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).

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Valuing Art-making

I’ve been browsing through articles today – and a couple caught my eye. First was about a study done on art-making by corporate executives, by John Bryan. Second was a post about when ballet dancers choose to retire, by Melody Datz.

The study about corporate executives was a little discouraging to me – after all, two-thirds of the respondents answered “No” to the first question, ending the survey altogether. But the second article reminded me that artists do not often enter a corporate workforce…many are starting their own businesses and companies, or looking for second careers that allow them to help others (nursing was one example in the article).

Should we expect the corporate world to value art-making? Do CEOs need to participate in art-making in order to value it? Why not ask CEOs the following questions:

  • Do you value art?
  • Do you consider art-making to be an indicator of creativity?
  • Are you creative?
  • Do you consider art-making or creativity when making hiring decisions?

Although the study seems to hint at the benefit of an executive’s art-making to his or her company’s bottom line, it doesn’t actually follow through with any sort of bottom line comparison of the CEOs who do and do not make art. I know that would be difficult comparison to make, but it still begs the question!

Mr. Bryan claims, “But while creativity is an attribute that is subjective and hard to identify, art maker is an objective attribute that is easily identified.” I don’t know if I necessarily agree with that statement. These days, so many corporate executives are enabling art by granting, sponsoring, and sitting on boards. Can we say that without them the art would still be made? Maybe. But as it is, it is often corporations and their executives that fund and lead arts organizations – is that not counted as making art?

The survey implied making art is a direct correlation to developing creativity, which is the basis of the increased bottom line performance statistic mentioned at the beginning of the “Art-Making” article. Can’t creativity be fostered through the enjoyment of art? Isn’t that what every arts org mission statement says anyway: “…to foster the enjoyment of <art form> and creative thinking and problem solving that results from <art form>”? (Oh, and if you are writing a new mission statement for your org, you’re welcome. I just saved you 12 hours of board retreat!)

These are a lot of questions, and I certainly don’t have the answers. It was just interesting to me that a study about art-making was so very specific in the definition that it likely didn’t account for any other arts participation at all. Maybe that was the point. Sometimes there is beauty in simplicity but this study was too basic for any real questions to be answered.