We Believe There Is A Secret Phrase Even If You Say There Is No Secret Phrase

I wanted to make another visit to the  piece on shared power and transparency in grant making F. Javier Torres and Leila Tamari wrote for Inside Philanthropy which I referenced in yesterday’s post.  I wanted to address this issue separately in its own post.

Torres and Tamari talk about the lengths they went to provide grant applicants with as much information about how they were applying their criteria as they could.

When we embarked on refining the application process for the NCPF in 2015, we asked ourselves: “How do we benefit by holding our cards close to the vest?” There was no benefit! As a result, we sought to provide thoughtful explanations for why we needed information in a certain format. We also pushed ourselves to remove as much jargon as possible.


At the next stage of our process (where approximately 7 percent of applicants were invited to submit a full proposal), we made the process more open by providing all applicants with what we’d actually be looking for in the full proposal and site visits. This is the same material we provided to panelists who reviewed all the projects and provided funding recommendations.

However, they said, in their effort to be as clear as possible about the criteria they would be employing in evaluating proposals, they also provided people additional information with which to game the system.

This showed up for us in 2016 when we chose to publish that we were particularly interested in projects focused on community development sectors underrepresented in our portfolio to date. We received hundreds of submissions in which applicants attempted to alter the goals and strategies of their projects into one of the sectors we listed as being “of special interest,” believing this would make them more competitive in the funding process.

More often than not, these projects would have been strong had they been framed in a community development sector more authentic to the work, instead of the ones we stated as priorities for the year. As a result, these proposals were received by our peer review panel as round pegs attempting to fit into square holes, and ultimately decreased their competitiveness.

There are frequent conversations in articles and blogs like mine about how organizations will undermine their operational effectiveness by pursuing grants that ill fit their organization and then by going through the contortions trying to execute grant activities alongside the core programs for which they really wanted the grant money.

Less frequently do funders tell the non-profit community that it was clear to them applicants were proposing something for which they were ill-suited and they would have been more effective taking an approach that reflected their core strengths.

As one who has served as a grant panelist, I can tell you it is often clear that organizations are trying to change color to suit the grant program criteria. It is just that few organizations will come out and generally encourage applicants to avoid taking that approach.

By the same token, the unequal relationship dynamics and opacity Torres and Tamari say the National Creative Placemaking Fund (NCPF) was working so hard dismantle does encourage people to try to game the system.

If you aren’t clear what a granting entity wants, there can be a perceived benefit in correctly guessing the secret combination of words that the granting entity has determined will unlock the funding. There may not really be a narrow set of phrases the granter is looking for, but the opacity of the process means that getting funded reinforces your confidence in your superior ability to read between the lines of proposal guidelines.

Basically, I think in some respects applicants have been conditioned to try to game the system as much as possible. Faced with funders who say they are being completely earnest about what they are looking for, some applicants will be convinced there are some unspoken criteria with which they will align and enable them to gain funding.

Varied Advice & Insights On Creative Placemaking, Economic Impact

As a follow up to yesterday’s post on the Creative Placemaking conference I attended, I wanted to share some general thoughts and ideas I had picked up.

Regardless of whether the setting is urban, suburban or rural, there are a number of communities experiencing really difficult times. A number of panelists discussed the need to address the community trauma before you ever talk about economic stimulus. You can’t just walk in and position something as a solution to the problems in the community until those problems are aired and people have a sense that they can move forward from there. Otherwise the issues will likely continue to fester and undermine the foundation of what you are trying to accomplish.

When it comes to investment and grant making in rural communities, it probably won’t come as a surprise to anyone that one of the factors contributing to the low level of investment is geographic remoteness. David Stocks of the Educational Foundation of America (which ironically is not involved in education) talked about how program officers will need to invest a lot more effort into bringing support to rural communities.

They might need to take a plane to a regional airport and then drive 2-3 hours before they reach a community. There is also the issue of trying to identify what organizations would make good anchor partners for the work they do.  There is a need for both funders and community organizations to work at expanding their relationship networks to increase the chances that their orbits will intersect.

Marie Mascherin who works for New Jersey Community Capital, characterized her organization primarily as a lender. She talked about how lenders viewed placemaking activities which was a perspective you rarely get. All the same, she warned those in attendance that her organization was atypical in that they got a lot more involved with the community and projects they were working on than most similar lending organizations.

John Davis who was involved with bringing vitality to both New York Mills, MN and Lanesboro, MN passed on a piece of advice he had received from a college professor – don’t make excuses, even about money, for not finding a creative solution. Basically, don’t let lack of money (or other things)  become default excuses about why things can’t be accomplished. In a rural setting where resources are scarce, you pretty much have to try harder to find creative solutions.

(Honestly, “work even harder and don’t make excuses,” wasn’t something I wanted to hear, but wasn’t exactly news.)

Davis also talked about an argument he made to a local government that was balking at renovating a building. He noted it would cost them $35,000 to demolish the building or they could invest $35,000 into renovating the building and have a more valuable property they could sell later if his project failed.

His project didn’t fail, but that concept dovetailed in an interesting way with a comment Ben Fink of Appalshop made about a prison project being proposed near Whitesburg, KY. He said that the $300,000,000 prison was being sold to the community as, at best, creating 300 new jobs. He noted that was $1,000,000 a job–compare that to how much benefit $1 investment in arts and culture has for a community.

It occurred to me that is something to look into and leverage proactively with governments and decision makers. Rather than waiting until it comes time to ask for funding to be renewed, when a discussion comes up about providing tax breaks or subsidies for companies, it might be useful to mention that $1 invested in creative placemaking/arts/culture/education in the community is more efficient.

While I am on the subject of economic activity, in one session I bluntly asked Jeremy Liu of PolicyLink about the veracity of economic impact claims being made by organizations and communities. He said if they are using analytic tools like those offered by Implan, the numbers are dependable.

In the past I have mentioned my concern with arts and culture organizations arguing for funding or policy changes citing the benefits of art and music on learning and test scores when such benefits are only weakly supported or have been debunked.

What has worried me is that decision and policy makers will learn about the lack of evidence for these claims and perhaps actively wield it against the arts community. By the same token, I have often wondered at the rigor behind claims of economic impact of creative activity in communities and feared what might result if they are debunked.¥

A few other tidbits people offered-

Don’t become hyperfocused on placemaking. Don’t value place or a project over the community. Even if you are in a group, no project is completed in isolation.

If you recall in the very beginning of my post yesterday I mentioned that I gained an appreciation and broader perspective on the different roles that contributed to a placemaking project from governments to funding/loan group to community members to the people executing the work, placemaking is a function of many entities working together.

I feel like I am citing him a lot in these last two posts, but I appreciated Ben Fink’s insights about establishing relationships with people in the community. He said the first real shared connection you will make with someone is rarely associated with the project you are trying to accomplish. As an example, your aim may be to solicit participation in a building renovation for a maker space but the initial basis of your relationship is a shared interest in 19th century steam engines.

He said that building community support and participation happened in the same way friendships develop. It is heavily dependent on the dynamics at the formation of the project. If participation is by invitation only, one person ends up being in charge. If you form a clique of interested parties, it becomes insular. But if the project begins with the intention of leaving the door open, interested people will start to gravitate toward the project as they see work happening.

¥- None of this compromises my assertion that while arts and cultural activity may generate economic activity, steady employment, positive social outcomes and quality of life, the none of this is a measure of the value of arts and culture.

Enough Sins To Go Around

A couple weeks ago Ali Webb wrote the provocatively titled Philanthropy’s Seven Deadly Sins on Non-Profit Quarterly.

According to Webb they are,

Blindness to privilege
Dismissing community knowledge
Misplaced accountability
Poor partners
Failure to learn
Risk aversion
Lack of transparency

Some of the sins were more specific to philanthropic foundations than non-profit organizations in general, but I saw some parallels with topics I have discussed in the past.

I am relatively sure most people recognize that “Blindness to Privilege” is a significant issue right now.

Carlisle observes that, “There are increasingly few places in the country where there’s not going to be significant racial and cultural differences…where people who have been very sheltered or in dominant culture settings are beginning to say, ‘Wow, we are fish in water. We didn’t know we were fish. We didn’t know we were swimming in water.’”

Don Chen, Director of the Equitable Development Team at the Ford Foundation, remarks that he wishes he “had a dollar for every organization that comes to me and says our board came up with a new strategic plan, and we are going to focus on equity. These same people aren’t talking about equity as a core value or a core component of their mission; they are often talking about equity as a topic. That’s a warning sign for me because it could be dropped like any other topic.”

In the sin of “Dismissing Community Knowledge,” I saw some familiar phrasing.

Keller observes that too often, “we ride into communities, stand before them, and tell them what they need to do to solve their problems. Then we ride out, expecting programs to be scaled and sustained.”

“Foundation people tend to over-intellectualize but under-experience the challenges of those they seek to serve with no authentic proximity to the issues,” says Carlisle. She continued, “The validity that comes with seeing and understanding different world views, which are not dominant culture, can have extraordinary outcomes.”


Chen calls it “drive-by grantmaking,” where foundations make a grant and then go away for a year or two. “Local folks have a BS meter and they know if you don’t trust their knowledge,” says Harris.

For me, this echoed what Marc Folk of the Toledo Arts Commission said about riding into a community on a white horse and Margy Waller’s “We’re From The Arts and We Are Here To Help,” post I wrote about two years ago. Likewise, Ronia Holmes piece about arts organizations being bad at community outreach which I also wrote about also has resonance with this “sin.”

From a recipient point of view, the “Failure To Learn” sin encapsulated a lot of the issues non-profits face today with the expectations of funders. If you read Vu Le’s Nonprofit AF blog, you will be familiar with these gripes.

“In philanthropy, we don’t always clean up our messes when we change priorities and make transitions.” Hegarty offers that the unwillingness to learn may stem from “a tendency to think we are the smartest persons in the room and the assumption that we have all answers and understand all the angles.”


Another possibility that Chen offers is that the field is “delusional” about what was or could be accomplished with the amount of money offered. Sometimes, Chen said, the sector believes it is “smarter than everyone who ever came before. Especially when working in in under-resourced, low-capacity places, philanthropy tends to think it has super powers.”


“We ask a lot of our grantees and then what they share with us goes into a black hole. We never do anything with the information to further the work,” said the officer. “Without processing the information and developing a vehicle to get it back to the grantees, much learning is lost.”

All of this is something to think about. It is difficult to effect the change we like as fast as we think we should, but being reminded of these concerns on a semi-regular basis feeds progress.

Fundraising Is Now Everyone’s Job Too

Yesterday I noted that I was interested to learn that $5 million in revenue was something of a dividing line between theaters which supported themselves primarily by ticket revenue (above $5 million) and those that received the majority of their support via donations (below $5 million).

That doesn’t mean that the larger revenue theaters don’t need to do much fundraising. Back in January there was an article in American Theatre that talked about how artistic directors are increasingly expected to join the executive directors and development staff in soliciting donations.

For some years now I have written about how marketing is the responsibility of everyone in the organization. It appears this is becoming the case with fundraising as well.

Michael Ritchie, artistic director of Center Theatre Group … puts the situation more urgently.

“Everyone in our building is ostensibly a fundraiser,” he said. “That’s the new reality for nonprofit theatres. We are all more dependent than ever on the success of our fundraising efforts. Fundraising is no longer optional for an artistic director; it’s an imperative.”

In an August 2017 American Theatre online article reporting on artistic leadership succession, Disney Theatrical Group president Thomas Schumacher suggested a reason for the new urgency: the global economic crisis of a decade ago. “Any artistic director who gets hired today will also be expected to go out and raise an awful lot of money,” said Schumacher, who spent five years on staff at the Mark Taper Forum. “That’s just different.”

The artistic directors they interviewed for the story varied in how comfortable they felt being part of the solicitation efforts. Some were comfortable with it from the start, others mentioned the fear and anxiety they felt. At the same time, many spoke about financial difficulties which had forced them to become more adroit in these types of interactions. Many estimated they spent between 25-30% of their time on fundraising, though one estimated it much higher:

Abe Rybeck, the founder and executive artistic director of…The Theater Offensive in Boston, said, “Sometimes it feels like I spend 120 percent of my time doing fundraising, and it also feels like that’s way less than I’m supposed to be doing.”

One thing I was really curious about after reading the article was whether the added responsibility of fundraising had changed the perception of the artistic director’s role in an organization. For a long time there was something of a stereotype that the managing or executive director of a theater was there to keep the artistic director’s ambitions in check. While there have definitely been some contentious power struggles in this arena, I think the stereotype may have served to perpetuate the roles by giving license for the artistic director to say yes until being told no.

This may have been another facet of the larger general stereotype that artists didn’t need to know about business and such considerations would only serve to limit their vision. Likewise, getting artistic directors involved in fundraising might be a manifestation of the recent general push for artists to cultivate business skills.

Since artistic directors are being asked to get involved with the one area of a non-profit organization everyone would be happier to avoid, I am hoping it has gone a long way toward dispelling the perception that the artistic directors are the irresponsible dreamers of the organization. Reading what the artistic directors had to say about participating in donor solicitations, it is pretty clear they have an appreciation of the costs of executing their vision.

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