It’s Not A Genius Grant. It Might Actually Be Much Better

I just got around to reading up on some of the new granting program initiatives the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation has recently announced.

In the interests of correction right from the start- Contrary to what I retweeted last week, the Doris Duke Leading Artists program is not their version of the MacArthur genius grants. Program director Ben Cameron explicitly makes that point. Sorry about that.

There were a number of things Cameron wrote that I was pleased to see a major foundation acknowledging (my emphasis):

Does project support force an artist to follow through with the production of a work that may be, after exploration, of less interest or less feasible than originally envisioned? Do regrant programs by their very nature favor projects that can garner consenus from a panel (a sort of comfortable middle) and disadvantage less conventional, more extreme or riskier work that an artist might wish to do? How can programs encourage more artistic risk while still acknowledging and supporting “failure” or “dead ends” that can be celebrated for their lessons, without necessitating further investment of production resources? With so many grants offered at nominal levels, how can an artist piece together a life of economic dignity? And now, with so many artists approaching their latter years, financially unprepared for retirement, have we been derelict in not supporting longer-term artist life needs and more aggressively helping artists prepare for this phase of life?

In an earlier paragraph, he acknowledges that foundations often establish long term relationships with organizations, but infrequently with artists, even those who are well established. In a later section, he refers to the amount of gratitude artists exhibited upon receiving an additional $10,000 no strings attached grant as “frankly, depressing in the knowledge that an unrestricted grant of $10,000 could be both so extraordinary and so life-changing for so many.”

One of the problems that I and other blogs have frequently discussed is that grantees often feel like they have to report everything turned out as good, if not better than anticipated in the grant proposal. If only grants did have the magical power to contravene the effects of real life, they wouldn’t be needed as frequently and in as large sums as they are. I was pleased to see a funder say they realized what the reality was. Overall, I was happy to see that they had decided to make a commitment to bolstering support to artists into their retirement.

The only thing that gave me pause was that the foundation decided to select recipients of support in their Doris Duke Leading Artists program from the pool of past grantees. Given that they had started to wonder whether their past selection process might reward mediocrity over risk taking, it seemed a slightly flawed approach. But honestly, there isn’t much alternative to deciding to how to make the awards. Besides, Cameron never suggests that the artists being awarded grants might be lacking in talent, only that the granting process encouraged highly talented people to moderate their ambitions.

The Leading Artist program is the one that most excites me, even though I won’t be remotely eligible. Even though the grant is for less money and there are more requirements for how it is used than the MacArthur genius grant, my claim that it might be much better stems from the potential change it represents in the approach to supporting artists. If successful, this program might become a model for other funders much as the programs of other foundations have provided the inspiration for the three that Cameron introduces.

It may also engender the idea that a healthy artistic practice involves some investment in one’s work, some effort in audience development and some investment toward retirement. (my emphasis)

“Recipients will receive an unrestricted grant of $225,000 over a three to five year period—a schedule to be determined by the artist recipient. An additional $25,000 will be available to the artist specifically to support work around audience connections or development. And a final $25,000 (which must, however, be matched by the artist) will be available for retirement purposes, bringing DDCF’s potential investment to $275,000 per artist.

We’d like to make clear that there are things these grants are not: They are not life-time achievement awards. They are also not “genius” grants, nor are they project grants. They are investment grants, designed to offer support with minimal administrative burden to exemplary professional artists who are dedicated to work in the nonprofit sector and with maximum flexibility and empowerment for the grantees.”

The second program is Doris Duke Performing Arts Fellows “these awards acknowledge that there are artists who have yet to achieve the same level of recognition as their colleagues in the Leading Artist category, but who nonetheless might have significant impact on their fields.” These people will be chosen by anonymous nomination with 20 grants awarded annually for each of the next five years. The awards are scaled down in both time and amount, but are meant to be used for the same purposes – creation, audience connections and retirement.

The third program is somewhat intriguing to me as well. Doris Duke Artist Residencies is meant to address a perceived adversarial relationship between artists and arts organizations by providing funding to essentially find a better way to do things.

“…All of these organizations can create residencies for artists, not only from within their fields but for artists from outside their disciplines. While a theater can clearly request support for a playwright or actor, a dance company can request a dancer or choreographer, and a jazz organization can request a musician, a theatre could instead request a dancer, a dance company could request a playwright, or a jazz organization could request a videographer. This flexibility allows for the possibility of important, cross-disciplinary learning.

…Ours is instead about supporting a partnership between an artist who wishes to explore and reimagine institutional life and behavior, and an organization willing to open itself to that exploration. It is also about reimagining how an organization and an artist connect to their community and supporting a pilot effort to behave in new ways. And, they are about the creative engagement of audiences in ways which give the organization and artist an equal stake.

As such, we recognize that these residencies will not be of interest to everyone. Those looking for a traditional artist in residency program will inevitably be disappointed that this initiative does not support those efforts, even while we support them through other initiatives in our grant portfolio.”

What I appreciate about this program is that it appears to be trying to give artists and organizations some breathing room and security to experiment as partners some new ways to engage audiences. This program will be open to applications some time in Spring 2012.

Possible To Cultivate New Funders Motivated By New Mandates?

You may have read about the report the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy released at the Grantmakers in the Arts conference noting the disparity in foundation support for arts organizations.

According to the report,

“the largest arts organizations with budgets exceeding $5 million represent only 2 percent of the nonprofit arts and culture sector. Yet those groups received 55 percent of foundation funding for the arts in 2009. Only 10 percent of arts funding was explicitly meant to benefit underserved populations.”

Most of this money is going to large organizations patronized by a shrinking wealthy white audience during a time when people are orienting toward community based arts groups.

As I read this, I recalled Scott Walters’ discussion of the difficulty his small arts organization had meeting the deadlines for the Our Town grant process and the questions he raised about the appropriateness of the criteria being employed. I suspect there is something of a feedback loop inherent to foundation grant programs in that they are structured to the needs of the organizations they serve and those they serve tend to be organizations with the resources to meet the criteria of the grant programs.

Foundations may have to expand the number and types of organizations they serve, as the report suggests. But I strongly suspect they will have to also institute changes in their process to better accommodate those with fewer resources than those with whom they currently deal. Otherwise, they probably won’t have very strong participation from a larger, more diverse group.

Of course, most foundations, whether they have an arts focus or not, were set up to serve the interests of their founders. It appears that this has been rather successful. The greatest success in securing support for under served populations may end up being best realized by cultivating/encouraging individuals and groups from those communities to develop their own funding structures whether it is foundations or cultural hui.

The article mentions that current funding practices originated in an 19th century need to prove America was on par with Europe culturally. That need has passed and a new set of practices based on different motivations are required. Existing foundations may end up doing a lot of good after shifting their priorities, but in attempting to overlay new priorities on their founding purpose they may never be as effective as organizations that structure their approach around a mandate to support the arts and culture of under serve communities from day one.

Cultivating a sustained culture of support in areas where it is not currently practiced won’t happen overnight, but aided by technology it may not require 100 years to take root either.

Are Gov’t Caps of Non-Profit Salaries On Horizon?

The Stanford Social Innovation Review (SSIR) notes that the governor of New Jersey has placed salary caps on non profit executives who do business with the state and the governor of New York has started a non profit salary review.

While governments have a right to be concerned over non profit scandals and society might properly have an expectation that a good portion of the funding going to a non-profit organization will be directed toward serving the appropriate segments of the community, there is a inequality in the expectations. In an article linked in the SSIR blog, Doug Sauer, CEO of the New York Council of Nonprofits notes,

““The State government contracts to buy services from nonprofits just as it contracts with the for-profit sector; except that the nonprofit is often expected to unfairly perform at below the actual cost of doing business. Perhaps it is also time to order an extensive review of the executive compensation of ‘taxpayer supported for-profit businesses’.”

Additionally, John Brothers notes in the SSIR blog post that most non-profit executives don’t even approach the $141,000 cap that NJ is imposing.

“According to the 2010 Guidestar Compensation Study, human service executives earned a median annual pay of just over $122K. What is more interesting is that of the over 3,000 nonprofits surveyed, just 0.004% earned more than a million dollars and only 4 percent earned more than $500K, with sizes of organizations peaking in the multi-billions. I would say that this is hardly a national epidemic of nonprofit jet-setting executives.”

You may look at these stories and think that they only apply to social/human service organizations. However, Gov. Cuomo of NY doesn’t make as clear a distinction regarding those organizations that NJ does. While the initial round of inquiry letters went to social service organizations, the fact the NY governor said all non-profits receiving state funding will be reviewed raised the question,

“Does this mean that the task force will examine compensation at hospitals and other health care providers – where CEO salaries of $1 million or more are not uncommon? What about major arts organizations and institutions of higher learning where that is also true?”

This move to evaluate non-profit salaries provides a potential avenue for those who oppose the funding of arts and culture. Lacking the ability to accuse artistic content of being obscene, they can seek to limit funding to organizations whose compensation is perceived to be excessive.

Fortunately, there are a number of objective measures and loads of data one can employ to prove compensation is fair. This situation underscores the need for non-profits to become better organized to advocate for themselves before it comes to that though.

Info You Can Use: Does Friending A Candidate Endanger Your Non-Profit Status

The Non Profit Law blog linked to a really great publication put out by the Alliance for Justice that explains whether your online activity might run afoul prohibitions in your 501 (c) 3 status. This is the clearest explanation of these issues I have read.

“This guide aims to answer the questions nonprofit managers most frequently face regarding the Internet and social media.”

The document covers situations that don’t involve online activity, but really it is the social media element that comprises the uncharted territory that people aren’t clear about. The document makes a distinction between lobbying, which a 501 c 3 non-profit can do and supporting a candidate, which they can’t.

Though sometimes the distinction is very subtle. For example, you can make a post on Representative X’s Facebook account, “Rep X, support the arts by voting Yes on Bill 123.”and that is direct lobbying. If you post a slightly different message, “People of My State, tell Rep X, to support the arts by voting Yes on Bill 123, ” and that is considered grassroots lobbying because it is a general call to others to take some action. If you post, “We love Rep X because she supports the arts and voted Yes on Bill 123,” that is promoting a specific candidate.

Except in some very specific circumstances, you can’t link to a candidate’s website. In fact, you can’t link to any website that promotes a candidate and you are responsible for making sure the content of the site doesn’t change since you first linked to it.

For example, you are doing a renovation and link to the website of the company that is providing you with sustainable wood as a way of proving to your constituency that you are acting responsibly. If the supplier changes their website to criticize a candidate’s stance on logging, your organization might be in trouble.

There are also restrictions on allowing employees to use company equipment, even on their time off, to express support for a candidate.

In answer the question posed by the title of this entry, no, you can’t friend a candidate on Facebook or follow them on Twitter. They are free to friend and follow your organization. Even though etiquette suggests you follow them in return, the IRS suggests you don’t.

About the only time you are safe to have a promotion of a candidate on your website is if you allow Google to place ads on your website and have no control over what they are placing.

There are a lot of other questions answered in the document as well. Since a lot of 501 (c) 3 organizations are associated with 501 (c) 4s which have looser restrictions, they provide some detailed guidance about how closely connected their activities can be. The guide also deals with setting policies for renting your mailing lists, guest bloggers, moderating blog commenters, using photos, hosting videos.

It is clear that there are going to be a lot of nuances specific to the activities of different organizations. However, if you have had questions about what is permissible as lobbying and prohibited as campaign support, and don’t have a tax lawyer immediately available, this is a good place to start to find your answers.