Monday, March 9, 2015

Interview with Vickie Benson - The McKnight Foundation

Good morning.
"And the beat goes on.........."

Vickie Benson is arts program director for The McKnight Foundation in Minneapolis. Before coming to McKnight, she was vice president of the Jerome Foundation, St. Paul, program director at Chamber Music America in New York City and senior program specialist at the National Endowment for the Arts in Washington, D.C. Vickie was a member of Grantmakers in the Arts’ board of directors from 2003-10, and for her last two years, she served as the board’s president. She is currently a member of the operations committee for ArtPlace, a grantmaking collaboration of fourteen national and regional foundations focused on creative placemaking. She holds a bachelor of arts degree in arts administration from St. Paul's Metropolitan State University, and a master's degree in nonprofit management from the Hamline University Graduate School of Management. She studied music at the University of Minnesota as an undergrad. An avid advocate for artists, Vickie has a background as a folk singer and guitar player.

Here is my interview with Vickie:

Barry:  One of the major challenges for foundations today is where to allocate scarce resources.  There is tremendous pressure, from different quarters, to keep key, older cultural institutions alive on one end of the spectrum, and to giving equal support to smaller and ethnically diverse arts organizations on the other.  How do you balance those competing priorities and what is your stance on how foundations ought to allocate their resources?

Vickie:  Foundations are in business to be in support of their missions. McKnight’s arts program follows a legacy set early on by the McKnight Foundation Board of Directors—the arts program supports working artists. We rely on arts organizations to provide the support structures that working artists need to be successful--institutions of all types, sizes, and ages that support working artists. That said, McKnight has long supported small and mid-sized organizations because they are very important to a system of support for artists. McKnight has also a strong history of supporting artist founded, artist led organizations. McKnight along with other arts funders are investigating ways in which grantmaking will be culturally equitable and socially equitable into the future.

Barry:  Another issue in the arts funding philanthropic community has been how long a funder ought to stay with a grantee.  What are the factors that play in this challenge and what are your thoughts on this issue?

Vickie:  McKnight funding has been crucial over long periods of time to many key organizations that have built Minnesota’s robust arts ecosystem. These organizations have been critical to McKnight’s mission. We are transparent about the challenges. When a foundation continues to support organizations that are doing great work, it IS challenging for newer organizations to receive funding. That is the program officer’s challenge, to continue to support great work while also making recommendations for new ideas, all while staying within a set budget. Every foundation needs to answer this challenge against its own mission.

Barry:  For a couple of decades in the last century, funding was directed primarily to “projects”.  The tide has now turned, and increasingly funding basic operational costs is seen as preferential in many cases.  Venture Capital firms in the tech industry invest in ideas, but place a premium on investing in proven leadership. Should we be considering funding proven leadership rather than specific organizations.  What are your thoughts on moving to investing more in people, rather than in programs, projects or institutions?  Is that even possible?

Vickie:  I believe that foundations already invest in people—McKnight makes grants to organizations, but those organizations are driven by their people. McKnight’s grantmaking in the arts funds a system of support for working artists. There are the McKnight Artist Fellowships that are managed by artist service organizations and community institutions. The innovations within those programs come from the artists’ ideas and needs. Many of McKnight’s grants are made to organizations whose leaders are artists and innovators, whose ideas are at times on the leading edge.

Barry:  Grantee applicants often tailor their programs (and even sometimes operations) to what they think a funder will fund.  That seems a negative to both grantee and funder.  How do you change that dynamic for both parties benefit?

Vickie:  Here’s a little bit different take on that. McKnight has crafted our program, partly connecting to its legacy of supporting working artists through our Aritist Fellowship program. In our guidelines, we state that we prioritize compensation to artists and other support structures (professional development, exhibition, space, time, connection to community and other artists, etc.). This is key to our program’s strategy and it is, in part, meant to influence others’ thinking and action about support structures, including compensation, for artists. For too long, artists’ work has been devalued. It is the foundation’s job to shepherd its resources in a way that has impact.

Barry:  Professional development and management training opportunities are arguably a critical component in arts administrators being competitive business people.  But those opportunities are often inconvenient or even impossible to access, expensive, and not tailored to the needs of arts administrators.  What ought to be the role of funders in supporting a better trained pool of arts managers?  Should all grant applicants be required to have a line item in their budgets for professional development?

Vickie:  Professional development is important for all professionals. Each foundation, however, would have to consider that for its own purpose.

Barry:  GIA is a much different organization than it was five years ago.  Where would you like to see it go in the next five years?

Vickie:  I am very proud of the work that Grantmakers in the Arts has done in terms of connecting a broad and diverse group of arts grantmakers to important issues of our time. Janet Brown has done an amazing job as its President and the board of directors are serious about making sure that their leadership is broad and diverse. I only hope that it continues to be responsive and leading in the issues of the day and continues to make room for the next realm of leaders.

Barry:  A major source of friction between organization executive directors and their Boards is (real or perceived) board micromanagement.  What is the role of a funder in addressing that problem?  What ought a funder demand in terms of Boards competency and behavior, if anything?

Vickie:  As a rule of due diligence, program officers ask questions about governance, staff board relationships. etc. There are varying stages of an organization when boards of directors are needed to roll up their sleeves and serve in day to day functions of the organization and then, of course, at other stages, boards have more of a policy role. All boards have fiduciary responsibilities.

Barry:  Which should be the greater priority, funding the creation of art, or access to it?  And if a healthy balance is your answer, where is that balance?

Vickie:  The decision should be based on the foundation’s or program’s mission. Accordingly, McKnight focuses on the structures that are helpful and crucial to working artists. We surveyed the field and saw that it would be impactful for McKnight to marshall its grantmaking resources in this direction given others’ attention to access and education. One is not more important than the other, we need it all, but foundation staff and boards need to make choices about how their resources can have impact in fields.

Barry:  How do you balance allocation of foundation funds between the needs of specific organizations and the needs of the sector as a whole?  For the most part, funding goes to organizations (as project, program or operational support). Should foundations have as part of their portfolios initiatives that strengthen the entirety of the ecosystem?  How is addressing that goal constrained by the territorial limitations of working for a family foundation?

Vickie:  The McKnight Foundation staff and board realize that although we work in Minnesota, our work has impact nationally and beyond and vice versa. We know that a portion of the grantmaking resources is well utilized for support of national associations and data, in particular. Case in point is the Cultural Data Project—we know that having credible data for our field can only be helpful to the working artists in that field.

Barry:  How do you know when its time to pull the plug on a grantee?  Are legacy grantees sometimes getting an undeserved free ride, and what is the cost and impact on the whole of the arts ecosystem?

Vickie:  Program staff are thoughtful about making exit or final grants because no matter what size the organization, those funds need to be replaced and it is generally complex, regardless of the size of organization. Each foundation has to thoughtfully assess whether or not to continue funding. The one generalization that I will make is that it is better for the field when assessed on a case by case basis and not decided in a sweeping exit. That said, missions and directions of foundations change. This has occurred as long as there has been philanthropic giving—it is a reality of the field.

Barry:  Which services do you think arts service provider organizations need to do a better job at providing and why?

Vickie:  I am fortunate to live in a land of 10,000 lakes and many incredible artist service organizations. Many times the leaders of these organizations are artists and are deeply connected to artists. They are nimble at seeing opportunities ahead for artists and figure out how to connect and network the opportunities. I think it would be an interesting question to pose to the artist service organizations about how grantmakers could do a better job because I think, in general, the service organizations are incredible.

Barry:  Because things are now in a constant state of change, and there is little that any organization can completely rely on for anything but the very short term, it seems futile to engage in any long term planning.  Yet an approach that focuses on being adaptable, innovative and flexible is hardly a plan by itself.  Where is the balance between the need to be flexible and adaptive and the need to have some kind of roadmap to follow?

Vickie:  I think that you just nailed it in the last sentence—the key is finding the balance between those aspects of planning. The days of spending inordinate amount of time on a five year plan that sits on the shelf are long over. Flexible and relevant organizations moved away from that kind of planning long ago. Strategic frameworks that stay true to mission while also underscoring adaptibility are the roadmaps that organizations seem to be creating and following.

Barry:  Assess the sector’s efforts at community engagement?

Vickie:  I think that the arts and artists in particular have long been leaders in community engagement. I believe other sectors look to the arts to get ideas and inspiration.

Barry:  What drives you crazy about the nonprofit arts sector?

Vickie:  I’ve been blessed to spend my entire career in this sector—I’ve made incredible friends, I have a great network of colleagues, I am intellectually challenged on a regular basis, I’ve always felt at home in this sector, I’ve been privileged—it hasn’t driven me crazy…just the opposite actually.

 We talk a lot about technology - particularly as it may relate to our marketing, fundraising and audience development efforts.  Yet we seem perennially two steps behind mainstream private sector business in making technology work for us.  How can funders help the sector better integrate technological innovations into their businesses?

By sharing success stories and ideas. I would have you turn to the great work that Sarah Lutman has done on behalf of the Wyncote Foundation, “Like, Link, Share: How Cultural Institutions are Embracing Digital Technology.” Also, I would have us all look to Media Impact Funders who are helping us understand the possibilities for artists and cultural organizations in understanding the creative opportunities that exist in technology.

Barry:  If there were an Arts Funder Hall of Fame, who would you like to see inducted?

Vickie:  Roberta Uno. No question. Her work at Ford has been inspirational and has made great change for the sector. As she leaves the philanthropic field, I know that she will continue to make an impact in the world. I have learned so much from Roberta and for that I am grateful.

Barry:  McKnight is a family foundation with a defined territorial area of operation.  What are you not able to fund, that you wish you could, and why?

Vickie:  I have made a point in my career to remember that the resources that I’m shepherding are not mine and that when I work for a grantmaking entity, my recommendations for funding are within the mission of the foundation—McKnight’s arts goal is that “Minnesota thrives when its artists thrive.” It’s a great goal and the program is able to fund really great work.

Of course, I’m also a private citizen, so I make contributions to organizations that I want to fund with my own dollars. I’ve found it important not to mix up the two hats that I wear.

Barry:  What is the biggest lie the arts sector continues to buy into?

Vickie:  The sector doesn’t have the time or energy to buy into lies.

Barry:  For years we have been talking about capacity building. Assuming that concept includes competency building, what are the core competencies our organization leaders need to master?

Vickie:  Understanding and action regarding the changing demographics and inequities in our sector and the critical importance of diversity, equity and inclusion in grantmaking, opportunities for artists, arts access, hiring, and board development.
Leaders—board, staff—need to grasp the importance of the balance sheet, how that is tied to mission and the important stories that are embedded in the numbers.

Thank you Vickie

Have a great week.

Don't Quit

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