Sunday, September 8, 2019

Open Plea to GIA Delegates

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

Over a decade ago, it was standard practice in arts funding, not to provide funding for the increased overhead and operating expenses associated with additional programming / projects.  Slowly (as every important change seems to always be slow), that changed as it became clear that failing to provide additional overhead support for new programming was placing arts organizations in precarious positions - straining their scarce resources (principally staff time) to a breaking point, which in turn was compromising not only their core work, but also the very projects and programs funders were interested in.  It became clearly untenable to ask organizations to design, launch and manage potentially impactful new programs, without any provision of funding for the additional costs entailed in such an effort.

From that change, eventually there grew a movement and support for the idea of providing more unrestricted operating funds to arts organizations apart from any specific project or program support.  And now part of GIA's and the sector's approach to capitalization and organization sustainability is the idea of a more liberal and far reaching general organizational support for our organizations, including mid sized organizations.  Today, there is even increasing support for the idea that arts funding ought to focus more on the people who make an organization successful, as opposed to just the programs of that organization.  This wasn't always an easy funder decision, because available funds (for both private philanthropic organizations and public agencies) is alway finite.

Now we face another issue within the same thread.  And that is that in many of our organizations, of all sizes and within every discipline or operational area, middle level and junior staffs are often seriously underpaid - both in competition with the private sector and in terms of a living wage.  Many of these people are finding it difficult - particularly in specific urban areas where the cost of living for housing and everything else is increasingly expensive - to make ends meet.  Though I cannot cite any specific study, I believe that has already likely had an impact on both recruiting and retaining the best people to our sector.  An arts administration graduate, possibly carrying heavy student debt, and paid a salary under the minimum to live in certain areas, may not be a candidate for making long term commitments to our field.

This reality is true even where project / program funding now includes extra money for the increased overhead / operations costs of the organization.  While that model helps, it doesn't address the fundamental problem of many organizations:  that their core budgets simply do not start with enough income and cash flow to provide for a reasonable living wage for some of their employees.  

The problem with addressing this threat to our future, continues as before, in that any provision of additional funding for our best, but struggling organizations, has to come from somewhere, and the likely only place is for us to make ever harder decisions to fund this organization and not that one.  Rock and hard place for sure, as funders are disposed to insuring that the available funding is spread equitably across a diverse landscape of applicants and needy organizations.  It is difficult to justify increased funding that will help support underpaid staff at one organization, at the expense of other, very good organizations, doing great work, which are equally needy or deserving.  However, that's not new. The conundrum has always been that the money pie is only so big, and can only go so far.  And that it almost never goes far enough.

We have to seriously ask ourselves if continuing to apply that money in a way that may be spreading it too thin is in the best interest of our overall missions for a sustainable, healthy arts ecosystem serving both artists, communities and the general public in a fair way.  Underfunding a majority of organizations may be more costly to the sector than not funding as many organizations as we would like.  That is, I think, a fair question to debate.

I would hope the arts funding sector would begin the process of considering whether or not a new model might be necessary to address the problem of underserved, underpaid organization staffing financial needs, so as to act to protect what I believe is our single most important asset and the basis of all of our future success - our people.

I would like to suggest consideration of a model that automatically adds ten percent to a grant, said additional funding to be used exclusively for additional pay to lower and middle level staff compensation, above and beyond any additional overhead operation expenses now included in project / program grants.  It's an investment in the organization, and its people,  as well as the success of specific projects and programs.

This will, of course, likely require a corresponding ten percent or so reduction in available funds to the whole of the annual grant making budget, and that will mean fewer project / programs and perhaps even fewer organizations will get funding.  And that is a very hard choice to make.  But I would argue that it is essential to create a strong foundation of small and mid sized organizational growth, sustainability and stability on which to build our future.

I know such a proposal will seem radical to some, impossible folly to others, unfair and simply unrealistic.  But I also know change starts with just considering a challenge and possible responses.  That's how the arts funding community moved from no project overhead support, to more unrestricted general overhead support beyond project support.  I would hope the funding community might begin a response to the challenge of inadequate staff compensation (below the senior level, which level has seen their compensation rise substantially over the past two decades).  The first step in that process isn't yet a discussion / debate of the issue, it's rather individual funders just beginning to think about it themselves, then bringing the fruits of that process to the fore within their individual organizations.  Eventually, that process will invariably lead to a sharing of thinking, and then discussion and debate can take place.  And that can then lead to a wider consideration at the sector level.

I would hope that eventually the issue of how do we address inadequate compensation at middle and junior staff levels would end up on the GIA radar and agenda five years or so from now, with some kind of solution (if not the one proposed above) within a decade.  Our failure to figure out how to pay entry and midlevel people a real wage will ultimately seriously negatively impact our very ability to survive.  It's not a sustainable situation, and it's not going away.

Please ask yourself if organizations in your funding territory face this problem and to what extent?  What do the organizations you intersect with, say about it, and its consequences? Run it by your internal staffs and see what the thinking is.  To what extent is this an equity issue?  A sustainability issue?  A capitalization issue?  Then maybe reach out to another funder in your area and share that information and ask for their thinking.  If it's a real challenge, with serious consequences if left unaddressed, it will become obvious.  Then we can move from there.

The GIA Conference was always among my favorites precisely because there was always serious discussion of all the challenges we face.   I know you have a lot on your plate.  I hope all the delegates to this year's conference in Denver have a great meeting.

Have a great week.

Don't Quit