I have only just gotten around to following up on my bookmark of John Killacky’s Regrets of A Former Arts Funder. If you hadn’t read it when it came out in late June, Killacky reflects on some of the practices he engaged in when he was a program officer at the San Francisco Foundation.
Most of his regrets focus on how he and other funders provided support to culturally specific organizations. Among the problems he identifies was the creation of a two tiered funding model that had different criteria and funding levels. It ultimately was not constructive for those organizations relegated to the second tier and tended to perpetuate and reward mediocrity on the first tier (or at least provide no incentive for taking chances). In fact, he also acknowledged, much as Scott Walters recently noted, that grant panels frequently employ evaluative criteria that punishes projects where success is not clearly assured.
I was intrigued by his suggestion that foundations adopt an approach more akin to that of venture capitalists (though not surprising given he worked near Silicon Valley, the VC capital of the nation)
“Maybe philanthropy should have taken a page from venture capitalists’ playbooks, investing more deeply at a significant level over a five- to eight-year time frame, as well as offering a range of non-cash, value-added assistance by sitting on boards, mentoring, and coaching of senior managers, in addition to artistic support. This is not hands-off, outsourced grantmaking. Focus on the triple bottom line and then get out!”
When setting up these programs, I reminded the trustees that not all projects would come to fruition. For many venture capitalists, there is a rule of thumb regarding start-up investing. It suggests that on 1/3 of your investments you will lose all of your investment. On another 1/3 you may make or lose a little. The other 1/3 is where you make your money, and one or two is probably where the bulk of the return is. Unfortunately, this kind of risk-taking would seem foolhardy to funders.
I thought the second paragraph apropos to my posts of the last two days about admitting the arts experience can be disappointing.
One of the commenters to Killacky’s piece expressed concerns about the first paragraph I cited. The idea that foundation officers might come in to an organization that did not serve a traditional arts audience and tell them how they should be doing things seemed to strike the commenter as being even more detrimental than poorly funding the group.
This isn’t an unfounded concern. Venture capitalists often impose their own hand picked management teams on businesses in which they choose to invest and make demands about the way the company should be run. Depending on how it is handled, it either be a constructive or traumatic experience for the start-up that wooed VC support.
Foundations would presumably be entering a relationship with a fledgling arts organizations without the same sort of profit-driven motivation, but could still end up stifling the creative spark with too heavy handed an approach. The feeling that any attention is better than no attention being the stuff on which abusive relationships are made, arts organizations may bow to the demands of foundation officers, grateful that at least they can depend on their support over a number of years.
But obviously it can be a constructive situation for both entities if approached in a careful and deliberate manner. Being that intimately involved with an organization can give a foundation a much clearer picture about the needs and challenges faced by the sector they support than the sugar coated final reports they are getting and allow them to respond accordingly.
If foundations provide technical support and mentors over many years in the form of other working professionals rather than out of their own staff, the foundation can help arts organizations form support networks which will persist after their direct involvement ceases. As they share the fruits of their experience and own best practices, the mentors in turn can gain a deeper view of how different arts organizations operate than interactions at conferences and meetings can afford them.