Enacting Your Solution Or Your Funder’s Solution?

Often when we talk about arts and cultural organizations applying for grant funding, there is mention of how organizations might try to recast what they are doing in a context that makes it appear that their work aligns with that of a funding organization. There might also be a mention of an organization creating a new program in order to qualify for funding with an eye to doing the least possible in order to use that funding for their core operations.

When there is discussion about how foundation agendas are shaping what type of work get done, it is often in the context of the contortions non-profits will go through to secure the funding or how they need to piece support together based on narrow criteria of what an organization will or won’t fund.

While we all agree this situation is bad for non-profits because it diverts resources from the organizations core activity, less discussed is whether funder agenda is shifting the core activity of organizations in an nonconstructive manner.

Non Profit Quarterly had a story about the research Megan Ming Francis conducted on the relationship of the NAACP and one of their first major funders, Garland Fund.  Based on records of the interactions between the two organizations, the NAACP reluctantly ended up shifting away from their efforts to get state and federal entities to address lynching and mob violence to align with the Garland Fund’s education and unionization agenda because Garland was one of the few groups willing to fund them.

From a Vox piece on Francis’ research,

Garland’s organization also started out with a firm commitment to not “attempt by promise or by the setting forth of conditions or by any other means to control the policy of any group or individual entrusted with this money or a part of this money.” That, though, eventually changed, according to Francis.

The Garland Fund was most interested in education and organized labor, two areas it saw as the most important foundations for improving society. Over time, according to Francis, it discouraged the NAACP’s work on racial violence in favor of a focus on black education, and effected a swing in priorities that still guides the NAACP today (though the fund stopped operations in 1941).

[…]

Francis points to evidence that black leaders at the time didn’t think of desegregation as the pivotal success that we see it as today. Other researchers have emphasized that the fight for Brown was somewhat out of step with what black communities prioritized at the time.

Francis refers to this shift in priorities as “movement capture.” In the podcast interview that accompanies the NPQ article, it seems little has changed in the grant application process. Francis paraphrases an NAACP member writing to a member of the Garland Fund, “I have no pride of authorship. I basically just regurgitated what you wanted me to write.”

If you work in an arts and cultural organization, you may not think that some of the programming you are doing is counter to your interest. After all, if schools aren’t offering arts programming, your organization needs to pick up the slack by going into schools or adjusting operations to allow for school group visits and matinees. Children are the future of the arts, right? But might it not be more in the interest of museums to be open later in the day to better accommodate visitations at night when people got off of work?

I don’t know that museum operating hours are really dictated by a perceived need to be available for visitation by school groups. Megan Ming Francis suggests that the influence of funders have in shaping standard practice is underestimated.

She worries that funders often assume they have a better picture of the problem when they might not — and she thinks funders underestimate the costs to the movement of grassroots organizations aligning themselves with the funding zeitgeist.

I hadn’t set out to draw the connection when I started this post, but I realized the question of whether your organization would be focused on school outreach if educating wasn’t such a priority among funders is related to an frequent topic of this blog of late: Would your operations and activities look different if you didn’t have to justify your value in terms of economic impact and test scores?

If this line of thought intrigues you, check out the NPQ article and listen to the accompanying podcast interview with Megan Ming Francis where she discusses movement capture and wonders how funding may change the goals of groups like Black Lives Matter.

About Joe Patti

I have been writing Butts in the Seats (BitS) on topics of arts and cultural administration since 2004 (yikes!). Given the ever evolving concerns facing the sector, I have yet to exhaust the available subject matter. In addition to BitS, I am a founding contributor to the ArtsHacker (artshacker.com) website where I focus on topics related to boards, law, governance, policy and practice.

I am also an evangelist for the effort to Build Public Will For Arts and Culture being helmed by Arts Midwest and the Metropolitan Group. (http://www.creatingconnection.org/about/)

I am currently the Director of the Grand Opera House in Macon, GA.

Among the things I am most proud are having produced an opera in the Hawaiian language and a dance drama about Hawaii's snow goddess Poli'ahu while working as a Theater Manager in Hawaii. Though there are many more highlights than there is space here to list.

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