People Fund People Not Organizations, So Maybe Do That Even More?

Last month Marginal Revolution blog posted an excerpt of a piece by Adam Mastroianni about how grant funding is broken.  I immediately hopped over to see what he had to say. While his post was mostly focused on grants funding science and the Rhodes scholarship process, there were a lot of common elements that are likely to be familiar to all who apply.

One of the first observations Mastroianni makes is that it is very easy to hack the grant process thanks to relationships you have. This both confirms that people give to people and organizations and that groups that may really need the funding but lack access to guidance, resources and insiders often get locked out.

For instance, most Rhodes selection committees include a cocktail party as part of their interview process. This is a pretty bad way of judging whether someone is a good person, but it’s a pretty good way of judging whether they are pleasant to talk to at a cocktail party, and so Rhodes Scholars are often charming conversationalists and sometimes bad people (see: Bill Clinton, Bobby Jindal, noted anti-vaxxer Naomi Wolf).


For example, the Rhodes Trust probably hopes that by picking the most accomplished college seniors and giving them a super prestigious prize, they will encourage the youngsters to do lots of brave and risky things. Instead, the most popular destinations for my Rhodes cohort were top-tier medical schools, law schools, and PhD programs (guilty), as well as a handful of consulting companies––exactly where we would have gone if we hadn’t gotten the scholarship.

Generally, Mastroianni’s criticism is that most grant programs reward people who are already successful to the detriment of those they say they wish to help.

Mastroianni’s suggested solution is to take advantage of the flaws in the system to force it to reach into the underserved cracks and crevices. His system, which he refers to as “Trust Windfalls,” essentially allows one to provide a benefit to friends–but only once.

But isn’t it unfair that a bunch of money should go to my friends? Also yes. That’s why, if I was an Agent, I should only get one turn at awarding Windfalls. Then I’d have to pass on the responsibility to someone very different from me who I trusted to give out the second round. If I did it right, Trust Windfalls would eventually find their ways into corners of the world that conventional grants could never reach. Just a few trusted links away from me might be a Botswanan ichthyologist or a trucker smuggling medical supplies into Kiev––people who may not speak English or know the right things to say on an application or even realize there are grants they could apply for in the first place. Making Agents temporary also prevents the Trust Windfalls from being hacked: once people know you’re an Agent, every interaction with you becomes a grant application.

If people hate conventional grant funding so much, why haven’t they tried something like this? Honestly, I think it’s because trusting people seems a lot scarier than it really is. Funders have to trust Agents. Agents have to trust their grant recipients, and they have to trust the person they nominate as the next Agent. (We should maybe call the organization that oversees all this the Trust Trust.) Anybody could betray the trust put in them, which would be a huge shame and very embarrassing.

While this is an interesting idea in theory, I think it is overly idealistic in terms of thinking that people will pass the baton on to people outside their own peer group in any great numbers. Funds may be sent to a biologist studying the ecology of a Latin American country or an aid worker in Ukraine, but is the money going to a life long resident of that country or the sister of a person the Trust Agent went to college with who is working for a university program or an NGO with roots in the US? Certainly Mastroianni alludes to the fact something like this could happen.

I think the structure he suggests has a better chance at providing an equitable distribution of funds than the current system. I like the idea of leveraging the problems of current practice into a solution. But the funding source would probably need to be plugging detailed data into relationship mapping software to ensure that the 4th or 5th recipient in the chain not have multiple common ties with the 1st and 2nd people in the chain.

I guess the fact I can identify a flaw and potential solution so easily indicates it is possible to refine his proposal into something workable.  Take a read of his proposal and see what you think.

Can Annotated Press Releases Be A Good Communication Tool?

Last week Aubrey Bergauer made the following post calling the attention of arts organizations to an annotated press release put out by the financial company Ellevest announcing their success in raising $53 million.

While there were some silly annotations like calling Bankrate “smarties” for naming Ellevest “the #1 mission-driven investment offering,” on the whole the annotations were used to provide deeper perspective on the effort that went into raising those funds and telling Ellevest’s story.

For example, the annotation stating Ellevest is funded by 360 women and underrepresented investors revealed:

“I get the game on these raise announcements. I know what the narrative is “supposed” to be: that institutions were throwing money at us to invest in Ellevest.

What really happened: As we began our raise, we had dozens and dozens (and dozens) of meetings with potential investors, and they were going … fine. Fine to good, in fact.

And then … the women showed up.

Caroline Lewis, of Rogue Ventures, heard about our raise and contacted us. … Then, so did Jesse Draper at Halogen Ventures. And so did Jenny Abramson at Rethink Impact. And so did a number of others.

This opened up our funding round to these underrepresented investors — for them to support us (by funding the company), and, we hope, for us to support them (by working hard to deliver a strong return and build their track records). …

The annotation quoting Caroline Lewis saying there is a need for financial products that serve women stated:

“Like, actually serve women. Not just market to women. And not just be a pinkwashed version of your father’s financial advisor…”

The annotated format serves multiple purposes. For those that just want something formatted for publication to quickly copy and paste, there is the surface text. For those that want the deeper story about the challenges and process, the annotations provide threads to follow. The format opens up all sorts of possibilities.

A release about a milestone anniversary of your organization may list all the people who performed for you over the years, but an annotation on some of those artists might note that the trumpet player in the band met his wife at a performance, settled down in the community and now their daughter is the executive director.

You may send out a release acknowledging that dozens of people worked thousands of hours over the course of a year and a half to implement your equity and diversity policy and practices. You may not be able to list everyone in the press release, but you can include them in an annotation.

Obviously, the biggest issue is that an annotated press release is only available on a web format. You can’t squeeze all that into a PDF or Word document emailed to a media outlet. On the other hand, people are getting their information from traditional media outlets less and less frequently so there is a good chance to get eyeballs on your press release by linking to it via social media posts.

People are able to consume as much or as little additional information as they may like. That way you can keep the details short and sweet for people with passing interest or short attention spans, but let those who are really invested and interested in your organization feel like they are in the know by digging into the tidbits in every annotation.

If I recall correctly, it is relatively easy to include annotations on a number of web and blog platforms like WordPress. I thought my blog had that option so I could illustrate, but since I didn’t use it much I suspect it disappeared during an update years ago.

Guaranteed Income For Artists Spreading

Nod to Laura Zabel who tweeted a story about the guaranteed basic income for artists pilot program being started in Ireland.  The plan is to provide €325/week to 2000 artists. This is actually more, both in terms of monthly income and number of artists included, than any similar program I have seen piloted in the US. The program will be run across three years which is also longer than any other program I have come across as well.

Minister for the Arts Catherine Martin indicated selection for participation would be random rather than competitive. It sounds like the intent is to make sure those in different sectors and career stages are represented since the article mentions “Likely “streams” will include professional artists, emerging/developing artists and creative arts workers.”

The ministry is quoted as saying there won’t be a means test for who will be able to participate in the program.

The National Campaign for the Arts which had lobbied for the pilot was quoted as saying they were:

“happy with the proposed payment of €325 per week, once it is not means tested and other benefits including disability payments are not diminished, and that there is a clear process for selection…”

In writing about other guaranteed basic income programs previously, it hadn’t occurred to me that participating in the program might end up disadvantaging people from receiving other types of aid due to income restrictions. That is something to be considered when designing programs like this –either to disburse an amount that will offset people’s losses or ensure that the amount people are receiving doesn’t adversely impact their ability to receive other aid.

Ten Pounds of Arts Funding Doesn’t Yield 20 Pounds of Peace

So like me, you may have been driving home Monday night and heard an interview on NPR conducted by host Mary Louise Kelly with poet Tess Taylor discussing art as civic repair.  Taylor talks about how a plethora of festivals in Belfast have helped people to come together peacefully since the Good Friday Agreement brought about a general cessation of violence in Northern Ireland.  She draws some parallels to political division in the United States.

She tells a story about being assigned to write a travel story about Virginia shortly after the 2016 election. She arrives in Floyd, VA, a mecca of bluegrass and is torn between being upset at the election results and wanting to square dance.

KELLY: You write, (reading) I realized I could either be mad or I could dance, but I can’t do both, so I’m going to dance.

TAYLOR: There might have been so many people right then at that square dance with whom I really had nothing to say about politics. But while we’re doing this dance, we’re actually partaking in a community action that takes place with an old pattern, and people swing around, they have to change partners, nobody can be left out, everybody is called in, and I understood the square dance is a ritual meant to build community and meant also to be sure that people had some relationship with one another so that they were kind of agreeing, perhaps, in a rural, small community to care for each other in some way. But I also felt very amazed by the ability of the dance itself to make me feel more able to work with people around me and to feel as if somehow, in that moment, we had put aside our differences and come together into something bigger.

As the interview closed, it was mentioned that Taylor had written a longer piece on this subject for Harper’s this month so I sought the article out.

There was a great deal of nuance in Taylor’s piece which was careful to say while there were similarities between the friction in the U.S. and Northern Ireland, there were differences that made them, and thus the solutions, distinct.

What I really appreciated was just how much Taylor’s article paralleled my post yesterday about viewing the arts as a prescriptive solution for problems. While Taylor cited research that showed how arts activities can create bonds of friendship, empathy and cooperation, she also noted arts weren’t, and will likely never be, the totality of the solution for Belfast in and of themselves. (my emphasis)

…Artists knew that arts programming was an effective means of weaving people together; they had written many grants justifying projects in these terms, and some were tired of the process. Some expressed concern about instrumentalizing art. “It’s not as if you put in ten pounds of arts funding and get out twenty pounds of peace,” said Glenn Patterson.

…But Durrer is the first to say that investments in reconciliation are naturally hard to quantify: “It’s not as if you can count the number of Protestants and Catholics who sat next to one another in a theater and know anything about how well people are actually reconciling.” My friend Stephen Connolly, a poet, warned me that the festivalization of Belfast can at times feel like a “manufactured peace.” Others felt uneasy about looking to anything in Northern Ireland as a model. Everyone stressed that what had been achieved in the north of Ireland has since frayed and grown tender.

But FitzGibbon, who has collaborated with Boyd on outdoor performances and directed the Belfast Children’s Festival for thirteen years, also emphasized the giddy feeling of making interventions that seemed to result in collective delight.

There is a lot of thoughtful reflection in the Harper’s story and it bears looking at regardless of whether you are considering connecting the arts with social change.