“And the beat goes on……………………”
I. Who Are Our Constituents? This session was based on the proposition that clarifying one’s constituency can change the approach to grant making.
I think the reality is not so much in clarifying the constituency, as identifying which constituency the focus needs to be on to advance whatever strategies have currently been adopted to meet a goal or the mission.
Though some see the public and private sectors as having different ultimate constituencies, I don’t think that is necessarily the case. Corporations, nonprofits, government entities all ultimately serve a public interest. In the end, a public good is the ultimate constituency.
The traditional corporate model suggests the purpose of the corporation is to “enhance shareholder value” (and arguably, that is a private, not public interest). For the most part, that may well be an increase in bottom line profits. But it may also be accomplished through a myriad of other activities. Thus, for a company like Boeing – where their workforce is rapidly aging – philanthropic efforts that address that issue (like the promotion of creativity as an educational objective resulting in a more qualified workforce) indirectly relates to the enhanced shareholder value. And in serving that objective, the corporation is (even if indirectly) serving a public interest.
For Boeing, their external stakeholders logically include: the airline customers, their suppliers, government agencies and the local communities in which they operate, the people who fly and the tourism industries. Their internal stakeholders include their employees and their stockholders. Also included in the mix is their role in the overall nonprofit sector in the geographic areas (principally Seattle) where they do business.
So, where they focus their philanthropic strategies, is, to me, the issue. Workforce development is a key upcoming challenge to them, so education that seeks (long term) to support and develop a more creative workforce is a no brainer. Success in that strategy benefits the wider public.
Target Stores, like Boeing has concluded that philanthropy is good for business (and thus the shareholder value). Their constituents likewise include their customers and employees.
In the nonprofit sector, the government accords a special tax status on organizations that are legally defined as “public benefit corporations” (that provide a benefit to to the public) – which is not altogether much different than enhancing shareholder value – with the public itself being the shareholders. Our nonprofit grant making includes a gamut of stakeholders – from the artists and arts organizations, to audience members, to communities. Nonprofits too must determine where their focus will lie as they try to balance their constituent interests. Clarifying which constituencies that focus will be on may help them to clarify their approaches to grant making in pursuit of an objective.
Finally, government agencies (like local arts councils, cities, states) also have as their underpinning, the public as the ultimate constituency. They spend taxpayer money to enhance public value. Where they choose to focus that spending affects how they design and implement programming.
I am not sure where this all leads, but it seems that asking the question “who really are out (current) constituencies” may be helpful in then determining how and to whom to make grants.
In the comments portion of this session, the discussion went far beyond the base question of who are your constituents and into the realm of how you go about vetting new ideas. Mario Garcia Durham, from APAP, had what I think is a very keen observation: he suggested that we ought to embrace some mechanism that would provide strong skepticism to new ideas; that while we didn’t want to discourage new thinking, we did need to challenge new ideas on multiple fronts with rigorous due diligence before rushing to embrace them. I think he is right. Too often, our dedication to the very concept of new ideas, leads us too quickly to move from one approach to another and that as a matter of strategy, we need healthy questioning of all the implications and likely impact of changing from one thing to another. I think that is a good idea at both the organization and the sector levels.
II. Capitalization – What are the Next Steps?
There is ample evidence that a huge percentage of arts organizations are in a financial crisis; they simply do not adhere to the principle of spending less money than they take in. The funding community has played a role in allowing a culture of tolerating the conditions of inadequate capitalization to exist. How then do we now help arts organizations to retire their debt, and embrace adequate capitalization, to become the requisite norm of the business model?
In the private sector, the market makes frequent corrections. But in the nonprofit sector, market forces are undependable, unpredictable and chaotic.
One fundamental problem for arts philanthropy is that grantees – increasingly in a survival mode, desperate for funds, and wanting to appease funder demands – make two critical and costly decisions (consciously or unconsciously):
First, they continue to seriously underestimate the cost of overhead. Whether intentionally or cavalierly, they submit budgets that suggest the cost of their doing business is far less than the reality.
The second error is the flip side of the coin: they seriously overestimate their projected incomes.
The philanthropic community has moved, in recent years, to address the first error by providing more money for general operating expenses, and more money for the overhead and management of specific projects (moving to a more realistic goal of 30% for overhead). And evidence suggests funders have gone from providing general operating expenses in the 15% range to the 35% range. But they haven’t yet found the best way to change that culture of misinformation – with grantees providing unsubstantiated and false figures on expenses and income. Many arts organizations are in denial about both, and many are not being completely honest with themselves, let alone their funders.
The challenge is to change that culture – to where grantees are more honest and realistic – in order to arrive at a better working relationship between grantor and grantee.
Two realities seem apparent to GIA: 1) Bringing organizations to a position of being more comfortable with being honest and realistic with themselves and funders, and moving towards positions of adequate capitalization, are both part of a big conversation involving the whole arts organization’s communities, including Boards who are often not thinking about capitalization. And 2) This will be a long, long conversation.
III. Luncheon Plenary. Speaker Ethan Zuckerman
Working through his organization Global Voices, Zuckerman is concerned with helping activists have a social media voice, and in the process is learning about how change happens in the world.
Some of his observations:
1. The media didn’t see the changes wrought by new technology coming, and don’t yet know how to recover. That seems to me akin to the music business (post Napster) failing to see a fundamental change in their business model – changes that moved them from selling records as the primary income generator, a model that supported touring of artists as incidental to the selling of recorded music, to the model where recorded music became the tool to promote touring as the primary source of income. Napster enforced a new reality – the non-paying downloading of music – and that new reality has fundamentally changed forever the music business model. I wonder if the rough equivalent of Napster for the nonprofit arts is somewhere out there lurking, and that the proverbial bus for us is leaving the station? And whether or not we are perilously close to missing that bus as our model is morphing into something we don’t yet see and from which we may not recover?
2. The new media stars are former bloggers.
3. Twenty year olds (the new generation that Zuckerman calls the “digital natives) have already decided what actions they will and won’t take to affect change. For example, this group doesn’t look to Congress or government as the place to make change happen. They are suspicious of institutions. They live in a high tech social world and cherish a “participatory world” – and if there is no participation, then they aren’t interested. Moreover that world is seen through a “pointilist lens” wherein the impact desired (and having impact is a highly desired outcome) is achieved by small increments, not big movements.
4. There is, in this group, the tendency to gravitate to small, known groups – which inclination is most pronounced online, where the “digital natives” live. Thus creativity is an import / export business – not a solo endeavor. Participation is based on passion for this cohort, and the questions for the arts are: 1) How can the arts be a cultural bridge?, and 2) how can the arts support institutions in a pointilist world?
IV. The offsite session: Challenges, Opportunities and Impacts at the Intersection of Art and Science:
One of many off-site, afternoon long sessions, this one was held at the URBN Center at Drexel University.
SEAD is a network for Sciences, Engineering, Arts and Design, and interested in new forms of collaboration among SEAD constituencies. They did a study to identify issues that must be addressed in order to create an ecology of networked knowledge and innovation among these groups. Such a program needs to attend to the following issues:
Translation – of the SEAD constituencies’ preferred language, objectives, modus operandi, assumptions and more – among academic, commercial and civil societies.
Convening – overcoming trans-disciplinary thresholds.
Enabling – sustaining balanced SEAD relationships, i.e., establishing safe places within academia for hybrid individual practices.
Including – dynamic varied communities. Global communities with local diversity.
Embedding – public engagement and negotiation.
Situating – engaging ecologies of creative and alternate spaces.
Sense making – of the multi ways (modals) of knowing.
Integration of understandings through the varied SEAD perspectives.
Documentary – Capturing, publishing, curating and archiving new forms.
Learning – Tapping into life long learning and creativity and sharing of blended experiences.
Collaborating – methodologies across disciplines and institutions. Partnerships across organizational boundaries.
Thriving – ethical values including well being and joyfulness.
Two things struck me from this session:
First, there is a lot more (science / art) cross disciplinary conversation and interaction going on (at least at the academic / university level) than we realize. In touring the Drexel schools, there is a wealth of intersections going on crossing the art, design and science departments. The challenge for us is to promote wider understanding that these conversations have already started and are moving forth fairly rapidly, and then to seat ourselves at these tables so that as these dialogues and resultant new thinking continues and emerges, we are part of the decision making process and that we have the opportunity to provide input all along the way so that the relationships that develop include our issues, our perspectives, our needs, our hopes. The nonprofit field sector of the arts seems very likely (to me anyway) already behind in this effort. The academic aspect of these intersections is a train already moving and gaining speed. If we are to catch this particular train, we need to get on board quickly to join the planning process of how this all unfolds.
Second, that movement of citizen scientist and citizen artist is making progress. But again that development is moving without benefit of any consensus, comprehensive policy to guide its formation and output. We need to work with the academic arts and science communities to involve: 1) us as the arts field practitioners; and 2) the private sector business scientists as the science field practitioners. This whole effort has to be more than an academic / University led evolution.
The cross sector challenges for us to promote those intersections and the potential to bridge silo thinking are: first to gain more widespread awareness of these efforts. Professional organizations of scientists and artists need to meet regularly, and the conceptual framework of STEM to STEAM may be a good place to start. And second, to identify the ways each sector can be supportive of the other. Both sectors suffer from cultures of territoriality.
Finally, I also think there has been little movement yet in building the leveraging of public opinion bridge – little progress in creating mechanism whereby arts and science can support each other’s value and validity via leveraged advocacy and educational efforts.
V. The conference reception at the Barnes Foundation’s Philadelphia Campus:
For me one of the great benefits of going to different kinds of arts conferences across the country over the last decade plus has been the pleasure of seeing cultural facilities and art in a score of cities as a VIP guest, and that has been a unique and joyous opportunity. The reception at the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia added to that long list. The collection (the subject of much controversy in moving it from it’s original distant site to this new site) is stunning – Van Gogh, Matisse and other impressionist masters – but the real stars are the Cezannes and Renoirs. I have never seen so many Cezannes and Renoirs in one place. An extraordinary collection, now housed in a beautiful building – the clean lines of the modern architecture complementing the collection and how it is housed and displayed.
VI. Finally, Poet Nikky Finney closed the conference with a eloquent talk centered around the plaintive question: “Where is the support for the sensitive child.”
Have a great week.