Sunday, December 11, 2011

More on the Cultural Equity Discussion

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

Funding disproportionately in favor of Euro-Centric, Major Organizations?
The debate on cultural equity - or more appropriately - cultural inequity - ramped up this week with a GIA Blogathon on the issue (with a stellar group of contributors - but whom I feel often skirted the essence of the issue - i.e., the fact of inequality of support), and Arlene Goldbard's continuing series.

At the heart of the discussion is the legacy of both government and philanthropic support for Euro-centric, big budget cultural institutions at the expense of the array of multicultural and newer generational smaller organizations.  See Fusing Arts Culture and Social Change - High Impact Strategies for Philanthropy authored by Holly Sidfor - the excellent report that was the genesis of the current discussion..  To no one's surprise the statistics bear out that proportionately most funding goes to the larger, well established cultural institutions across the country - the operas, museums, symphonies, ballet and theater companies.

To be sure, there has been significant progress over the past two decades in moving more towards, if not true cultural equity - then at least something a little more balanced.  Many would decry it's been far too little and too slow and I would be hard pressed to disagree.  And because politics is about bloc constituency appeasement, there has arguably been more progress in equitable governmental funding support because it is more (though surely not truly) transparent, and because ultimately equity means votes.  I suspect the arts would have fared even better in achieving real equitable governmental support were we more organized politically and more willing to demand that result.  Private philanthropic support too can claim credit for inventive and impactful programs moving towards more  balance, but it cannot be denied that foundational decision making is hardly transparent, nor that the end result is clearly more often inequitable than equitable.

But the answer to the question:  "Is diversity funding a core value to the arts philanthropic community" - despite some soul searching and some notable attempts, the sorry answer born out by the reality is: "No it is not." At best we are paying lip service to what is a lofty and politically correct aspiration, but which is really - thus far - not a great deal more.  The money - the real money - flows where it has always flowed - to the biggest Euro centric arts organizations - especially money from the foundation world.  By any standard or criteria it isn't going to the vast - and huge - multicultural, experimental, newer arts organizations.  Self-serving patting ourselves on the back for our accomplishments in moving towards real cultural equity would seem premature.

Arlene posits three principal areas of causation for the ongoing continuation of that legacy: entrenched privilegeencoded prejudice; and risk aversion.  In essence, all three are intertwined in what was once called "the good old boy network" - or to use more contemporary parlance - a form of tribalism.  It isn't helpful to characterize this in any pejorative sense as evil or conspiratorial - rather it is really just the natural tendency to support one's "own" - the familiar, that with which one grew up.  And that legacy of how things are done favors what it has always favor - the larger Euro-centric cultural institutions.  The bottom line is this: we are not likely to change private decision-making as the same governs equity considerations until we change the culture of leadership currently (still) existent in the Board rooms where the decisions about who gets how much are made.  

This is a Board of Directors issue.  I believe virtually all the capable and qualified foundation arts program officers know fully well that they manage programs are that are not really equitable (with some obvious exceptions here and there), and that these people know how to, and would very much like to, move towards that more equitable  balance, but ultimately the final decisions rest not with them, but with Board members.  And the direct network crossover by and between those Board members with those very major cultural organizations that disproportionately benefit the most is the one thing that is very transparent.  It is still "who you know".  

Given that the composition of these Boards is not likely to convert to a truly demographic representation of the populace or the field in any overnight epiphany, how then do we move to address cultural inequity in as meaningful and rapid a way as possible?  

First, I think we must acknowledge and accept the reality of how public and philanthropic dollars are meted out, by whom, and on what basis.  Let's call a spade a spade.  We have a problem here Houston.  Given that reality, we can continue to move forward (albeit painfully slowly) by a relentless pushing from both inside the agencies and foundations, and by exerting outside pressure, to adopt more protocols and programs that move towards equity.  The moral imperative of Spike Lee's reminder long ago to entreat decision makers to "do the right thing" is not altogether an ineffective strategy.

Similarly we can ratchet up the cry for diversity in the Boardrooms and not just token representation either. Here a public spotlight may be out best weapon - shined ceaselessly on the organizations, their procedures and track records and most of all on the individual human Board members.  Times have changed and Board members - no matter how high up in the pantheon of the elite - are nonetheless sensitive to public opinion and want to avoid even the appearance of favoritism or inequity.  So let's point that out to them so they can address the issue.

But all of that is a kind of political approach to what is really a systemic challenge to change the cultural "mindset" of philanthropic funding allocation itself, and THAT will be harder to change and take longer than we will want -- for the current mindset is endemic to the whole modern era philanthropic apparatus that has had time to become entrenched and codified.  Sometimes you can achieve great results by insistently demanding change happen, but too often that change is merely symbolic and confined to the surface.  No, I don't think pressure on Boards in and of itself is the ultimate solution - though it is an arrow in our quiver.

So we have to continue to develop other mechanisms that address the systemic nature of the mindset, and that approach is more arduous and difficult.

I came across the site for Grantmakers for Effective Organization (thanks to Diem Jones for the link) and two recent reports on their site caught my eye as potentially effective mechanisms for moving the philanthropic mindset closer to one that is amenable to advancing cultural equity (though slowly folks).

The first has to do with making 'empathy' a core driver of grant making activity.  The report offers five suggestions for more effective grant making:

1. Make it about others, not about you.
High-empathy grantmakers look at their organizations’ grantmaking strategies, policies, processes and re- quirements through the eyes of grantees and others, and they ask questions about whether their organization is doing the right thing by its grantees and applicants for support.
High-empathy grantmakers also have an intuitive understanding of how important it is for others to feel own- ership of their work and priorities. As a result, they are conscious of ensuring that they remain behind the scenes, and that nonprofits and community members are out front in shaping and taking credit for their work.
2. Get out of the office.
Nothing beats a face-to-face visit to the very places where a grantmaker’s stakeholders live their lives and do their work. This allows grantmakers to develop and deepen relationships and to see the world through the eyes of the people who are the focus of their work.
Getting out of the office doesn’t mean simply engaging in exploratory site visits, however. Often, it means working hand in hand with others in the community — recognizing that your mandate does not begin and end at the front doors of your offices. Other ways for grantmakers to “get out there” include volunteering and serving on nonprofit boards, in local government and in civic organizations.
3. Bring the outside in.
High-empathy foundations actively try to remove the barriers that can contribute to their isolation and ano- nymity in their communities. One way they start is by bringing into the organization the kind of people it serves — including nonprofit executive directors and staff, as well as representatives of the communities that are the focus of its grantmaking.
Beyond hiring “customers,” high-empathy foundations also take other steps to ensure that they are bringing the outside in. These include adding nonprofit and community representatives to the board; adding comment pages and other interactive elements to the foundation website; inviting grantees to share stories with the staff and board in formal and informal settings; and even populating the walls of the office with stories, photos and artwork that reflect what’s happening in the community and among the people they serve.
4. Invest in what it takes.
In many ways, the shift to high-empathy grantmaking can happen through relatively simple steps that foun- dations and their people can take to connect in more authentic ways with others. At the same time, however, grantmakers should recognize that creating widespread empathy in their organizations may require stepped-up investments in operations. Some grantmakers, for example, have decided to add staff as a way to foster strong- er connections with grantees.

Beyond staffing, grantmakers also might find they have to invest in new processes, new systems and new strat- egies to nurture deeper connections between their people and the communities they serve. One caveat as grantmakers consider what they can do to forge deeper relationships with grantees and others: Always be con- scious of your impact on the capacity of grantees to stay focused on their work. Stronger connections and openness to listening and hearing grantee concerns are almost always welcome; interfering in grantees’ day-to- day operations is not.
5. Lead from the top.
One of the most essential characteristics of high-empathy organizations is a leadership team that walks the talk and demonstrates high-empathy behaviors in its everyday work.
To change the culture and overarching strategies of the organization, leaders must embrace widespread empathy as the pathway to better results for the organization and its stakeholders. That means getting everybody to focus on what’s really going to make a difference for the people and the organizations that are central to the mission of the organization.
Leaders also should review what the foundation does (and how it can do more) to promote work practices that encourage and sustain empathy, from deep listening and reflection to looking at the world through the eyes of grantees and others. 

The second report dealt with Catalyzing Networks for Social Change.  As the introduction stated: "Philanthropists are at a new crossroads of increasing fragmentation and interdependence. On the one hand, we’re living in a world where perspectives, practices and action are increasingly fragmented as people and organizations become more specialized in their interests and siloed in their actions. On the other hand, we’re living in a world that is becoming more and more interdependent as ideas, money, things and people move across boundaries of all kinds. Simply stated, philanthropists are operating in a rapidly changing, networked world where the pathways to effecting social change are far from straightforward.  There is a growing imperative for funders to combine longstanding instincts toward independent initiative and action with an emerging network mindset and toolkit that helps them see their work as part of larger, more diverse and more powerful efforts."  

Here is a quick overview of the traditional v. network approach to funding:

Traditional and network approaches to grantmaker Challenges

Traditional approach

network approach
Build community assets
Administer social services
Weave social ties
Develop better designs and decisions
Gather input from people you know
Access new and diverse perspectives
Spread what works
Disseminate white papers
Openly build and share knowledge
Mobilize action
Organize tightly coordinated campaigns
Create infrastructure for widespread engagement
Overcome fragmentation
Bring players and programs under a single umbrella
Coordinate resources and action

I was particularly caught by the section on working with a network mindset and how that might be an approach we can use as a step in altering the culture of arts philanthropic decision making.  The report describes that premise:  "Working with a network mindset means operating with an awareness of the webs of relationships you are embedded in.  It also means cultivating these relationships to achieve the impact you care about.   Working with a network mindset also means finding where the conversations are happening and taking part in them — exercising leadership through active participation.  Of course, working transparently and sharing leadership isn’t always easy. Basic grantmaking structures and mechanics, such as siloed program areas and static application requirements, inhibit working this way. In addition, there are many open questions about how working with a network mindset will mesh with current ways of doing business."

Implementing either or both these approaches (or others that may be developed that promise the same improvements) will not be easy, will take time and effort, and may not even net us the full result we seek.  But we need to take a holistic approach to dealing with the challenge.  Our whole future of relevance is likely at stake.  

Opening up the cultural philanthropic decision making so as to facilitate movement towards equity will require opening up to more and newer community relationships and involvement, and to greater transparency in the whole decision making process.  That won't be any easy conversion for most entrenched Boards that are use to going it their own way, nor will imposing empathy, but step by step by step we can apply pressure and instigate and embed new approaches that favor more openness and THAT needs to be part of the approach.

Have a good week.

Don't Quit