Sunday, October 23, 2016

Equity Funding - No Change Yet

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

There's a line in an Eagles song that goes:
"Things in this life change very slowly. if they ever change at all."
I was, well not surprised I guess, but somewhat disappointed, to learn from reading a blog post by Ebony McKinney from a session at the Grantmakers in the Arts conference last week in St. Paul, that the lion's share (60%) of funding - grants, gifts and contributions - continue to go to the largest budget cultural institutions across the country (those with budgets over $5 million) and that, in fact, the funding to the smaller organizations, with budgets under $1 million has actually declined, and "that is a drearier future than we saw in 2011".  

These figures are from a report yet to be released from Helicon Collaborative updating the 2011 landmark Holly Sidford authored funding equity study for the National Committee on Responsive Philanthropy - which study's findings on the inequitable distribution of funding is largely credited with kicking off the current ongoing attempt by the field to consider and address the wider equity question in the nonprofit arts sector.

Consider the following data points (from Ebony's blog post):

  • "Total giving by the top 1000 foundations show (in aggregate) approximately $2B given for non profit arts and cultural activities
  • Of those allocations, the largest 2% of arts and cultural orgs in US (those with budgets over 5M) see nearly 60% of all grants, gifts and contributions. That’s a drearier future than we saw in 2011
  • Groups with annual expenditures of under $1M saw their share of all gifts, grants and contributions drop by 5 points
  • That group, (37,000 organizations) represent the fastest growing cohort in total of arts organizations
  • They represent 90% of all groups and are the organizations serving communities of color, LGBTQ populations and disabled populations."

What are we to think of this.  Several points:

First, when it's released, the whole report may provide context and further refinement of the situation and thus we need to hold off presuming too much.  Still, if the base facts as reported are accurate (and I assume they are), then the inescapable conclusion is that in the five years since the Helicon Report, things really haven't changed.  If anything, things might be worse in terms of the inequity in funding.

Second, it's important to bear in mind that change itself is a process, the dynamics of which are that it is often the getting to Malcolm Gladwell's Tipping Point that takes the most time, and that once that point is reached, change often happens at breakneck speed (consider gay marriage as one example).  So we need to move towards the tipping point in any way we can.

Third, there are some identifiable possible reasons why funding has remained static over these past five years, including: 1) Prior funder commitments - legal and ethical - made to fund (over multi-year periods) certain organizations, projects and approaches, and as those commitments are satisfied, we can move in other directions;  2) some funders have adopted overarching goals and objectives for their funding, including funding stability, an emphasis on research, focus on audience development, legacy programs, and certain specific arts education and other projects; 3) some foundations and some public funders have crossover "old boy" style relationships with specific large cultural institutions and those networks continue to influence funding, if not officially, then by degree.  And historically, big donors have similarly been an insular group that followed traditional giving patterns.

Fourth, funders continue to support programs that are successful with verifiable benchmark support data, and are managed at the highest level of skill, and an understandable majority of those programs are executed by a small percentage of resource rich cultural institutions with long-term experience.

Fifth, the funding community is just really beginning to fully understand and appreciate the extant inequities in funding allocation, how structural racism has impacted the field, and how the lack of diversity is adversely affecting the sector on multiple levels.  As it grapples with the challenge of equitable funding, it is now just beginning to consider how to make changes.

Sixth, the internal structures of funding organizations and their histories may obviate against change of any kind, and may make the process of change slow.  

All of the above is likely true, legitimate and telling.  Still, one other underlying reason for the seeming lack of progress may well be one of the primary causes of the inequity in the first place:  the well heeled, white, Euro-centric, large budget cultural institutions, by virtue of relationships with decision makers, being the beneficiaries of a legacy of funder priorities,  and superior staffing, resources and experience from having benefited from decades of preferential treatment, have a lock on the funding decision making process, and are loathe and reluctant to voluntarily give up what they have for so long gotten as a matter of course, and, to a degree, on which they have built their houses.  

While some may chide them for selfishness, and others criticize them for myopia and a failure to see the future, I think it not completely unfair of them to defend their legacy status quo, especially as for some of them their survivability depends on a continued flow of the revenue streams that are the result of inequity.  Then again, whether or not that kind of position is in the best interests of the entirety of the arts and for the public is open to rigorous debate.

That said, the challenge then is to develop a system for funding allocation that represents a more fair, equitable and just situation for all the arts organizations within the ecosystem; one that, while it probably cannot please everyone, at least, addresses the needs of all.  That objective, we haven't gotten anywhere near yet.  And we need to begin to make some tangible and measurable progress to advance that goal.  

I wonder what the landscape might look like if we made a pledge (as our fallback minimal position) to arbitrarily allocate a third of the available funds across the board to the same institutions that we have funded for years (the $5 million + budget organizations) , a third to those with budgets between $1 million and $5 million, and a third to those with budgets under $1 million.  Oh yes, I know such an arbitrary and rigid framework would doubtless create many unjust and unfair instances, wreck some havoc in some places, and sink some worthy and valuable projects and programs.  But overall, over time, might it not be more just and fair and equitable, reduce havoc and foster more worthy projects and programs than the ongoing inequity with which we continue to live?  

I doubt such a simplistic, yet teutonic proposal, has any chance of even being seriously discussed.  I'm not naive.  And I fully understand that any eventual change in this area is going to be funder by funder by funder on an individual case basis -- until, at least, we reach that magic tipping point.  The problem with change moving slowly is that there continues to be a lot of unnecessary suffering during the wait.  

The big question ought to be: which approach will be in the best interests of the overall arts ecosystem

I look forward to the full Helicon Collaborative report, and applaud the continuing efforts of GIA to address the issues.  

Have a great week.

Don't Quit