Sunday, October 17, 2010

Thoughts on the GIA Conference

Good morning.

“And the beat goes on…………………….”

Funders in Flux:

I’m off to the Grantmakers in the Arts Conference in Chicago. Funders -- government, corporate and foundation -- from all over the country, gathering to make some sense of the times in which we find ourselves. I will be blogging from the conference and posting entries Monday – Wednesday of next week.
“Funders” is a broad category that we conveniently use to denote any and all of those entities that offer grants to arts organizations, and there is a tendency to lump them all together into one monolithic whole, with the implication that they are all similarly structured, that their protocols and processes are interchangeable, that their priorities are always aligned, and that their thinking is more alike than dissimilar. Such conclusions are, of course, fraught with peril, for funders are as diverse and different as are arts organizations themselves. They come from vastly different perspectives and legacies, have wholly different starting points based on widely divergent sets of assumptions, are governed by very disparate sets of rules, have the full range of priorities in what they hope to accomplish in the allocation of their funds based on their board guidelines and histories, must address the significantly varied circumstances of local situations and politics, and look at the role of funding in totally different ways. In short, sometimes the truth is that the only thing they have in common is the label “funder”.

It is no wonder then that it has been historically difficult for “funders” to find common ground and ways to collaborate and cooperate in achieving their stated, and unstated, goals and objectives. Couple that reality with changing economic circumstances that are challenging funding in local venues in new and ever more difficult ways, and the discovery of even small threads that can bring individual and independent funders to the same tables – just to share experiences, data, results, and thinking – let alone finding ways to facilitate acting in concert to maximize their individual impact – remains problematic at best, and often times discouraging even in the attempt.

I think we are still at the earliest edges of the evolution of real arts funder cooperation and collaboration. I personally see this as a historical four stage process (though this is rather general):

The First Stage period ran from the 1960’s up to the end of the 1980’s, when most foundations, corporations and national or municipal arts agencies operated in, at best, a quasi-vacuum and based their allocation decisions virtually exclusively on local considerations and in line with their (at the time more narrow) board directives. While leadership in the funding community began to talk to each other, exchange experiential, anecdotal stories of what they were doing and why – there wasn’t much real attempt to collaborate nor were the intersections substantial enough to generate sustained and in-depth dialogue. Most funding decisions were made with local issues in mind.  True, the Ford Foundation initiative, and the launch of the NEA and the outgrowth of both state and local arts agencies, helped to forge an environment in which grew at least the “sense” of a national nonprofit arts sector. As more foundations, with larger portfolios, turned their attention to the nonprofit arts, and as more national arts organizations and umbrella service providers for different sub-sections of that growing field were launched and grew, the identification of common needs of the sector as a whole likewise grew, and, as a result, more “funders” began to talk to each other – but that whole period was still principally characterized by isolated and individual efforts at the local level; any burgeoning dialogue was secondary.

The Second Stage began in earnest in the early 1990’s. The first half of this period was marked by more opportunities for funders to meet, network and discuss among themselves common ground. This period was also marked by the first real wholesale movement of the leadership of the funders within and across their own universe. Leadership talent that began at the community level moved up to fill vacancies and new positions in the larger portfolio foundations and corporate arts programs and government agency arts leaders moved into some of those same private funder positions. Arts people at all the varied classifications of arts organizations began to move from one part of the country to another, and one job to another, as the nonprofit arts sector itself began serious growth. This facilitated and nurtured closer ties between program officers and more opportunities for both formal and informal dialogue and conversations emerged. The funding community began to develop direct and indirect means to organize themselves and to loosely codify what they were doing and how they were going about doing it. It was during this period that we began to see a recognizable and definable funding community, and the major tangible outgrowth coming out of this period, was the adoption as a common assumption throughout the funding field that everyone was involved, to one degree or another, in the promotion of two important and lasting concepts: “sustainability” and “capacity building”. It was the development and buy-in to those two concepts – which became the holy grail and the governing principles of foundation funding – that created the first formal structure for cooperation and even collaboration. Corporate funding had other objectives, including marketing and good will tie-ins and promotion. While government funding included equity in artistic excellence, operational support, and certain programmatic considerations, it too embraced sustainability and capacity building as overarching objectives.

The second half of this phase began later in the 90’s and has emerged dramatically in the past decade -- and is, I think, largely characterized by the stepped up and real sharing of research, information, data, thought processes and best practices and a narrowing in on more specific challenges – ranging from audience development to arts education K-12. While Funders began to consider widely disparate approaches to address major needs and challenges in the field, and to share the end results of those attempts, most of these attempts were solitary by each funder.  I believe we are at the tail end of this phase – and yes there has been some joint ventures and shared projects among some funders, but the sharing during this period has been marked principally by collaborative data gathering and analysis projects. This has been a begining period of sharing / collaboration more than the formation of actual working partnerships and longer term alliances.

I think then we are at the dawn of the Third Stage of this evolution – a first steps movement towards actual cooperation and the shared joint venture of the design, launch and implementation of specific projects aimed at specific challenges within the field – from generational succession and the development of emerging leadership, to the earliest signs of addressing the need for increased training for administrators; from national (rather than local or regional) conversations on the reinvention and redesign of broken models, to how to integrate advocacy as a strategic policy tool for all the players in the field. To be sure, we are at the embryonic beginnings of this phase, and multiple partner joint ventures are still more in the minds of visionaries than on any actual drawing board but I believe the signs of change are there.

The last phase will come I don’t know when. But I can see a future where funders work in concert on a scope and at deeper levels than we can probably envision today; when there will be developed means and ways to aggregate and leverage the enormous clout and strength of the whole (or at least substantial parts) of the funder field which will cooperate and collaborate in direct ways.

I have no doubt that funders will always operate somewhat independently and have as their principal charges localized objectives and goals. Government, foundation and corporate funders will always have different sets of assumptions and presumptions; there will always be certain constraints of territoriality and differing opinions, as well as the prescribed perimeters of legacy and enabling legislation or creation. But I think that working directly in concert for specific actions steps – on small, isolated projects to begin with, but ultimately broad national and perhaps someday, even international efforts as our world changes, is much more likely to become the norm in the future.

I hope so anyway.  Whereas Arlene is looking for the independence in thinking of the individual funder, and resistence to the herd mentality, I am looking for the cooperation that will allow for working closely together to take advantage of both the economy of scale and the power of the many; for the promise of the larger picture and away from too much provincialism and piecemeal approaches to systemic problems.
And there seems to me clear and convincing evidence that most, if not all, of the arts funders are working diligently to come up with intersections with each other that will allow them to leverage the strength of their numbers and cooperate in ways heretofore thought virtually impossible – even if in yet undefined, and certainly yet unstructured, ways. That effort continues to gain momentum as the ranks of the arts funder program officers continues to transition to new people. GIA itself has grown exponentially in the last few years, both in terms of its membership and its ambitions, and as an umbrella organization is, like much of the rest of the sector, exploring new dimensions to its purpose.

Much of the talk this week will doubtless center on policy formulation, on research, data collection and studies, on reframing priorities and reinventing approaches designed to achieve whatever deliverables become the flavor of the month, on new nomenclature that will allow us to communicate and share more effectively, on the daunting challenges in specific areas, and even on building out and serving the still dominant themes of sustainability and capacity – but in the final analysis the real discussion, even if sometimes unspoken, will be about money – how much do they have to give, who will get it and why, what can be done with it to meet the big challenges, how can they measure the impact they project it will have, how do they interact with grantees and the public, and whether or not it will truly make any difference.  And the subtext of much of that discussion will be a continuing search to define ways to work together.  In a way the funders are like teenagers at the dance - they want to mingle, but still aren't exactly sure yet how to make it work.  The thought of the interaction is intoxicating.

To be sure, there is less money than there was even just a few years ago; priorities have changed; thinking as to the impact of allocation is in flux; and there are new demands on both grantor and grantee that reflect a far different world than previously known. And the reality is that when money is scarce, those that have it to give are in ever greater precarious situations as they try diligently to make the most of what they have, and leverage it to have meaningful impact – not, of course, without criticism from many quarters.

It is these threads of commonality, cooperation and collaboration on new levels that I will be looking at this week to see where the funding community might break new ground in methods to have the deepest impact on the health and vibrancy of the sector for the future,  and in how funders may find new ways to work in concert with each other in a more systemic approach to support for the field.

Don’t Quit.