, many funders are aware of the social impact of racism, and some take such steps as diversifying their staffs in response. Still, the imbalances in grantmaking persist. That is in large part because of an underlying prejudice that still remains invisible to many in the field: corporatism. Corporatists come from all colors and classes, dutifully promulgating a model of organization that intrinsically pushes grantmaking toward the already-haves.

Overwhelmingly, foundation leaders’ comfort zone is decorated in full corporate regalia: for decades now, despite epic corporate malfeasance and failure, corporations have remained the preferred model. There has been consistent pressure on arts organizations to conform to corporate ideas of good business: organizations expecting to compete for serious funding should apply for and receive tax-exempt status; build a board heavily weighted with donors and the types of professionals who work with them—attorneys, business executives, and so on; and invest in the planning and reporting tools and techniques that signal corporate solidity.

These are culling mechanisms. It isn’t that an arts organization adept at donning corporate trappings is guaranteed to produce the most exciting or effective work. It’s that willingness to continue turning this stuff out—to continue sacrificing trees to quantities of pointless paperwork for each grant application and administration—indicates that an applicant is pliant enough to slide into the corporate culture of philanthropy without making too many waves, and most likely, hungry enough to do it over and over again just to ante into the competition.

As an organizational consultant, I’ve seen the negative impacts of this prejudice. I can’t count the number of community-based organizations that spiraled into internal conflicts with powerful board members who, when it all came down, didn’t share their values and became de facto internal opponents. I can’t count the number of groups that exhausted leadership in the make-work of philanthropy, cannibalizing their own work in the process. It’s not that there can’t be viable corporate-style major institutions in communities of color, for instance: that’s one path, and some have trod it effectively, seeking to assert their own rightful places in the cultural landscape. It’s that wanting to work that way has been taken as an indication of seriousness and worthiness, while more creative, idiosyncratic, and community-grounded forms of organization have been perceived as inadequacy. Many people who hold this assumption aren’t even aware of it as a prejudice. It just seems natural: If you’re serious, this way of thinking says, you’ll want to be just like us. Really?

One GIA blogger, MK Wegmann of the National Performance Network, highlights the impact of this attitude:

"There are some troubling responses I’ve already heard to the NCRP report, including in the discussion at GIA following its presentation when the conversation soon trended toward the age-old excuse that funders would like to support “these kinds” of organizations, but they’ve found that “they” lack adequate organizational structures to receive substantial funding."

Keep your eye on that word, “substantial.” A common way to direct funds toward corporate-model applicants is to think of grants as representing a certain percentage of operating budget. By that logic, it’s a no-brainer to give the biggest institutions the most money and keep the smaller ones marginalized. It becomes a self-fulfilling cycle: without a budget large enough to employ all the staff needed to pass muster through the lens of corporatism, organizations can never obtain grants large enough to compete for the big bucks.

Staffing is one reason smaller organizations lose out in the competition for foundation funds. But another is that many cannot afford to (or bear to) invest heavily in impersonating conventional businesses when they might be spending more of the vast time it takes to generate all those board development campaigns, strategic plans, logic models, theories of change, and other “best practices” (i.e., corporate bells and whistles) on accomplishing the actual work.

There are so many ways to organize for artistic production, cultural development, creative organizing for social justice. Sometimes I think the best model—certainly one requiring far less investment in bureaucracy and adminstration—is to fund individuals with catalytic gifts and democratic commitments, reducing the pressure of constant fundraising just to support key people, and freeing them to invest more in in the work. Young cultural activists today often eschew the tax-exempt corporation model precisely because they don’t want to take on all the related paperwork and infrastructure management just to compete for grants; many prefer DIY models like pop-up projects, or crowdsourced funding models like Kickstarter.

RISK AVERSION. Much of this comes down to risk aversion. In truth, almost all meaningful learning comes through mistakes. But in philanthropy, as in many other social sectors in these times, there is a powerful pressure to avoid mistakes at all costs. Many funders fear looking foolish by betting on a project that fails to achieve its stated aims, so they insulate themselves from risk. They do it by keeping control of the pursestrings and putting applicants through arduous culling rituals that ensure their conformance to the favored corporate culture.

They also do it in countless other ways: the chief method of seeking advance assurance that a proposed project will yield the desired results is to ensure it does not depart too much from what has come before. This is especially puzzling, as much conventional practice is tidy—most often grantmaker guidelines and applicant claims are tailored to preapproved measuring-devices, and the results are duly measured, yielding expected indicators—but often not especially effective. Sometimes I think it comes down to a simple truth: that many funders are comfortable failing in the same old ways, the ones that everybody accepts; but they are terrified of attracting peers’ disapprobation by failing in new ways.

Obviously, checks and balances are needed. No one wants to throw away money. Foundations have a fiduciary responsiblity, and a reasonable desire to avoid fraudsters. But, having observed the field for many years, I see an ever-increasing obsession with risk aversion that results in multiplying instruments of application, assessment, and reporting, and ever-increasing investment in bureacracy, self-examination, and information collection and management. Meanwhile, funding for the important work that Sidford’s report describes is scarcer and scarcer. As MK Wegmann’s contribution to the GIA forum says, “It’s not about cutting the same pie in smaller, more even slices; the power dynamic that exists between grant makers and grant seekers has to be different also.”

Rather than slicing the pie finer, the just response is to create more capacity to bake. What can channel more wealth to those whose important work has been undernourished thus far? New and powerful arguments for art’s public purpose are certainly part of it (see my series, “Life Implicates Art,” for instance). From a social justice perspective, so is the understanding that the best solutions will come from those affected by the problem. Have they been asked? The philanthropic sector loves to examine itself, so roundtables, focus groups, surveys, and studies of “best practices” are daily fare. But thus far, most inquiries are premised on acceptance of so many givens of the philanthropic culture that any suggested changes they produce amount to redecoration, not restructuring; a new lampshade, not a new way of shedding light.

It requires substantial creative courage to actually surrender power, release the infatuation with corporate models, and voluntarily embrace risk. I salute the very few funders who’ve demonstrated it. To the rest, I pose a few questions not mentioned so far in the study or the forum:

  • What would it take for you to face the assumptions and ways of organizing that perpetuate them-that’s-got-shall-get funding?
  • What would it take for you to step up to the challenge of adopting egalitarian, democratic, social justice commitments in their place?
  • What would it take for you step off the path on which so much philanthropy has been dependent, and truly share power?
  • What would it take for you to embrace learning from failure, abandon corporate models, and truly break with the conventions that keep our philanthropic culture entrenched, inequitable, and stuck?

If the answers are within your grasp, what’s stopping you? And if—sadly—you can’t conceive answers that can actually be enacted, well, let’s try facing that truth now.

“God Bless The Child” belongs to Billie Holiday, but take a minute also to listen to Eric Dolphy turn it into a ballet for bass clarinet.

Mama may have, Papa may have
But God bless the child that’s got his own
That’s got his own