Introspection and Funding Equity in NC

Equity in funding decisions has become a hot topic of late.  Last week on the Americans for the Arts blog, Krista Terrell, Acting President for Arts & Science Council of Charlotte/Mecklenburg (ASC), the local arts agency for that North Carolina city and county, made a post discussing how an internal analysis of funding practices revealed just how lopsided distribution of funds had been in the period of 1991-2020. They found that

“…nine institutions each received more in operating support than all ALAANA (African, Latinx, Asian, Arab, Native American) organizations combined.”

Terrell admits that fighting the inertia of status quo to effect change is going to take a lot of effort. She observed that in 1992 ASC fired the majority of its all-white board drawn from a core group of affluent ZIP codes in an attempt to diversify representation only to have the board gradually revert to an all-white membership again.

Likewise, there is institutional resistance to ASC’s desire to implement more equitable funding practices.

One president of a legacy organization told me, “I’m all for changing inequities as it relates to access,” but when I asked their thoughts about changing inequities related to funding, I was met with a long pause. If ASC wants its funding to go further, I was told, it should invest more in legacy organizations with existing infrastructure instead of grassroots organizations.

This is “the lie” at work. Think about what was said through the lens of equity. Equity is about everyone having the resources they need to move along together.

Another legacy organization wrote a Letter to the Editor. Some asked why I did not include the work they are doing and why they could not have been readers of the report and provide feedback. I was accused of not being inclusive.

This is not happening in a vacuum. Earlier this month, I saw a piece in the Charlotte Observer which reported the city of Charlotte was proposing to revamp the way the arts were funded, creating a different funding agency/board. There are indications across a number of news stories that existing funding methods were no longer sustainable.

It is unclear to me whether any of this is in response to ASC’s self study and therefore an attempt to make the process more inclusive or a reaction against that attempt. While the city is promising more money for the arts, the article says artists in Charlotte are skeptical and demanding greater transparency, equity and accountability in arts funding practices.

Meanwhile, the county of Mecklenburg says they have no intention of getting involved in doing the work they feel the Arts & Science Council is doing so well.

Time To Review – To Whom Are You Accountable?

During the Covid pandemic there has been a fair bit of introspection and soul searching about arts and culture, the role they should have in people’s lives, and the medium through which the experience should be delivered.

Now that there is some optimism about a transition to a relatively better operational environment for businesses and other organizations,  (Yes, i am indeed taking pains not to use terms like “return to normal”), it is definitely time to think about how those theories will be manifested.

Vu Le linked to an important essay by Hildy Gottlieb addressing the question of to whom non-profits should be accountable. Her primary thesis is that it is illogical to view the organization as accountable to funders & donors. She dissects the illogic of the implications of a funder accountable position. Among her best examples is the following:

If organizations are primarily accountable to donors, and a donor dies, is the organization still accountable to that person? What if it’s been 30 years since they died, and the world has changed dramatically — are you still accountable to that person’s wishes? Or are you accountable to their heirs? What if the heirs don’t care about your mission — perhaps their mother was an animal lover, and they could never understand that part of her. Maybe they even hate your organization. Are you accountable to the second and third generations of a donor who loved you, even if her heirs do not?

Gottlieb says the organizational mission determines to whom you are accountable. If your mission is serving a certain group, but they take a backseat to funders, then you are not fulfilling your mission. She addresses the concept of there being no mission to execute without the money with the following anecdote:

I once found myself in conversation with board members from a federally funded health center, who all listed patient health as their highest priority. However, one board member kept insisting, “We can only prioritize patient care to the extent we have the money to do so.”

So I took a sheet of paper and wrote “Values Statement’ at the top. Then I wrote, “Our primary focus will always be the health of our patients, as long as we have the money to do so.” I asked if that is what they would like to post in their lobby.

Suddenly their sense of accountability shifted.

She also notes that in the United States the organization has tax-exempt status in return for providing a public service. The reason for being and accountability is the public service and not the money. The “good stewardship” of funds that results in underpaid staff who turn over at a high rate doesn’t help the organization to advance it’s mission.

“Focusing their primary accountability on the money, we see board members spend a huge percentage of their time discussing financial matters, and often zero time discussing what success would look like in their community”

Gottlieb also debunks the sense that fundraising is a result of relationship building, the oft voice sentiment “people give to people, not organizations.” She says no one is fooled that the relationship is more than a transactional one:

Here is what “fundraising is about relationships” really tells a donor:

If you give us money, we will be your friend.
If we think you will give us money, we will court you as our friend.
The more money you give us, the more friendly we will be.
If you fail to give us money, we will eventually stop calling you.

If we truly valued donors as people, we would stop categorizing them as LYBUNTs and SYBUNTs.

So much of what she writes can easily be applied to the way arts and cultural organizations approach donors/members/volunteers. While I often say it is worthwhile to read an article, I strongly emphasize the importance of reading this one and thinking about how the opportunity for a fresh start will change the way your organization operates moving forward.

I was considering putting such an emphatic statement at the beginning of this post, but considered that anyone who read this far would be more prepared to make the effort toward this goal.

I strongly suspect being more steadfast in prioritizing mission over money will make accomplishing progress in areas of equity and inclusion suddenly much easier than it was before.

Cross-Discipline Pollination For Post-Covid Arts

Following the link tweeted by Ava Wong Davies got me to a lengthy blog post by Tim X. Atack about things that need to change in theatre post-Covid.  I will initially engaged by his insistence that the arts needs to stop citing the economic value of the arts when arguing why they need to be supported. As long time readers know, I am very much in agreement with this sentiment.

…there’s a growing feeling that over a year later, the driving focus is to get back to business as it was before the pandemic – maybe, even, to take steps backwards.

That feeling’s compounded by hearing, over and over, industry leaders using the language of our oppressors as justification for business as usual. I’m so so tired of the assertion that The Arts need to be protected because ‘they give five pounds back for every pound put in,’ like some Gordon Gecko hokey cokey. It might be true, but the people we’re making this upward argument to simply Do. Not. Fucking. Care. There are easier ways to make profit, without the messy business of creating art that makes you think about things and feel stuff.

And worse, when the bottom line becomes the principle reason work is made, defaults rule. The idea of art being life-changing or surprising or transformative actually becomes a threat when the main thing you want to do is keep an existing base happy. Theatre stops being alive and becomes transactional. Experiences become about promises made in return for money, rather than invitations to be part of something new, or bigger. Even political plays stop being political and become ‘about the politics’ instead, worthy but inert, leading nowhere.

Atack also broaches a subject I have been less enthusiastic about as a post-Covid reality, the digitization of the live performance experience. He argues from the perspective of the need for cross-disciplinary competency which makes the necessity feel less objectionable to me. (Though even an introvert like myself thinks the spark of having a live interaction with another over a shared experience is irreplaceable.)

At the start of lockdown I heard one artistic director say their theatre was ‘not about to become a film production studio’. But in truth, those kind of skills and cross-disciplinary thinking were shown to be desperately needed the very second theatres started uploading what felt like 1 million appallingly made films…


… All told, we might not want our theatres to entirely become film studios. But if we don’t regularly allow film-makers, and artists of other disciplines, into our theatre culture on progressive and free-thinking terms, to cross-pollinate and diversify the form, if we don’t modernise our concept of a theatre career, when the next virus comes we might as well just shut up shop and walk away.

As I said, his entry is a good length has has many other thoughts about the dynamics of the arts industry post-Covid so it may be worth taking a read to see if anything he says stimulates some thoughts for you as well.

SVOG Program Updates Coming Fast Now

While I am pretty sure people are following the developments of the Shuttered Venue Operators Grant program pretty closely and are probably getting regular updates from their state and industry service organizations, I figure it doesn’t hurt to put reminders and updates out there myself.

Especially since all the updates I have been getting from service organizations haven’t pointed out some important distinctions between the FAQs the Small Business Administration is putting out on a weekly basis now. (Likewise, assume I am not pointing out the distinctions that are important to you and read through them!)

For example, about a week or two ago they started posting check lists of materials you should be collecting in advance of the opening of the application period which appears to be on track to happen in early April. The latest version of the check list can be found here, but since they are updating between Thursdays-Sundays, if you are reading this after March 18 you are better off going to the main page.

The same goes with the regular FAQ document. The passage of the American Rescue Plan has caused sections of the FAQ to be removed in the March 12 version.

For example, the March 5 version had this question:

6.Can an entity apply for a PPP loan now and decide later on the loan if it did not receive an SVOG? At what stage is a PPP loan considered “received”?

but it is now replaced with:

6.*No longer relevant / deleted per the American Rescue Plan being signed into law.

Though if you scroll down, you will see a couple new points of information have been added to that section which address PPP loans and SVOG funding:

21.*How will receiving a PPP loan affect an eligible entity’s SVOG award?

22.*If a portion of my PPP loan was forgiven, will that affect how much of the loan amount is deducted from my SVOG?

As before, anything that has been updated since the last FAQ has an asterisk. But you should through everything thoroughly in case you missed an update.

Among the latest updates are answers to questions about whether the payout will be lump sum or multiple payments. Answer – it depends on a number of factors. See page 16

Should you use fiscal year 2019 or calendar year 2019? – You can use either, but if you apply for the supplemental funding phase you need to use the same time frame.

There was also a new entry answering questions about whether sponsorships should be counted as earned revenue since donations are not counted as such. The answer is different for commercial and non-profit performing arts entities:

Because it represents payment made in exchange for a service (i.e., recognition or advertising), sponsorship payments (such as naming rights) received by for-profit entities will be considered earned revenue. Like the treatment afforded memberships and fundraising events, sponsorship payments received by non-profits will be considered part earned revenue and part gross revenue. In such cases, the sponsorship payment amount a non-profit receives that represents a fair market value for services in exchange (i.e. promotion, free admission, use of facilities) will be deemed earned revenue and the portion of the sponsorship payment that exceeds that amount will be deemed a contribution and thus gross revenue…

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