Category Archives: Fundraising

Still Burning

When I was in college, one of our particularly brilliant directors – Doug Austin, if he’s still working out there – talked to us about successful performers and how we were to learn from them. In one particular lecture, he said something like, “If there is someone you admire, if they are particularly talented and do great work, find out how often they rehearse. Find out what they do to prepare for performances. Find out what their rituals are, what’s important for them. Hell, find out where they get their donuts.” The idea being, if I know where, say, Dame Judy Dench gets her donuts, and if I stalk her and figure out her favorite kind and try her donut-eating method that avoids getting jelly on my shirt, some of Ms. Dench’s awesomeness might rub off on me, along with the powdered sugar.

I desperately hope that I come home with a head-to-toe fine dusting of metaphorical powdered sugar, considering the smarts I’ve witnessed in the past two days.

First of all, Kristen Grimm, President of Spitfire Strategies. If there is any way that I could ever be as singularly good at any one thing as she is at communications, my life will have had meaning. And Andy Goodman from The Goodman Center? Come on. His presentation on bad presentations was the best presentation I’ve ever seen.

Today we fleshed out the communications planning tool that we started yesterday. This tool – called a Smart Chart – is a thoughtful way to develop a communications program around a particular issue or goal. It’s all about identifying the values of our audiences, overcoming barriers, illuminating the solutions that our organizations provide, and confirming how the world will be better as the result of our work.

Of the many powerful takeaways from today, there is one at the top of my mind: in communications, perception is more important than fact. Heck, that’s probably true in most situations if you need to move the needle on an issue. If the people you are trying to reach have an emotional connection to what you are describing, you have to meet them where they are, and respond with emotion. You can’t respond to emotions with facts.

Kristen gave a great example: her husband was 45 minutes late for dinner. She freaked out when he finally arrived, and started yelling, “You don’t love me!” He started explaining that his meeting ran late, that he couldn’t get a cab, and she was getting more and more worked up because the details didn’t matter. It wasn’t until he stopped and said, “Honey, I’m so sorry. I love you. This will never happen again,” that she calmed down. The facts were irrelevant. The emotion was all that mattered. (If my husband is reading this, he’s probably both rolling his eyes and nodding his head.)

We also learned how both humor and emotion, and very well-done visuals, can be tremendously effective. Here are two excellent examples:

This one was, I admit, so targeted to someone like me:

Follow the Frog.

And this one shattered me:

Imagine a World Without Hate

Both incredibly effective narratives, for very different reasons.

My mind is about to melt out of my ears, and I have only one more night to get an irresponsibly wonderful amount of sleep, so I cannot share more at the moment. I will, however, write more about what I’ve learned as I work to integrate it into the Arts Council. Getting whacked over the head with a bunch of awesomeness can be overwhelming; bringing it home and making it work for the Council will be a whole separate kettle of kittens. But if we can make that happen, I believe the difference will be profound.

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Fired Up

“Where your talents and the needs of the world cross; there lies your vocation.” – Aristotle

I’m writing from the heart of Washington, D.C., just six blocks from the White House and a few light years away from Santa Cruz. I’m here for the Executive Training Program through Spitfire Strategies. The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation funded my trip here, and my gratitude to them is matched only by my enthusiasm for the work. One of the best things about this training is that it’s cross-sector – there are nonprofit executives here working in river conservation, education, health, leadership, philanthropy, farming, wildlife – and only one other arts organization. It’s fantastic to learn from not just the think tank that is Spitfire, but also from the brilliance of the collective group.

This is also my first extended trip away from my little boys. While I could barely breathe from missing them as I fell into bed last night, I also experienced 9 1/2 hours of uninterrupted sleep for the first time in almost four years. If it’s possible to be both drunk and hung over from sleep, that’s how I felt this morning when I woke. But I digress.

A few preliminary observations about my time here:

1. I’m the only one in D.C. with hair down to my butt, a powder blue puffy winter coat, and a bag full of knitting. But, I’m a nerd anywhere I go, so this isn’t such a big deal.

2. It’s 30 degrees out but there are lots of men walking around in sport coats and ties but no jacket.

3. Women here wear pantyhose. Or is it just called hose? And where does one buy such a thing? This is the strangest thing I’ve seen yet.

4. It’s incredible to be in a city with such (comparatively) old and beautiful architecture, and where so much is happening, all the time.

While I delight in being a tourist, that’s not why I’m here. I’m here to learn how to build the overall communications capacity of the Arts Council – to create our communications strategy, to help us tell great stories, and to do a better job of connecting with the people we serve, and the people who support us.

This was our first of three days, and it was intense. I imagine that the work we are doing would benefit any organization, or for that matter, any business, large or small.

We started by tackling our “brand strategy”, and “brand promise”. And yes, when I hear those phrases, my eyes roll back in my head at what sounds like really dull jargon. But what we are talking about when we use those terms is juicy stuff: the personality, the core beliefs, the very DNA of our organizations. We also discussed, at length, what we don’t do, what we are not. My list for that was pretty long, and included the following nuggets:

– We don’t make art. (We make art happen.)

– We don’t have a strict top-down management structure.

– We aren’t quiet.

– We are not too busy to listen.

– We do not operate solely in the arts world.

It’s eye-opening to clarify what you aren’t, so you can better articulate who you are.

We also did an exercise called “Best in the World”, where I was to distill what the Arts Council is truly gifted at as an organization. The Council runs great programs. But here is the thing that I believe is beginning to set us apart:

“The Arts Council champions the arts as a means to address and even help solve broad community issues and challenges.”

This is a newer focus for us, and other organizations (namely the MAH) are also doing great work in this arena, but it’s a movement that I think is critical to our long-term success, and the success of our community. I’ll be writing about this a great deal more in the near future.

One of the most illuminating elements of the day was a self-assessment we each conducted on our organization’s communications capacity. We rated our organizations on how far along we were in sixteen different areas. And… the Arts Council isn’t at the bottom of the barrel, but we are also far from the cream of the crop.

When you are deeply passionate about your work, it’s hard to point a magnifying glass at it and be objective about your strengths and flaws. But it’s also a relief to acknowledge, in black and white, where you fall short, so you can name the problem and consider how to address it.

Want to take a crack at it? Consider your organizational or business communications strategy. How would you rate yourself on:

– clear communication objectives

– a written communications plan

– someone in charge of implementing it

– talking with your board, staff, and volunteers every week about it

– a rockstar elevator speech

– tailored messages

– everyone from interns to executives being trained spokespeople

– a crisis plan

– refreshing your messages based on current realities

– an excellent system for measuring progress

– ultimately, a strong, recognizable brand

That’s only about half the list. And it’s all  important.

Equally important is getting out of my comfort zone and into a room of thoughtful people and skilled consultants who are giving me the tools to transform how the Arts Council communicates – and therefore transform how successful we can be. I’m very much looking forward to day 2. And, perhaps, 10 more hours of sleep, starting now.

Loss

“Good night, good night! Parting is such sweet sorrow, that I shall say good night till it be morrow.” – William Shakespeare

When I was a teenager, my brother Sean and I somehow ended up with two tenth-row center tickets to see Les Miserables on tour in Los Angeles. We didn’t know anything about the show, and we were teenagers after all, so before it started we were screwing around in our seats and feeling restless about what we wanted to be doing that night. At one point, I even turned to him and said, “Is this going to be funny?” And he considered the title and said, “I doubt it.” I then got an inspired idea. “Let’s go see the new Indiana Jones movie instead!” Sean was game, so we stood up to leave, right when the house lights went down. So we sat back in our seats… and two and a half hours later, stood up again, transformed.

We both have clear memories of that night, some twenty years ago, not just about what happened on stage, but what it felt like to be there, to be a part of that experience. It confirmed our career paths. A few years later I got a degree in Musical Theater and then spent many years performing. My brother Sean is one of the greatest actors I know, and his theater company, Gideon Productions, is a highly-acclaimed anchor in the indie New York theater scene.

I truly believe my life is different from having seen that show. I’d been performing since I was four, but somehow that night shook up and rewired my brain in such a way that doing anything else for the rest of my life no longer made sense. I belong in the arts world, and here I will stay. But it wasn’t about the art – it was about the story that unfolded in front of me through song, dance, sets, costumes, and music. The heartbreak, the devastation, the hopefulness, the love – all communicated to my crazy teenager brain in a way that little else could. And that is what art does. It leaves you changed.

I’ve had other moments like that night: seeing the Annie Leibovitz exhibit at the Legion of Honor. Seeing the Quilts of Gee’s Bend exhibit at the Met. My own father conducting Night on Bald Mountain when I was four years old. Seeing The Secret Garden on Broadway. Seeing the Alvin Ailey Dance Company at the Napa Valley Opera House. Seeing Dave Brubeck perform with his sons just a couple of years before he died. The first time I got to sing my mother’s brilliant song “Away to America” to my baby.

But there have been so many things I’ve missed. I didn’t get to see the original cast of Rent on Broadway. I’ve missed my brother Sean’s last twenty or so shows in New York. I’ve missed dozens and dozens of local artistic opportunities because I have two tiny children and I rarely get to leave the house after 6 PM.

I am keenly aware that I’ve not just missed these shows and exhibitions; I’ve missed the opportunity to see them ever. Because no show is the same if it has a new cast. No symphony is the same when a different orchestra plays it. I can see other shows, other events, other exhibitions, but I feel an acute loss about that ones I’ve missed.

And last week, while I was on a trip through the Midwest to see family and go to a wedding, I heard unthinkable news: Shakespeare Santa Cruz was getting the axe. This incredible program, which for 32 years has been housed by UCSC and beloved by the community, was being discontinued as of the end of the year. I sat there in my hotel room, stunned with the news. There is a great deal about this decision that I don’t understand, and significant community concern about the way it was done. But one thing is universal, for those of us who know and love SSC: we are feeling tremendous loss.

Shakespeare Santa Cruz provided generations of Santa Cruzans (locals and visitors alike) the kind of transformational experiences that I had at Les Mis. Everyone I know has a SSC story, be it about the show itself, or being in the glen, under the stars, with a bottle of wine, or maybe a first date. The shows have been sometimes racy, sometimes classic, always high-quality. They have set the standard for Shakespeare companies across the country, and the Shakespeare program was a major conduit that connected this community with the University – a relationship that is often fragile.

We’re told that the program was cut because the financial model didn’t work, and hadn’t worked for a long time. That may be true. But this program was worth more than its balance sheet, for the tens of thousands of children who, through SSC, experienced the Bard for the first time, and the tens of thousands of adults who shared the experience of seeing great art in an otherworldly setting.

My life would have been different if I hadn’t seen Les Miserables when I was a teenager. Maybe not dramatically different, but different nonetheless. How many lives did Shakespeare Santa Cruz alter in its 32 years? And how many people will now be denied that experience? It’s impossible to quantify that loss. In the business world, people often talk about “opportunity cost” – what is the cost for the business to be doing a particular piece of work rather than other activities? In this case, the opportunity cost is particularly painful. Without Shakespeare Santa Cruz, we lose connection, inspiration, talent, excitement, and togetherness. You won’t find those on a balance sheet, because they are priceless.

I’ve got arts issues

“Tell me and I forget, teach me and I may remember, involve me and I learn.” – Benjamin Franklin

“Live as if you were to die tomorrow. Learn as if you were to live forever.”  – Mahatma Gandhi

“Kids don’t remember what you try to teach them. They remember what you are.” – Jim Henson

I’m a junkie for professional development.

I loved school, so it’s no great surprise that I love learning environments. I even adore conferences, though I find that what happens in the hallways between conference sessions is often more interesting than the sessions. Or what happens at night over dinner. I was awarded an Emerging Leader scholarship to an Americans for the Arts conference several years ago, and it was at an after-hours beer-swilling event that I had the good fortune of sitting at a table with Ian David Moss of Fractured Atlas. Ian, in addition to being totally brilliant and the editor of the Createquity blog, is a super cool guy, and my work in the arts is better for being connected to him. So it’s both the learning and the relationships that I love when it comes to participating in professional development opportunities.

I’ve had a hard time getting to conferences since my little ones were born. But I’ve enthusiastically thrown my hat in the ring for the Chief Executive Program through National Arts Strategies. It speaks directly to my professional development junkie heart, in that it is an extended, in-depth, intense program focused “tackling the big questions facing the field”. It’s highly competitive, so I’m not holding my breath about getting invited to participate, but even the application process was thought-provoking.

The application began with four short essays (yay! I love writing essays!) about organizational and personal goals, challenges, and leadership styles, ending with a straightforward question: what do you see as the four most important issues facing the arts field as a whole? I quickly brainstormed a list (of a dozen issues) and then narrowed it down to my four. But I wanted to know how the great minds around me would respond, so I wrote to my staff, my friends, and my family to give me their answers.

I’m very fortunate to be related to and friends with artists, performers, writers, and arts administrators across the country. So I was able to open up this conversation to folks like Dan Kois (Senior Editor at Slate), Catherine Trieschemann (playwright), Jonathan Farmer (poet and Editor-in-Chief of At Length) Sean Williams (actor, producer and co-founder of Gideon Productions), Linda Worsley (composer), Ehren Gresehover (co-founder and Creative Director of Stellar Engine), and many more, as well as the excellent staff of the Arts Council. Common themes emerged from this poll, but what interested me more was the commonality of passion and frustration I heard in the answers.

Here’s a sampling of the issues the group identified, and some related quotes:

  1. The failure and de-funding of arts education in public schools. This topped everyone’s list. In fact, one respondent said, “The arts have been taken away from our schools, and our kids, and the result is the loss of patronage and audiences, even public awareness and interest in the arts, for generations to come. This has to change. I can’t come up with any other issues that mean more than this.”
  2. The rapid elitification of arts – both real and perceived. “Practically, a huge amount of art — especially high-culture-type art — is prohibitively expensive and intimidating. But there is a huge amount of art that is in fact affordable and accessible. But the other side of the coin is that the PERCEPTION of art in America is that it’s an elitist/frou-frou/impractical thing, and so huge numbers of people don’t take advantage of opportunities.” Said another, “There is a stereotype that art is formal, dry, cold, and elite. Classical music, the Louvre, Shakespeare, those are art. The creative things that happen in our day to day lives are seen as something else. We miss how creative we all are, and that our creativity is art.”
  3. Outreach (which is related to #2). “We need to find a model that brings art to people where they will best use it. How do we put art in peoples’ homes, how do we make it part of their couch experience?”
  4. Equity in arts funding, and what is considered “art”. “There are many cultural groups that participate in creative practices with long, rich histories, which are extremely artistic, but these practices are not considered ‘art’ by funding groups, and in some cases not even recognized by the participants as ‘art’”.
  5. Raising consciousness of the public value of art happening in our communities. “The problem, as I see it, is that most people think that their cultural life is centered on things that happen other places, when the most vital experience can be had for a few bucks 10 minutes from where you live.  The challenge is finding ways to get people to engage with the things that are actually happening where they live.”
  6. Access to the arts. “There is little engagement for middle-low income families, especially for undocumented, houseless, and LGBTQ communities.”
  7. Funding for non-commercial art. “Finding funding for art that furthers the field but isn’t self-sustaining financially.”
  8. Unions. “Destroy them and start over,” said one respondent. “The fact that Brad Pitt can be a hardcore leftist while being a member of a ‘union’ with an 80%+ unemployment rate is disgusting. I’ve been hearing my whole life that the unions are better than not being in a union, all the while every union member is sneaking around behind the union’s back and every employer is disgusted with either the requirements being too stringent or being ridiculously contemptible.”
  9. Art and technology. “I don’t think the internet is killing art or anything, but I do think technological advances have changed it across fields in multiple ways, and we’re still steps behind in figuring out what any of it means and how it affects us.”
  10. The “reality TV myth” – the perception that art requires no real discipline, work ethic, or time to develop. “Art is a process. It’s that which makes great people even more able to do great things. When the process, when the journey, isn’t valued, we lose the value of what art and artists are.”
  11. Passive entertainment. “Before we had so much access to passive entertainment, we had to make our own.  I get the impression that more people drew the world around them or played instruments or sang or whatever in regular way.”
  12. A radical re-imagining for financing. “Start by disregarding pay-for-art-ingested, crowdfunding and public subsidies and see what’s left.”
  13. No growth. “So many arts organizations are flat. Flat in terms of budget and audience growth. Flat in terms of excitement and dynamism. Flat in terms of leadership.”
  14. Life without the arts leads to lives with no meaning. “Art should be a means and not an end. The biggest issues have to do not with serving ‘The Arts’ but with serving people who need to be served.”

Interestingly, the folks I polled all mentioned funding for the arts as a major issue so obvious that it wasn’t worth listing separately.

My top four are related to many of the issues on the above list. Here they are, with quotes pulled from my application:

  • The decimation of arts education in schools. “By not providing children with access to explore the arts, we are decimating the pool of future artists, arts appreciators, and funders. And we are devaluing the arts on a massive scale, which means dramatically fewer people – adults and children both – are enjoying the benefits of creating or enjoying the arts, leaving lives less rich, less diverse, and less interesting.”
  • Declining arts audiences. “Our theaters, dance companies, symphony orchestras, art galleries, and museums are closing their doors while we watch movies and play video games on our smart phones.”
  • Raising awareness of the availability, accessibility, and value of local arts. “In many communities, there are diverse, engaging, and affordable arts experiences at the ready. But community members either don’t know about them, or it would never occur to them to attend.”
  • Fundraising and financing the arts. “I work in California which has the honor of being dead last in the nation for per capital arts funding. The NEA’s budget continues to be under fire and is not nearly adequate to ensure that our great nation will have the great art it deserves. This top-down devaluing of the arts affects even the smallest arts organizations.”

So many of these issues are intertwined. None, I think, stand alone. Barry Hessenius, on his blog, just pointed to a Pew Survey on the perception of Americans as to how specific groups contribute to society’s well-being. According to the survey, only 30% of respondents believe that artists contribute “a lot” to the well-being of America. This is down 1% from the last time the survey was taken, in 2009. No wonder financial support for the arts is at such a low. And yet, as evidenced above, we have so many rallying points, and such clear challenges. We have the data and the passion to make our case. Why haven’t we as a field mastered how to effectively advocate for the arts? Whether or not I get invited to participate in the Chief Executive Program, I hope, over the course of my career, to help find answers, and solutions.

evolution

“When we are motivated by goals that have deep meaning, by dreams that need completion, by pure love that needs expressing, then we truly live.” – Greg Anderson

“A project is complete when it starts working for you, rather than you working for it.” – Scott Allen

Three and a half years ago, I walked into the office of the Cultural Council of Santa Cruz County for my first day of work. I had just moved to Santa Cruz a week prior with my boyfriend Jon. We were still absolutely stunned that suddenly we lived three blocks from the ocean, and I had taken several days before starting the job to do nothing but read and lie in the sun.

Those were probably the most restful days I’ve had in three and a half years. Since then, I got married, got pregnant (twice), had two little boys, and made some of the best friends of my life. On top of that, for forty hours a week (we can all pretend we only work forty hours a week, right?) I devoted myself to first listening to this community – what does it need? What can the arts help solve? What do the artists, arts organizations and arts administrators need? – and then working to meeting its needs.

What I learned is there is a tremendous amount of smarts and passion in this community, and equal amounts of great work to be done. I was so fortunate to have landed in this incredible organization, one that was poised to reinvent itself and had the capability to become a true community service organization through the arts.

Three and a half years later, we’re finally there, and to illustrate the genuine evolution of this organization, we have a new name, a new logo, a new mission, a new strategic plan, and very soon, we’ll also have a new website. Our new name, Arts Council Santa Cruz County, is not a huge shift, but it better clarifies who we are, and what we do.

AC-logo-lime-horiz

Why did we change our name? Years of market research told us that though our supporters and friends were familiar with our work, those who didn’t know us were completely confused by our name. Also, there are arts councils across the country and this is simply a more straightforward moniker that accurately describes us in clear, simple terms.

Our new logo, created by the talented gents at Studio Holladay, is designed to be as adaptable and responsive as the Arts Council itself.

ac_promoteac_connectac_invest

These graphics demonstrate how our logo can be used to illustrate the three strategies in our new mission, which is to promote, connect, and invest in the arts in order to stimulate creativity and vibrancy in Santa Cruz County. But the best way to learn about our new mission and strategic plan is to sit back, have a cup of tea, and watch this:

We call this our Vision Video, and it is an overview and introduction to our new strategic plan. It also gives a flavor of our new commitment to a culture of service, where we’ll constantly be looking for new ways to positively impact the creators and appreciators who benefit from our programs and services.

All of these shifts are a direct result of our strategic planning process, which was funded through the David and Lucile Packard Foundation’s Organizational Effectiveness program. We are so grateful to the Packard Foundation for funding this effort, which allowed us to work with some of the smartest thinkers, designers, and creatives we know. We had a big vision (and big hopes) for what this would all look like, and to be on the other end of it is just incredible.

Our new name, logo, plan, and website are not just superficial changes. They are a reflection of the shifts that have been happening here for the past three and a half years. And they have helped frame the two questions that I ask myself every day when I come to work:

What if Arts Council Santa Cruz County was the most innovative, effective, and impactful nonprofit in Santa Cruz County? What would that look like?

What if Arts Council Santa Cruz County was the most innovative, effective, and impactful arts council in the nation? What would that look like?

I don’t yet have the answers to these questions, but what I do know is that they encourage us to aim high and think big.

For a long time, I struggled with the identity of the arts council model. On one hand, I considered whether we should stay in the background, supporting organizations and artists from a metaphorical back stage, giving all the limelight to the people we serve. We typically have no bricks-and-mortar presence to speak of; we don’t sell tickets to anything; we aren’t, in a traditional sense, the creators. So perhaps it was appropriate that folks knew about our Open Studios and SPECTRA programs, but not about us, and knew about the dozens of organizations and artists we funded, but not about us. We weren’t sexy, and maybe we weren’t supposed to be.

On the flip side, I wondered what kind of impact we could have if we stayed under the radar. I wondered how we could affect community change, get a seat at the leadership tables, and truly “make shift happen” if we didn’t have our share of the limelight.

You can guess where I’ve landed on this.

Arts Council Santa Cruz County has an Open Studios program that is modeled across the country as one of the most successful and well-run programs of its kind. Our SPECTRA Arts Education program won multiple awards in its heyday and continues to change the lives of families. Mariposa’s Art is based on a curriculum so brilliant it has been bought by a school district and is now used in multiple core subject areas. Our grants program has invested millions and millions of dollars into the vibrancy of our creative community and economy. We are now housed on what will, upon completion, be the most diverse arts campus in the country. And the success and longevity of this organization is, I’m sure, one of the reasons that our creative population is so dense that we are the 5th most artistic city in the nation.

We’re sexy, darn it. And the stronger we are, the more we can serve the artists, arts organizations, schools, children, parents, and community members who benefit from all that we do. So we are going to launch into this new strategic plan head first. We are going to stick our necks above the crowd. We are going to be the big red beeping thing on the radar of both the public and private sector. And we are going to have a heck of a good time doing it. So, join us. Tell us what we are doing that excites you, and get involved. Tell us what you want to do for this arts sector, and for this community. Together, let’s see what we can make happen. I’m in. Are you?

the best policy

“The real things haven’t changed. It is still best to be honest and truthful; to make the most of what we have; to be happy with simple pleasures; and have courage when things go wrong.”  – Laura Ingalls Wilder

“Be yourself; everyone else is already taken.” – Oscar Wilde

Why is it so difficult to be honest with people who give us money?

One of my program staffers is struggling with a project partner.  This partner did not hold up his end of the work, which affected the project and the people we serve. And when it came time for the foundation which funded the project to do a site visit, my staffer had difficulty being fully honest with the foundation program officer, even though the problems were all too clearly illustrated during the visit, and even though the problems were not our fault. We all want our programs to succeed, and to continue, even if they don’t operate under ideal circumstances, and we are loathe to admit that something didn’t work well when generous donors are in the room.

In a similar vein, I personally am excluded from conversations and meetings sometimes when my role as the director of an organization that also acts as a funder is front and center.

I find all of this deeply frustrating.

When I was cutting my teeth at my first job as an executive director, I didn’t know that my colleagues in similar positions tended to shove the dirty laundry into the closet when the funder came to town. I didn’t know that it was the norm to sugar-coat and play up strengths. I had been working in disaster relief where it was important to paint achingly honest pictures of what was going on so the world would sit up and take notice. And I carried that practice with me into my work in the arts.

Then, one day, after I’d managed to get a major foundation funder to pay attention to (and fund!) my wee arts organization for the first time ever, I got a call from my program officer (who has since become a treasured friend) who said, “I find your honesty so refreshing – and it really helps me do my job better.”

I know this is old news. And I know that many final reports now specifically ask grantees to report on what didn’t work, what happened that was unexpected, etc. but I think that often, this is the only time that we as a sector open up to talk about what didn’t work. It’s relegated to a few sentences in a long narrative and surrounded by colorful language about just how awesome the organization is, regardless of whatever hiccup we own up to.

But here’s the thing: we aren’t helping each other when we don’t talk openly and brazenly about what went wrong. When I’m not at the literal table when specific challenges are being discussed, it shouldn’t come as a surprise when I can’t affect any change. And I’m not just a funder: I’m a human being, who longs to do the right thing, to show up for my colleagues, to make an impact, and to connect with people whose passions I share. Why cut me out of the conversation? Why cut any funder out of the conversation?

I think that grantees often forget what actors often forget: that the funder, and the casting director, desperately want you to help them solve a problem. For the casting director, solving the problem means finding an actor that fits the part. For the funder, solving the problem means finding a person or a group that can help meet the mission of the foundation. No one is doing anyone any favors here: we are all helping each other do what we were founded to do. When the Cultural Council provides meaningful artistic experiences for children, we are helping the foundations who fund us meet their own missions. When a Cultural Council grantee provides free dance performances for a solid week throughout downtown Santa Cruz, those dancers are helping us meet our mission. This is a cycle of support in which all parties should be a heck of a lot more equal.

But until we own up to our shortcomings, until we freely admit that some wild thing we tried didn’t work, until we stop treating our funders like parental figures rather than partners, we’ll continue to rob each other of deeper relationships and opportunities to make great things happen.

It’s also true that we need to share with our funders when something in the grantee/grantor relationship isn’t working. Are there issues with a staff member? With the application process? Or… with a project partner who is also in a relationship with the funder? We need to be brave enough to face these issues head-on.

My program staffer is a perfect example. She’s whip smart and fearless and is circling back with the funder to have a more honest conversation about what is going on with the project. One of the reasons she feels able to do this, now that she has a little distance from the site visit, is that the funder has made a practice in engaging the staffer in meaningful conversations about the project. It is definitely a two-way street of communication and respect.

As funders, we should strive to be in the same practice of openness and willingness to talk and engage. As grantees, we should insist on being brutally honest about the work of our organizations when talking to our funders, and even use foundation program officers as sounding boards when things go awry. If we don’t do this, we all miss out on empowering and enlightening our field.