Most of what I write is intended for people working at arts and culture nonprofits. Executive directors, development staff, marketing managers, program directors…this is typically who I’m talking to. Today I’m going to write something a little bit different. This is a note to arts and culture funders.
Of course, if you don’t personally work for a funder, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t read this. In fact, I’m hoping you will and that as you build relationships with funders you may share some of these thoughts and add your own, too, in the interests of transparent dialogue and breaking down power imbalances.
Here we go.
Dear arts & culture funders,
I am writing you as a veteran of the arts and culture nonprofit world. I’ve worked on the front lines, bringing great programs to the public, I’ve worked in the office making sure everything runs seamlessly, and I’ve toiled endless hours over grant applications which I ultimately submitted to funders just like you.
Now I work with clients all over the country, trying to help them do more, do better, and get funding for all of it. As my client base has grown I’ve started to see many trends. I’ve seen that no matter where in the country a nonprofit may be, we all encounter many of the same scenarios and contexts (many of which haven’t changed appreciably in decades). We share many of the same worries, fears, frustrations, and hopes.
I want to share some of those with you today in the spirit of moving forward together and making sure that the arts and the nonprofits which advocate for them can be as strong as possible now and in the future.
In no particular order, here are some things you should know (and some things I just want to get off my chest):
Who you know should not determine who gets funding.
Specifically, I’m talking about the funders which give grants to the same organizations every single year and will never consider new ones. I’m also talking to funders who don’t accept unsolicited proposals. In both of those scenarios, the best way (and sometimes the only way) to break in is to know someone inside and to leverage that connection. It can be political. It can mean playing games. It can mean that only those with wealthy and/or powerful connections have a shot.
But here’s the thing:
There are tons of organizations out there that are either new, small, or not particularly well-connected who deserve grant awards. There are still more which are run by leaders who aren’t the “right color” or from the right backgrounds. They are doing great work and you won’t even talk to them. This is a dumb policy that is antithetical to advancing the arts. Quit it.
If we had the money for it, we wouldn’t be asking you.
No, seriously. Up to a point, I understand why you ask questions about sustainability and alternate funding sources. I understand why you want to know what will happen if we don’t get the grant. You want to make sure we have a plan and haven’t embarked on this endeavor thoughtlessly. That’s fine and I routinely counsel my clients on how best to handle these types of questions and how to plan accordingly.
But when I see a grant proposal get denied and it’s because you thought they didn’t have enough other funders/sources or you didn’t think the program was sustainable for some other funding-related reason, it drives me batty.
We wouldn’t ask for the money if we didn’t need it. So no, the program may not happen if you don’t fund it (or it may be scaled back). And grants and sponsorships don’t grow on trees, so sometimes it is hard to find others to invest in our program. Or we have a situation where multiple funders have been approached and they all want to see other funders come on board before they make a commitment. But someone has to go first. A game of grant award chicken serves no one.
Ask us what our plan is to give the program or organization its best chance of success. Ask about impact and about how many people will end up loving the arts as a result of our work.
Just please stop implying that we have to only sort of need your money in order to actually get it. And please be willing to be the first to say ‘yes’.
Operating and overhead are not dirty words.
To those of you saints who DO fund operating and overhead expenses: I am not talking to you right now. You all are sweet baby angels who should keep it up. As you were.
But to those of you who only fund projects and programs, we gotta talk.
Projects and programs are sexy. You can point to tangible things that happened. Sometimes you come away with something physical and lasting, like a mural or a public art installation. I get why that’s attractive.
And I also get that measuring the impact of operating and overhead are murkier waters.
But hear me when I say this: without operating and overhead, nothing else happens at all. So they aren’t dirty words. And they can’t be if you want arts and culture nonprofits to be able to do great work.
I consistently hear from my clients that operating funds are what they need the most. And many times they are also the hardest to get. Please, please, please start funding operating and stop trying to force overhead costs to be unreasonably low.
Nonprofit professionals deserve to make a decent wage.
Speaking of low overhead, it often manifests as ridiculously low salaries and nearly nonexistent benefits. Although that might look great in a budget, it directly contributes to high turnover, high burnout rates, and the consistent devaluing of professionals who are actually trying to make our world better.
Ugh. Just ugh.
But funders actually have the power to change this. If, instead of looking for overhead to be under an arbitrary percentage, funders actively encouraged nonprofits to pay their people a fair wage with decent benefits packages, think about the chain reaction that would come from that.
So do it. Insist that the organizations you fund pay their employees well. But of course, you should also be willing to contribute so that they can pay well.
Thankfully, there are tons of things that funders are getting right, too.
In recent years I’ve started to see a lot more arts-centric funders get rid of grant questions dealing with ‘need’ altogether. That means that arts orgs have to spend less time putting together answers to questions like these (which can sometimes be the wrong question for arts programs anyway) and can focus instead on other, more important questions and other aspects of their work in general. This is great news.
I’ve also started to notice that more demographic questions are being asked, And not just about who the nonprofit serves, either. Many grantmakers now want to know the demographic make-up of an organization’s board of directors and staff, too. This is fantastic because it gives nonprofits a strong incentive to think about their level of diversity and hopefully make changes for the better.
In that same vein, I think most of us know that environmental sustainability is becoming more and more important. Apparently, grantmakers think so, too, since I’m seeing questions dealing with the environmental sustainability and policies of arts orgs pop up in grant applications more often. Again, this incentivizes nonprofits to develop environmental policies and help us address a truly vital issue.
And to those of you funders who have moved to electronic application systems: thank you, thank you, thank you! You’re saving nonprofits from spending untold fortunes on postage, saving them from having to deal with inconsistencies in postal delivery and the worry of missing deadlines because of it, and saving trees, too. You rock.
I want to highlight one last thing before we part ways. Whether we are talking about how grantmakers can do better or how nonprofits themselves can do better, none of it works without dialogue. This means that nonprofits must be willing to reach out and build relationships. It also means that grantmakers have to be willing to talk to them. But more importantly, it means that despite a natural power imbalance, both parties have to be willing to have honest (sometimes hard) conversations and to really listen to each other to solve problems in both the grant application and implementation processes.
The future of the arts and the health of nonprofits depends on it.
Ashley K. Cain