Sunday, February 10, 2013

Coercive Philanthropy? Legitimacy v. Wisdom


Good morning.
“And the beat goes on........................”

Building Diversity and the Challenges of What to Fund in Pursuit of the Aim:

Provocative and meaty discussion going on in recent related blog posts by Clay Lord, (and here too) Nina Simon and Diane Ragsdale centering on the issue of promoting greater diversity (specifically as the stated purpose of the James Irvine Foundation’s current funding philosophy) and the related issues of coercive philanthropy, the failure of foundations to embrace patience in their attempts to affect change both systemic and within specific organizations, and how to best move towards greater diversity (at least audience diversity).

These individuals are astute observers and commentators; they have keen insights and the ability to cut to the chase in their analysis.  They each have points to make and perspectives to offer.  There is much food for thought in their posts and I urge you all to read each of them.  There is almost too much in the aggregate to respond to in a single post, but if I may be permitted, there are several reactions I would like to share:

First, as to the core issue of whether or not foundation funding can actually lead to real change in an organization’s dynamics that would result in the greater diversity sought by the Irvine Foundation, I agree with Diane and Clay that it is difficult, if not impossible, for any organization to follow any path that they logically perceive as potentially threatening to their bottom line.  I think arts organizations that Diane refers to as “flagship” organizations - serving the white, upper middle class, older cohort - reluctant to change programming just to promote diversity (let alone resistant to moving away from their mission in such program change) are highly unlikely to respond to any funder’s initiative to get them to make such changes.  Not that they don’t agree wholeheartedly with the objective of expanding the diversity of their and the sector’s audience. But not at the expense of their carefully constructed cash flow infrastructure.  And who can fault them?  Individual organizations are less interested in systemic sector wide change, no matter how lofty the purpose or how much they may embrace the concept and agree with the goal.  It’s really not their job to do so.

But, it is the legitimate job of funders; and foundations that have determined that sector wide systemic change (of whatever sort) is one of their objectives, not only have the right, but arguably the obligation to implement strategies - even ones that make demands of their grantees - that they believe may help reach those objectives.  One can argue such strategies are ill conceived, that they don’t work, that being too ambitious without allowing ample time and resource allocation to give the strategies a chance to succeed is a formula for failure - but I don’t think their underlying attempt to make systemic change is necessarily coercive.  Or, if it is, I think they have the right to be coercive (and a lot of change comes about only becomes it is coerced.)  How else can systemic change come about, if no one is permitted to make even the attempt?

Personally, I think the diversity goal - particularly in advancing diverse audience growth - would be far better served if the funding went to what Diane refers to as the “boutique” organizations which “deeply serve particular communities; (and) are diverse in aggregate.”   If one of the Irvine (or any funder across the country) goals is to reach a more diverse audience with art, then funding organizations that program specifically for those more diverse communities is far more likely to yield that growth than funding organizations which currently (and consciously) serve white people.  Trying to cajole, bribe, coerce or otherwise move existing organizations that program for the white audience to somehow change their programming, venues, approaches, marketing et. al (even if for the legitimate objective of long term survival) is a little like trying to teach a pig to sing.  Inevitably you end up really frustrated, and after awhile the pig just gets annoyed.

Merely because an organization exists in a specific geographic spot is not, to my thinking, a valid enough argument to convince me that they have some obligation to program for the residents of that spot.  One might argue that the geographical locus of an arts organization may be more a function of affordable real estate than any other reason.  And where a performing arts organization offers its art may also be a real estate function.  Rather than embracing the idea that locus determines the programming that ought to be offered, support for organizations that both want to, and are qualified and capable of, serving that audience may be more likely to advance the goal.   At this stage of the game, the goal ought to be to identify the organizations that are committed to the diverse audience identified as underserved and choose to program for that audience, and perhaps put more of your eggs in that basket.  There is nothing wrong with organizations that focus on providing art to wealthy, older white people, but if you want to systemically move beyond that as a primary goal - you can only afford a limited amount of your funding to go to those organizations any more.

What is hard for funders in that approach is to shift focus and sever old lines of relationships.  Not because the former grantees are recalcitrant, or for any other reason, but because the goal of the funder - once adopted - deserves strategies that are designed to maximize its realization - not to placate former relationships.  That’s hard to do.  Very hard.

That is not to say funders should abandon the strategy of trying to move the flagship / mainstream organizations entirely.  Change of this type takes eons to affect.  Every little bit of pressure exerted arguably has a positive role in moving down a continuum.  So I agree with Diane and Josephine Ramirez in a comment to Diane’s post that we do indeed need both approaches - funding for organizations that want to attract the target diverse audience, and organizations committed to expanding their base to include more from that targeted group.   While I would argue we need more funding allocated to the former rather than the latter of those organizations,  I certainly would not abandon all attempts to help organizations that demonstrate they want to diversify their current audiences.  That the potential grantees are reluctant or opposed to what is being asked of them is really beside the point if the objective is the priority.  Certainly much diversity progress across all platforms has been made by dragging people along kicking and screaming even.  Coercion works sometimes, to a limited extent.  Other times it does not.

But funders - no matter how well heeled - have limited resources.  They have always had to make hard choices.  I think they are doing what the whole field has encouraged them to do for a long time now - take risks, be strategic, tackle the big challenges, don’t just protect the status quo.  Unfortunately, few funders have the luxury of being able to engage in real long term planning (boards and staffs change and foundations seem ever more invested in continually overhauling their priorities with new guidelines and objectives - and that cycle seems to be shorter and shorter), and so it is difficult for them to seriously embrace the virtue of “patience” Clay correctly calls for.  I think things must go in steps and that means first we have to at least begin to expand the diversity of our audiences (as a sector, not necessarily of each individual organization).  Get a foot in the door and move to whatever step two will be.  And allocation of funding to those already committed to doing that seems to me the best approach.

I also agree with Diane that the real key to any kind of meaningful movement by the flagship organizations will only happen with a committed leadership, and would go one step further to suggest that that will inevitably require a change in leadership - especially in the Board rooms - which change I think will be unlikely to happen for quite some time.        Conservative Boards may be all for expansion of diversity in their audiences - in theory, as a concept.  But not necessarily willing to toe the line in terms of program content change to do so.  And for some organizations, their purpose, their missions will simply always be in conflict with attempts to make them part of the solution to a wider challenge.  Many of those organizations should not, cannot be expected to be part of the solution.  It isn’t that they are opposed to the diversity goal, isn’t that they are obstructive to that goal but rather that they cannot perceive any way to expand the current audience that doesn’t in some way, ultimately jeopardize and compromise everything they have done so far.  They may still deserve some kind of support - to the extent the limited funder pools can provide it after adopting new goals.  (I won’t say they can never change, never find a path that allows them both worlds, because eventually everything changes and dramatically so).   I am not sure whether or not Diane's suggestion that those organizations would be better off foregoing application for grant monies.  I think rather the onus falls on the funder to deny the funding to those they conclude will not / cannot comply with the demands of the award.

That said, I am not convinced, given the immediately preceding paragraph) that throwing money at the “reluctant dragons” (Diane’s words) is a waste of time.  Maybe.  I just don’t know.    All I do know is that things that never, ever change, and at which people have for eons thrown time, money and other resources, have the habit of all of a sudden changing exponentially (Smoking cessation, Gay rights, attitudes towards global warming et. al).    It is hard to gauge what impact sustained effort has over time.  Certainly, if one’s expectation is quick change, one is likely to be disappointed.  But I am unconvinced that efforts such as Irvine’s (or any funder) trying to move existing organizations to a new place relative to diversity (not matter how narrowly defined) is a waste of time or money - even if unsuccessful within that narrow time frame.  Somewhere is the balance of supporting organizations fully committed to diversity and those for whom it may be a very difficult road.

Certainly Clay and Diane are right that funders need to much more seriously consider being more patient in those efforts.  Unrealistic expectations serve no one well.  And in general all funders need to examine their attitudes towards what is and is not a reasonable expectation in a specific time period, given the limitations, challenges and circumspection of any funding award.  And they need to choose among hard choices as to who gets funding, and for what purpose.

So I am left with two conclusions:
1)  The better approach to bring art to a more diverse audience, is to put the lion's share of funding into organizations that are committed to, and capable of, programming that will appeal to that diverse audience; and
2)  To the extent funding goes to the flagship organizations to move them to whatever it takes to expand the diverse audience, some degree of coercion on the part of the funder is legitimate and very likely well advised.

This is complex stuff to try to muddle through.  My own thinking is constantly evolving.  Only a few policy wonks, bloggers, and others of us have the time to devote to thinking about these issues in great detail, for this fact is undoubtedly true for most of those in our field:  the work of the average arts organization person (no matter what the size or character of that organization) is never done by six or seven o’clock on Friday, and there is even more to do come Monday morning at eight or nine.

We are lucky to have people like Nina, and Clay and Diane who help us to see the issues more clearly and to remind us to think about these things.


Have a great week.

Don’t Quit.
Barry

4 comments:

  1. I like your sorting through a complicated issue toward a reasonable conclusion. Thanks!

    One quibble: I don't think you can call an organization a "flagship" any longer, if its direction, programming, staffing and board membership is of, by and for one small slice of the public, no matter how rich that slice is. That sort of organization is itself a "specialty" organization, a yacht maybe, not a flagship.

    For funders these days, a big issue is whether to support a yacht that's taking on water, just to extend the metaphor, or whether to direct money to large ships that are attempting to provide a community-wide service. If you care anything at all about diversity issues, that's an easy one.

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  2. Hi Barry,
    Thanks for taking the time to weigh in on the spirited exchange prompted, in part, by Irvine's new arts strategy.

    I thought it might be useful to weigh in with a few thoughts of my own, inspired by what you all have shared, so here's a link to a post on the Irvine site:

    http://www.irvine.org/news-insights/entry/from-the-president-transparency-20

    Always appreciate your engagement, and look forward to the continuing dialogue.

    Best to you!

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  3. I have to posit the idea that the large institutional arts organizations main focus is self-preservation, not art. It doesn't mean that they don't DO art, and sometimes do it very well. But their mission is really about survival. And, I would add, money given to smaller organizations that are art-centered or artist-centered puts a lot more of the funding into the art and less into the maintenance of the organization.

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  4. Barry, being in the middle of all of this, both as an Irvine grantee and as leader of Orange County's local arts agency, I was particularly interested in your comments about the possibility that the "reluctant dragons" who DO secure Irvine support for engagement initiatives might eventually be surprised to discover results that they didn't believe could happen. I can think of at least one organization where this seems to be happening, despite its leader's continuing overt skepticism of the entire approach. So, it may be ironic that the organization has already reached a tipping point with engagement through this funding, but the leader hasn't yet reached his!

    But a related point worth noting is that there may be a different animal out there altogether, a "bleeding" dragon, perhaps? I refer to the organizations that are so desperate to stanch their audience declines and keep afloat amidst the ebbing tides of arts philanthropy that they see an Irvine-funded initiative as a last-ditch hope for a lifeline. Right now, there are some that are ready to try just about anything because they see little else that is hopeful on the horizon. And that has generated an especially determined and creative embrace of the process for those organizations. It's too soon to tell if the results will bear them out, but they are certainly enthusiastic in pursuing them.
    Rick Stein, Executive Director, Arts Orange County

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