In Trust

“The best way to find out if you can trust somebody is to trust them.” – Ernest Hemingway

Week before last, I spent four invigorating days at the Grantmakers in the Arts conference. It’s been aptly blogged by Barry Hessenius, the team at Createquity, and others, so I don’t need to do that here. I do, however, feel compelled to add to the themes that others identified throughout the conference.

Ian David Moss noted the usual the conference “tracks” that popped up: arts and social justice/cultural equity, arts education, technology, support for individual artists, and creative placemaking. But the theme that came up for me, time and again, was, simply, trust.

In this data-driven, results-driven, detailed application, and interim- and final-report heavy grantmaking world, we ask a lot of grantees. We ask them to create projected budgets, we ask them to have boards of directors with a matrix to our liking, and we ask for anticipated numbers of people served without acknowledging that the world could change on a dime (such as in 2008). We ask artists to not only excel at their artwork but also at crafting grant proposals. We ask them to fit within the sometimes narrow confines of what we think is worth funding.

Sometimes, inadvertently, we ask them to lie. It can be really difficult to be a perfect fit to qualify for funding, and I’m sure many applicants put on an extra coat of lipstick and suck in their bellies when it’s time for their grant to strut down the runway.

There was some excellent and fresh thinking about this in several of the sessions I attended. Here are some of the most interesting ideas I heard:

–        Eliminate proposed budgets. They are make-believe.

–        Eliminate proposals. Base funding on the past performance of the organization.

–        Simplify final reports, and ask for two narratives:

  • How did you spend the money?
  • Tell us a story.

–        Award grants to artists based on an interview and site visit, not an application.

–        Don’t direct the organization through application questions. Don’t expect them to have a certain kind of board. Don’t have expectations around their income sources. Just look at the quality and impact of the art or project.

–        Give general operating support.

–        Give general operating support.

–        Give general operating support.

Oh, did I repeat that last one?

The National Capitalization Project, has, gratefully, brought to the forefront the idea of strengthening organizations through helping them build reserves, and it has also focused on encouraging funders to give general operating support. But many grantmakers are still resistant to these ideas. Why? I believe it comes down to trust. The donors have (or had) a vision that must be followed; the boards of foundations need to know that the money is being spent according to the wishes of the donors; and the program officers must make funding recommendations in line with board directives. And finally, the artist needs to create within the framework of his or her proposal.

With so many degrees of separation between the funder and creator, trust can be a difficult thing to engender. Also, the stories of grantees mismanaging foundation funding, though few and far between, are unfortunately sensationalized and cast doubt on the whole philanthropic process.

But by and large, the people and organizations that are awarded funding do great things. So why don’t we make it vastly easier for both the grantor and grantee to meet their missions? Think of the dollars that could be saved if grantees didn’t have to spend dozens of hours each year on grant applications, and if program officers and panelists didn’t have to spend hundreds of hours reviewing applications. There are better ways, and some of the innovative organizations at the GIA conference are putting them into practice. But it requires trust.

Arts Council Santa Cruz County has been part of the problem, too. Our Create Grants are small pots of money that fund innovative, community-benefit, small-scale projects. Grants range from $500-$3000. Up until a year ago, if the grant was for more than $1000, we only gave them 70% up front and then gave them the final 30% after the project took place. What’s worse, we required an invoice for both the initial and final payment.

When I asked why this practice was in place, I was told that we did this in case the project didn’t go as planned, or didn’t happen at all. So we wouldn’t be out the few hundred dollars of the final payment.

To this day, I feel like banging my head against the wall when I think about this. It’s a small thing, maybe, but – really? We couldn’t trust our artists to figure out something cool to do with these tiny pots of money – or trust them to return the funds if the project didn’t happen? Or not worry too much about it, in the grand scheme of things? And did we really need to cut multiple checks, ask for multiple invoices, etc. for such a small amount of funding?

Here’s the kicker: I asked if, in 33 years of grantmaking at the time, if any grantee had canceled their project and not returned the money. The answer? Never. NEVER.

*THUNK* (sound of my head hitting the wall)

We certainly weren’t alone in how our process was designed. Indeed, we were engaged in what was commonly known as “best practices”.

Obviously, we don’t engage in this anymore. For the smaller grants, we just cut checks when we sign contracts. For the larger grants, we still split up the amount into two payments, but only for cash flow purposes. No invoices, no percentages based on funding amounts, and sometimes, as I’ve mentioned, no applications, even. We still have a long way to go to cultivate a true culture of trust, but we are working to be on the right side of history on this issue.

We are giving general operating support and fully funding project grant requests when we are able. More than that, though, we are working to build a climate of trust. We have great artists here in Santa Cruz who through their work make this one of the most exciting and dynamic places to live in the world. The way I see it, we need to trust them, and we also need to do everything we can to make sure they can trust us.

The grantee/grantor imbalanced power dynamic doesn’t serve anyone. After all, it’s the artists in this community who help us meet our mission to promote, connect, and invest in Santa Cruz County arts. Without the artists and arts organizations, we are nothing. Without our support, the creators have less capacity to do their work. This is a two-way street and I was heartened by the many funders who are embracing trust – and I hope that our collective leadership encourages more in the field to do the same.

3 thoughts on “In Trust

  1. John Esterle says:

    Thanks for your wonderful post, Michelle. I was not banging my head against a wall but rather nodding vigorously throughout! Our approach to grantmaking at The Whitman Institute has much in common with what you propose. Reading what you’ve read I’m encouraged that perhaps the many different conversations bubbling up in philanthropy these days about operating differently might actually start to gain traction and shift behavior. Part of what will help that effort is building a critical mass of grantmakers who connect around the issues and values you lay out so well. And part of what will help that effort are posts such as yours. Thanks again.

    Cheers,
    John Esterle

  2. Michelle Williams says:

    Hi John, I’m delighted that your grantmaking approach is in line with these ideas. I too really hope, and believe, that if enough of us talk about this very frankly, the field will shift. It feels relatively easy to make these changes at my organization, but imagine it’s much more difficult at large institutions. But it’s still possible! What we need is visible leadership banging the drum for this – and encouraging folks to move toward a more trust-based economy, at least in our own sphere. Difficult, but again, possible. Thanks for your kind words!

  3. […] a project budget as part of that RFP. What’s the worst that could happen? Michelle Williams calls for grantmakers to trust the artists we work with, and she catalogues some innovative ideas from the GIA 2013 […]

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