a reflection on philanthropy,
To close the October 2007 Grantmakers in the Arts national conference, several conference participants, including Dudley Cocke, were asked to share their reflections of the three days grantmakers spent together in Taos, New Mexico.
I have experienced our Taos journey as a time full of questioning. Even some basic assumptions underlying our grantmaking practice were interrogated – perhaps it has served us well to meet at 7000 feet! For example, in more than one workshop or break-out discussion answers to these questions were debated:
- Who defines culture?
- Where does creativity come from and are we supporting it at its sources?
- How are biological and cultural diversity linked?
- Isn’t viewing the world holistically in and of itself an act of social justice?
- Are we paying attention to the shifting politics of arts distribution?
- Are we adequately supporting and developing our field’s intellectual corps – its critical thinkers, writers, and multi-media communicators? (The consensus was no.)
So much prickly content raises another question: How can we as a field organize our knowledge in order to deepen our discourse? Take the question above about viewing the world holistically: What do we already know? Here’s Nick Rabkin in our Spring 2007 Reader:
[There] is the utterly natural human tendency to create fixed categories for comprehending the world and insisting that everything in it must fit into one or another of them. Funders construct their worlds by first naming their programs categorically. This has two benefits. It helps funders stay focused so their money can be most effective. And it enables potential grantees to decide whether a funder is a good prospect, so they don’t waste their time with the wrong ones. (In another sense, program categories are moats that limit the number of proposals funders must review thoroughly.)
The problem is that program categories, by design, are not well suited to recognize innovation and creativity. This is a fundamental concern for the arts in spheres orbiting around poverty and inequality. The spheres encompassed by these categories are typically understood by philanthropy in economic terms, so it should come as no surprise that funders find it difficult to grasp the role of the arts in them. Arts advocates may have actually added to the muddle by accepting the economic definition of the problem and arguing that the arts are a powerful economic strategy. (I’ve often wondered why there are so many poor artists if the arts are so powerful economically.) We’d do better to argue for a different understanding of the problem of poverty, one that is as informed by culture as it is by economics.
How do we build on the likes of Nick’s insight when the issue of categories comes up at next year’s conference? In other words, how can we as grantmakers become more intentional about learning?
My role in philanthropy has been described as that of an insider – outsider, which is to say that I rattle the cup for donations to the causes of Roadside Theater and Appalshop, as well as donate to rattling cups as a trustee of the Bush Foundation. From these dual perspectives, I leave Taos with two outstanding questions:
- In what ways are foundations addressing the inherent power imbalance between grantor and grantee?
- How effectively are foundations perpetuating – including taking to scale – their successes, and how effectively are they communicating their failures?
Let me say something about how I think about these two questions.
The paradox of power: To oppose the bad use of power requires exerting power – and power, even when used for good, corrupts.
The typical grantor – grantee relationship can be described as one between a buyer (the grantor) and a seller (the prospective grantee). Presently, it is a wildly buyer’s market, sometimes with ratios of 50 or more applications to each one funded. (What a waste of everyone’s energy!) And, of course, in such a buyer’s market the prospective seller must learn everything about the buyer; conversely, beyond due diligence, the buyer can learn as little, or as much, about the seller as time and interest allow. This is a recipe for a reality gap. How can we make the grantor – grantee relationship more equitable and more meaningful – and thereby more productive?
The grantor-grantee power imbalance is just one phenomenon coming from the paradox of power as it exists in the human condition. It would be fascinating – to me at least – to hear how the paradox of power plays out in your philanthropic life.
As to my second question about failure, success, and scale, I often think that the field of arts philanthropy – especially that corner concerned with audience access, cultural equity, and social justice – is littered with its successes. Why are so many positive outcomes not promoted and taken to an appropriate scale? Laying aside conspiracy theories, is it because we as grantors have trouble seeing success when it happens? And if this is the case, what is blinding us?
I ask you to consider this hypothesis: We as funders will see more clearly when we become transparent about the outcomes and impacts for which we and our foundation take responsibility. Don’t get me wrong – I’m not necessarily advocating for super-metrics. A desired outcome could be more passion in the auditorium. I am advocating for more clarity regardless of the nature of the outcome.
To put it bluntly, are you and your foundation explicit about the impact by which you wish to be judged by your peers and by the public? I think such transparency could cause some scales to fall from our eyes so we could better recognize success and failure, and even bring us to a new self-consciousness about our roles within the paradox of power.
Until we meet again, I wish you safe travels.