Funding Imbalances Continue In The Arts

As I listened to a webinar hosted by Grantmakers in the Arts (GIA) on its report Annual Research on Support for Arts and Culture, I was relatively unsurprised to hear from Steven Lawrence of the Foundation Center that their research found the largest share of arts grants went to the performing arts (36.8 percent) and museums (27.6 percent).

These findings are consistent with those from NCRP’s Fusing Arts, Culture and Social Change, a report for arts and culture funders from the High Impact Strategies for Philanthropy series, by veteran arts and culture strategic planner, program developer and fundraiser Holly Sidford. Sidford noted that while only 2 percent of arts and culture nonprofits have budgets greater than $5 million, they receive 55 percent of grants, contributions and gifts.

What might lie at the root of this significant imbalance in the distribution of funding for arts and artists?

Frances Kunreuther, co-director of the Building Movement Project has a great blog post that is directly related to Sidford’s findings and possible explanations. She states that the philanthropic jargon we all use and the impact it has on how we implement our work has tangible implications for the communities and organizations we seek to help. She highlights a once fashionable term that resonates with her (and me): ”the ecology of organizations.“

In Real Results: Why Strategic Philanthropy is Social Justice Philanthropy, Kevin Laskowski and I noted that large organizations can and do play an important role in the nonprofit ecosystem, but they account for the majority of funds received across different issues. Smaller nonprofits, often grassroots organizations, are more attuned to the complex web of problems that our communities face. This under-resourcing and funding imbalance leads to both an important perspective being lost in the decision-making process as well as lost opportunities to effect lasting change. Kunreuther says essentially the same:

“Small groups and local efforts had an important place in the ecology frame; but it didn’t exclude larger or more geographically diverse formations. And it assumed that not every group lived forever, that new groups would sprout up, and that ideas came from those closest to the community but that cross pollination made those ideas stronger.”

She also writes that local organizations are no longer valued as they once were – either for the knowledge they bring to the table or as laboratories for testing out new ideas. The knowledge from communities and the organizations that serve them are frequently predetermined by national level organizations. Put differently, an entire sphere of extremely relevant knowledge is marginalized and there is an opportunity lost to have more impact.

Kunreuther also highlights that while still performing important work, larger organizations can overshadow local, community-based groups, which often have important relationships and knowledge of the constituency that we seek to serve or organize. Local affiliates of larger groups can be constrained by top-down solutions that do not reflect the needs of local communities.

Lastly, she posits that there is a presumption that grassroots groups simply lack the skills and knowledge to develop their own solutions to pressing needs or contribute to the knowledge base.

Highlighting the role of money and power in these three problematic areas, she also notes that sometimes national organizations do provide the necessary capacity building for local groups to perform their work but that this happens less often than one would hope.

Regardless of issue focus, grantmakers would do well to consider the research and commentary highlighted here when developing strategy. It is important to reiterate that none of the research contends that larger organizations do not play a valuable role in the nonprofit ecosystem; rather, the point is that we miss out on an entire subset of our ecosystem when we marginalize local organizations and the community perspective. As Kunreuther says: “Without support of the local community efforts, going to scale can be like an invasive species killing off and taking over what is there and forgetting that there was once beauty in a system that has now gone to seed.”

Does your foundation consider the range of organizations comprising our nonprofit ecosystem when developing strategy? Have you engaged in self-reflection about the relevance of community perspectives in developing solutions? We’d love to hear from you.