Day IV: Changing the Game

My final day at the Grantmakers in the Arts Conference began with a GREAT panel on “new models, new leaders, new ideas” for arts organizations and philanthropy, organized and moderated by Marc Vogl from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation. (Disclosure: I worked closely with Marc last summer during my internship with Hewlett’s Performing Arts Program.) This session came as Americans for the Arts was hosting a weeklong online “salon” on emerging leaders in the arts on its blog, so the subject matter seemed distinctly in the air. This was not lost on conference attendees, who absolutely packed the room to hear this session—again and again, GIA staff and volunteers had to leave the room to get more chairs and still people were standing just outside the door or left to find other sessions because it was too crowded.

In a lively and stimulating exchange, the four panelists—Adam Forest Huttler from Fractured Atlas, Heather Cohn from Flux Theatre Ensemble, consultant Ebony McKinney (who recently received a grant to help set up San Francisco Bay Area Emerging Arts Professionals), and, in a most interesting twist, Nicole Derse from Organizing for America and the Obama ’08 campaign—discussed the ways in which they or their organizations are exploring new boundaries. For example, Huttler talked about Fractured Atlas’s entrepreneurial philosophy and the L3C it has formed in Vermont to handle its liability insurance operations, while Cohn spoke about her organization’s reliance on fiscal sponsorship to raise donations, as well as its collective management structure.

The panel spent a good chunk of time talking about fiscal sponsorship, which is a model that Fractured Atlas has promoted extensively to arts organizations as an alternative to full tax-exempt corporation status. The reasoning is that corporations carry with them an assumption of permanence that may not be appropriate for many arts organizations that draw their lifeblood from the efforts and talents of specific people who will not be around or active artistically forever. Another factor is that for organizations under a certain budget size (estimated to be about $500,000 by Huttler), it may be more cost-effective to operate under a fiscal sponsorship arrangement and simply pay the sponsor a fee for the administrative tasks that go along with it than to handle all of the paperwork and regulatory requirements internally. Cohn indicated that Flux Theatre is interested in pursuing tax-exempt status eventually, but McKinney reported that SF Bay Area Emerging Arts Professionals has no such intention.

As much as I enjoyed the contributions of the other panelists, for me, the opportunity to hear from and interact with Derse is what really made the panel special. The Obama campaign has fascinated me from a management standpoint ever since I began learning more about it last year. Derse reported that in the early days (she was the 41st person hired by the campaign, in February 2007), there was a fairly decentralized approach, as offices in different early states experimented with different management styles. Whereas in New Hampshire the campaign adopted a fairly traditional approach, for example, in South Carolina there was a strong emphasis on teams and bringing people in from the community. By and large, the campaign found that the more it was willing to take risks and try new models, the more success it realized. One of the most interesting insights that Derse provided was that the metrics used by campaigns sometimes determine the management structure. Realizing this, the Obama campaign threw out some of the standard metrics that didn’t seem so important and instead began measuring things that related to volunteer leadership, such as the number people trained, the number of one-on-one meetings held, etc. In addition, the campaign took risks by ceding no ground, setting up shop in places that had voted for Bush by 40-point margins in the previous election.

The theme of risk, in fact, kept coming up over and over again as the panelists explored this overarching idea of “new”ness. As Huttler pointed out midway through, the Obama campaign took these risks with an unimaginable amount at stake—the Presidency of the United States, the future political career of the candidate, hundreds of millions of dollars in donated funds. And yet some foundations are afraid to give money to tiny organizations like Flux Theatre Ensemble—which has an annual budget of $45,000—because it uses a fiscal sponsor rather than its own tax-exempt status. As Huttler elaborated, some funders are more like angel investors, willing to take such risks, but others are really like pension funds—sitting on a ton of capital, but wanting to be extremely careful to make sure it doesn’t get squandered.

The panel was opened up to audience questions less than halfway through the session, so the remainder became something of a discussion session. One of the more interesting questions was, “what metaphors do you live by?” Remarkably, all three panelists who gave answers touched upon ideas and intellectual property in some way. Cohn reported that Flux has a philosophy that great ideas should be put out into the world–they are not yours to own. Similarly, McKinney referred to a “commonwealth of knowledge” and Huttler drew upon his experiences with open-source software development. Taking Derse’s efforts to cultivate volunteer leadership into the fold as well, it’s clear that one of the big “new” ideas has to do with activating the commons by broadening the discussion outside of one’s traditional circle in ways that have not been possible or customary in the past, often by leveraging new communications technologies. It’s important to note that this trend toward openness is not completely new — in response to a question about grantmakers embracing transparency, for example, McKinney noted that her former employer, the San Francisco Arts Commission, operates under a “sunshine law” that requires all grant panels to be open to the public, which has sometimes led to interesting conversations and confrontations. And one representative from a big foundation who asked about moving the discussion forward was reminded by a colleague who used to work at the organization years ago that its culture was once far more progressive. Nevertheless, communications technology has changed the parameters of what’s possible, with the result that more collaborative organizational and leadership models that once seemed too unwieldy may now be coming back into fashion.

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