Diversification in Arts Funding: Calling to Question our Basic Assumption

arts funding diversification - roll of the dice

A large part of learning development over the past couple of years was an emphasis on “Diversify, Diversify, Diversify!” Even when I recently interviewed for a devo job, my interviewer’s main development goal moving forward was to diversity sources of contributed revenue. But what if this basic assumption is just that – an assumption?

This week I came across an article on Nonprofit Quarterly which challenges this very basic tenet of the development world. Summary: Whether you should diversify seems to depend on the size and type of your organization, but more importantly: the niche you fill in the world. For example, a funder may only grant to $2.5 million orgs that serve three-legged cats. If your org falls into that category (and you are likely the only org that falls into that category), you will receive the funding practically by default. Wouldn’t that be nice? And if that is the only funding you need – why bother trying to get more?

My devo teacher, Sydney, will probably come after me for saying this…but I do not see any reason to diversify just for the sake of diversifying. If you have a team member who can go out and secure every dollar you need for the budget purely by charming individual donors into parting with their hard-earned cash – and this team member is not so great at writing grants – why put them through the misery when they can more efficiently raise money elsewhere? I was told over and over in grad school to “play with your strengths.” Presumably, it is a waste of time to try to improve a weakness. So if you have the rare staff member who doesn’t have a weakness, by all means Diversify! Otherwise, let your staff efficiently raise the money you need by playing to their strengths, then send them on a much-needed vacation so they don’t get burnt-out.

Some of you (Sydney) may argue with me, pointing out that if Donor #1, who provides 99% of the annual budget, suddenly dies (or maybe not so suddenly), your org will never recover. But here’s a thought – start a planned giving campaign and get Mr. #1 to set up a charitable trust for your org, supporting you for a certain number of years after his death or even, dare I say, indefinitely? Imagine the budget where you could reliably count on that income! You will actually be able to budget year to year on what you know will happen (as opposed to what you expect or hope to happen up until you have a check in hand)! And it is much easier to get the same donors to say yes in a new way than to get new funders to say yes at all. 

There are plenty of reasons to create more work for ourselves – diversifying funding sources can be useful, and should certainly be tackled by organizations with the capacity to do so. (Capacity meaning board and staff with the right skills, connections, time, and magical touch with funders.) But it’s also important to take advantage of your org’s position in the funding environment. So….if anyone has $2.5 mil and a few three-legged cats, give me a call.

——- And Just for Fun ——–

Another entertaining argument against diversification of funding through grants is made over at NWB: a jolly discussion of how funders sometimes make it impossible to be funded (in a meaningful way).

Summer Reading with PaperBackSwap!

Last summer I was interning in DC at Arena Stage and staying with family members in Virginia. There were a lot of things to do but it was the first time in a long time I had any time to read for leisure. So…I found a website that is a trading marketplace for used books called PaperBackSwap. I was really excited…until I realized I needed to list some of my own books to get started (which were back home). But this summer I stayed home to work and so I have used PBS to order books – and get rid of a few too. Here’s how it works:

Sign up (cite me as a referral or use the button below when you register and I’ll get a credit!) and list ten of your own books to receive 2 initial credits. You can order a book from another member for 1 credit. That member will pay to ship the book to you. (In turn, when someone orders a book from you, you will pay to ship to them and receive a credit when the next person gets the book.)  You can pay for and/or print shipping labels right through the site.

Its a nice way to recycle books you will never read again while also receiving books that might have been on your reading wish list for a while. Not to mention: PBS lets you search for books and add to a wish list, notifying you by email when the book is available for order.

Trade Books for Free - PaperBack Swap.

Beautiful Writing from Ireland

Irish writing

At a museum in Ireland, I was struck by the beautiful writing found in a journal. The picture is blurry (taken through glass with a handheld video camera..) but you can still see the care that was taken to form each letter. Even the spacing is perfect. Typing isn’t the same – I often type, delete, type, delete. Forming a well thought sentence and putting it down to paper is not something we do anymore. I remember my high school English teacher telling me to just sit down and type, leaving mistakes and not deleting any of the original thoughts. I argued with him about that a lot – I wanted to get the thought right to begin with and so to this day, I type and delete. I wonder if, in a different time, that process would have occurred entirely in my head.

Classical Art: Entertainment or Preservation?

Ballet shoes preservation of artA couple months ago I was in a meeting about creative disruption. The conversation quickly turned into a discussion about the differences between commercial art forms and educational art forms.

One thought was that some art organizations are really “museum” type organizations, desperately trying to preserve art forms that are no longer commercially viable. With so many symphonies, opera houses, and dance companies struggling, it might appear that the support for these art forms is dying. To me, it seems that the audience just wants to experience these art forms on their own terms. Last year, Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra’s Lumenosity proved that people are willing to hear an orchestra perform. The TV show So You Think You Can Dance has been on the air for 10 years, introducing people to the powerful storytelling capabilities of dance. SYTYCD has featured tap, jazz, ballet, hip hop, contemporary, and probably 20 more styles of dance.

What is the real purpose of arts organizations today? If they are not for profit, they fall under section 501(c)3 tax code purely because they are educational, as there is no category for arts and culture. But does this mean they should be relegated to preservation purposes only? Of course not!

Should we abandon art forms such as opera, ballet, and classical music because audiences are now less interested? This is where it gets harder to answer and begins to contradict itself. So much of the art that is now popular – contemporary dance, for example, has basis in the more traditional forms. Would we have contemporary dance as we know it today without the talent that came out of classical ballet? Probably not. At this point though, students are trained in contemporary without starting in ballet. Perhaps a ballet foundation is helpful but I will leave that to a dancer to answer.

Once again, my post has become a series of questions without satisfying answers – but these are the questions plaguing the next generation of arts organizations. I like to think we are slowly finding answers – putting classic art forms into the context of today seems to be part of the answer. I have a feeling that at some point classical arts will succumb to the pressure and go the way of Latin – taught only in classrooms as a basis for understanding our current language. I certainly hope this does not happen in my lifetime though!

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Mont Saint-Michel Courtyard

Mont Saint-Michel Courtyard

An empty courtyard from my March visit to Mont Saint-Michel in France. I think this was my favorite part of the trip. I just loved the buildings and the self-contained atmosphere of the island. It was a great place to explore. This particular spot was out of the way, giving the impression of being alone (minus the photog in the background, ha!) although the main thoroughfare wasn’t far off and had tons of people. (Click the picture to go the the wiki travel page for a history of Mont St Michel.)

It Must be for Good Reason

Something a coworker said yesterday left me unsettled. I’ve spent a lot of time sending separate contracts to the same people for different performances, mainly because these performances have come up at different times. Around the time I get all the signed contracts back for one performance, I have to put together a whole new set. And let me tell you: getting artists to return a signed contract in a timely manner is usually a matter of about a dozen follow up emails and calls. Multiply that by two dozen artists and multiple performances and I spend most of my time begging, pleading, and cajoling just to get a signed piece of paper.

So I thought out loud that it would have been so much easier to send one contract encompassing ALL of the performances… For me and for them. My coworker said, “Well if that’s how it’s always been done it must be for good reason.”

Not kidding. My unspoken retort: tell that to the inventor of, well….anything remotely useful. But I realized it was said automatically and so I just let it drop. However, this isn’t the first time this way of thinking has come up and I thought it deserved comment.

I could say it is generational (the coworker here is close to retirement), but I don’t know if that is really the case. Maybe it is just the perspective of someone who has worked long enough to realize that we have to do what we are told in order to get a paycheck, and trying to change how things are done is too complicated and time consuming to be justified (at least for those working in large, institutional type organizations). One thing I am learning: I do not want to work in the bottom level of an institutional organization for long.