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Opinion: Trying out new recipes for grant-making

Re-imagining cultural philanthropy will require innovative thinking if we really want to provide access, achieve equity, and create a diverse ecology.

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LIKE MANY NONPROFITS’, OREGON ARTSWATCH’S ORIGIN STORY HAS SCRAPPY BONA FIDES. We like to joke that we were started in 2011 in founder Barry Johnson’s back pocket, but we always say that only half-laughingly, knowing it to be somewhat true. Dig around long enough and I’m sure you’ll find a pair of bootstraps in there, too, and a shoestring budget.

The initial recipe is deceptively simple: Take a couple of writers, buy a domain name, talk a few friends into being on the board, and sprinkle liberally with donation requests. But to seriously make a rich, satisfying, cultural nonprofit stew, A LOT of cutting and chopping and not-so-secret ingredients go into it: mission statement, bylaws, donation system, email system, graphics, web design, widgets, gadgets, budgets, banking, bookkeeping, business registrations, licenses, and fees. Stir and steep with learning curves. And that’s just the basic stuff in the cupboard. In our case, we haven’t even gone to the store yet to shop for stories.

Perhaps most importantly, this doesn’t note the right temperature on how to keep it all cooking. What does it take to financially sustain it? How do we help the good stuff to bubble to the surface?

That’s what brings me to the test kitchen today: weighing and measuring new possibilities for cultural grant-making from my perspective as a lonely grant writer. If we are rewriting the menu to prioritize funding for historically underserved communities, and if the table is open to a more diverse array of people, then we should also consider how we are setting the table to make it more inviting, accessible, and equitable.

First lesson: Deer in the headlights? Don’t be roadkill

In the early days of my tenure here at ArtsWatch, where I’ve been fortunate enough to steer the behind-the-scenes work since 2016, I sought advice from someone I deeply admire with longtime experience at a philanthropic organization. This person was generous enough to spontaneously squeeze me in when I happened to be in the office on other business, and after a short chat someone reminded them about a meeting. They got up and said, “Well, good luck. All I have for you is a project grant.” And they left.

I remember sitting there, kind of dazed in a beautiful, spacious multi-story building, knowing I was staring into the giant hungry maw of a young company that needed cash and organizational structure, and all I had going for me was a personal laptop that was five years old. True story. We had NO assets, not even a printer to our name. 

Though, wait. We did have one thing. We had an extremely talented and dedicated crew who were willing to work their tails off for little or no pay. They were fighting the good fight for the sake of the public good.

But that could not continue if we wanted a sustainable and equitable future, and I was determined to change it. We needed to up our professional game. I knew this wasn’t going to be easy, but I felt sitting there in that moment, right when I needed support and security, that my job just got exponentially harder and more tenuous.

Snack time: How do we nurture the kids?

Many funders, perhaps understandably, are looking for a sure bet to put their money on. But where does that leave the up-and-comers with little track record? Right when they’re in a particularly vulnerable stage, with a million little things that need to be set up (all those not-so-secret ingredients listed above), grants for operations are often out of reach. Young organizations are also often in a Catch-22: They have to have money to set up and build a community, but they have to demonstrate broad community support to attract money.

We expect artists to take creative risks, but are we willing to also take financial risks to support that? How do we nurture both young and old organizations to create a rich cultural ecology? 

Nonprofit work is hard, and the pay doesn’t begin to compare to the private sector’s. Many artists already live on the financial edge. So how do we shift the burden?

Project grants: The curse of the shiny penny

I was tossed one lifeline, my only option: a project grant. How was I going to package our material and top it with a pretty bow that would entice funders? The news business, by its nature, typically reports on a steady stream of events that can’t always be predicted. 

This is where my Frankenbaking skills come in handy, but it’s not always easy and it certainly wouldn’t be my first choice. Unlike some arts groups, we don’t have that easy-to-point-to event – Look! A show! We don’t have a festival. We don’t have cute kids or free lessons. We’re just over here (waves hand) reporting on the news.

Many organizations like us have quality, worthwhile, ongoing programming that deserves funding but doesn’t easily package into identifiable projects, and have a hard time competing with proposals that show off shiny new pennies. To compete, we have to constantly reinvent ourselves and spend time chasing after new material and thinking up fancier ways to tie bows. Is this a pivot in our programming? What’s going to stand out? How can I sell this? We’re always running a marathon while contorting ourselves playing Twister. It’s exhausting.

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And those proposals? It’s like putting on lipstick for a Zoom meeting – but below the screen? It’s only underwear. It’s nice quality designer underwear, maybe even some lacy lingerie, but it’s still only underwear.

Bad pennies that keep coming back can add up

While helpfully answering a question about what makes a strong proposal, a grant manager once told me that they receive a lot of applications for website redesigns, and they’re all alike and just don’t stand out to get funded.

I remember thinking, wow, I think you just put your finger on an important trend and identified a great need. Everyone needs website help. Everyone. It’s an organization’s face to the world, where people learn about events, buy tickets, and make donations. Our website is our everything, and an important investment. We just spent thousands of dollars making upgrades, and I figured from that previous conversation that we weren’t going to get any financial help, so I didn’t even try.

While I was serving on a grant panel, many applications came up requesting funds to build online programming, a completely understandable request while Covid is raging. Panelists were obviously growing weary of hearing the same old story, and I sympathized. But online content is a great way for organizations to be accessible and build audiences that can tune in from anywhere in the world. It reduces barriers for people who can’t travel, might be inhibited from going out alone, or are averse to crowds.

What if, when presented with the same application over and over, funders didn’t glaze over but instead LEANED INTO this and recognized it as something to pay attention to? The community is saying that it has an identifiable need.

Tech support. Customer relation management tools. Ticket systems. Bookkeeping assistance. These are things that do not attract attention. They don’t have bows and bling. These are the ratty, pilled, stretched-out, unsexy underwear that have been washed so many times you’re embarrassed to put them back in the drawer. These are the things you hope you’re not wearing if you have to go to the emergency room. But these are exactly what you put on every single day, and wear more than anything else in your wardrobe.

Competitive grants: Just add yeast to rise

Competitive grants are the gladiator sport of the grant kingdom. In a sense, this is understandable: There are more worthy requests than there is money available to fund. So organizations wave around their application swords, trying to make a persuasive case for funding, while panel members have the power of pointing thumbs up or down. This is not my favorite game, but if I have to play along for funding to save my life, then I will sharpen my sword. Release the lions!

Competitive grants naturally mean there’s competition involved, pitting organizations against each other when we should be encouraging collaboration and camaraderie. The loud alpha applications rise to the top: the cool kids with the shiny pennies and pretty bows. By their nature, these grants give an advantage to organizations that know how to play the grant game.

Grant-writing is an art form, and the pros know how to write clearly and build a solid, focused case. They know how to carefully calculate a budget that shows all the matching funds and how to appropriately position an ask: Like porridge, it’s not too high and it’s not too low, it’s just right – but it’s also (the whispered part) slightly elevated to allow for granted amounts to come in lower than requested.

What if English isn’t your first language? What if you’re dyslexic? What if writing isn’t your strongest way to communicate? Perhaps you’re a dancer or a painter or a musician. 

Many years ago, I was at a PTA meeting with Black Dad and White Mom. Black Dad was there to request funds for a Black History Month celebration. White Mom was trying to figure out an appropriate amount needed.

White Mom: How much food do you need?

Black Dad: I’m going to call my people.

White Mom: How many people are you expecting?

Black Dad: I’m going to call my people.

White Mom: How many plates and cups do you need?

Black Dad: I’m going to call my people.

Soon after, the principal, a longtime wonderful educator who is Black, explained to me with a head shake and a chuckle how that was a classic case of a cultural disconnect. In geometric terms, the linear approach of White Mom (how many people times plates, cups, servings, drinks, utensils, all adding up to costs) was not translating to Black Dad’s concentric rings approach, using his connections in the community that he could call on to make this event happen.

Not everyone communicates the same way, and not every community has the same dynamic. Grant applications often ask how an organization is reaching out and engaging the community that it serves, yet the application itself often is structured as a one-size-fits-all that isn’t pliable to different communication styles.

In the same way that a teacher might employ different techniques to reach students with different learning styles, how do we make our formats less linear to make them more accessible to more people? How do we identify barriers and reduce them? How do we shift or eliminate the burden of labor? How do we make the grant experience more awarding so it’s more rewarding? How do we reach the quiet kids in the back of the room who might not write the loudest application?

If we really want to promote equity, we have to examine how our systems are accessible.

Grant review panels: Welcome to Hell’s Kitchen

If competitive grants are a gladiator sport, then the panels that review them are ax-wielding Viking marauders: Is it filling a need? What’s the lasting impact? Does it have a multiplier effect? How are the applicants reaching historically underserved communities? Are they building an audience? Those budget weeds had better sprout in the right places, or it’s into the compost heap for you.

I like serving on grant panels, because I can learn a trick or three from reading proposals. I get an overview of the industry and glean a ton of story ideas. And, hey, (shhh!) it helps to size up the competition.

To be completely transparent about my perspective and biases when I serve on grant panels, I am an old white female and I am a total sucker for cute kids. Free violin lessons for cute kids? I’m in. Giving away books to cute kids? Give them all the money.

Here’s another bias: I will likely be harder on an organization that I know has several development directors whose sole job is to strategize and write proposals than on a tiny organization where the lone grant writer is likely also to be running the place, teaching classes, keeping the books, and scrubbing toilets. Major organizations had better bring their “A” game to the potluck, because I can smell moldy leftovers from the next town.

What kills me about the whole panel process is the notion of winners and losers. Perfectly wonderful programs, from organizations big and small, get passed over because they can’t outshine The Next New Thing. Newbies get left at the starting gate. Underdogs go home without even a bone. Again, the law of supply and demand is at play here: There simply isn’t enough money available to fund everybody sufficiently. And that requires highly creative thinking about how it all plays out.

No justice, no dessert

A lot of organizations are turned down for competitive grants, which comes at a cost for all of us. The budget is set, there’s only so much money to go around and, well, no pie for you. It’s back to the soup kitchen.

In January, the National Endowment for the Arts announced $57.8 million in funding for the Arts American Rescue Plan (ARP) grants. Out of 7,500 eligible applications, only 568 received awards – not quite 7.8 percent. Applicants had a better chance of getting into Brown University, which has an acceptance rate of 8 percent. Let’s say those 6,932 applicants that were denied funding each spent (conservatively) a week on that application. Taking that number of applicants and dividing it by 52 weeks in a year means that, nationwide, the arts lost 133 YEARS in productivity, or the equivalent of 133 FTE jobs (without vacation time or sick leave). It doesn’t accurately serve my point, but I can’t help but laughingly say that a grant writer should have predicted the pandemic and started that application in 1888.

Of course, the ARP grants paid for many jobs, went to many worthy groups, and likely sparked some sterling creative projects that will continue to have an economic impact. This value cannot be underestimated. I laud every recipient. But to get a full and fair picture of true profitability, if you take those 133 FTE jobs and figure they would pay roughly $50,000 a year (painfully low), then that adds up to a loss of $6.65 million (again, conservatively; I would easily double it). This is roughly the amount that arts groups that were denied funding paid into the application process with labor costs and then did not see a return. That original $57.8 million funding figure now has a loss of 11.5 percent – likely doubled, I’m sure, so feel free to make it 23 percent, which is eye-popping by any economic measure. Those labor costs have been paid out, but you could also say that compounding the issue, literally, those lost jobs could have added to the economic impact.

What was supposed to be a rescue plan, helping beleaguered arts groups when they desperately needed to be buoyed, now looks like leaving the fiddlers on deck while all the lifeboats have been cast adrift. Instead, it added a burden of wasted time and lost labor for more than 9 out of 10 groups that applied. I need to step outside my reasonable analytical brain for a moment and say, WOW, how can we afford to not pay attention to this?

The ARP grants were awarded only in increments of $50,000, $100,000, and $150,000, giant sums for any but the biggest organizations. What if, say, that $57.8 million were divvied up evenly and each organization that applied received $8,338? At least there would be a higher return on investment for labor costs, and there would be no negative economic impact.

That conservatively estimated loss of $6.65 million is more than four times higher than the Oregon Cultural Trust awarded last fall, when it gave away $1,627,220 in Cultural Development grants to 90 organizations, including Oregon ArtsWatch, out of 155 eligible applications. That means 65 organizations, or 42 percent, were not funded. Using the same estimate that an application requires about one week to prepare (again, quite conservatively; I can’t say this enough), that translates to 1.25 years of lost productivity. In 2019 for the 2020 grant cycle (the last year I can find specific data), 92 applicants were not awarded, or 1.77 years. 

I’m no economist, and I use simple math. I’m sure an arithmetic whiz or a data scientist could dig deeper and dance around these figures. If the mission of these government granting agencies is to support the arts, as stated, then maybe rethinking the model for allocating money more evenly could reduce the burden and labor costs, better benefit a larger number of arts organizations, and open doors for groups that have fewer resources, whether that’s because they’re new, small, marginalized, the non-alpha quiet kids in the back of the room, or just don’t know how to play the grant game yet.

I can accept that not all grants are awarded, and can certainly use some humbling now and then. It’s also important to weed out proposals that might not have merit. Sure, even if a grant isn’t awarded, the material can sometimes be repurposed and writing applications often helps to hone ideas and strategies. It’s not all a lost cause. I appreciate that grant writing gets me thinking and inspires me. But the price of winning and losing should not be defined simply by money, and the price we all pay in lost labor costs cannot be ignored. We would all benefit from better use of productivity.

Sometimes proposals just don’t fit priorities or focus areas. It’s still better, less painful, and more time-efficient to know that up front. If competitive grants are to continue, one solution to avoid so much wasted time would be to use letters of inquiry (LOIs) instead. Organizations could pitch short proposals, and if they pass that stage, then they could be invited to submit a full proposal with all the bells and whistles.

Marginalized communities: Timing is the secret sauce

Art can be a powerful and necessary tool for healing, and yet what I call the linear approach for funding, especially timelines, disproportionately affects marginalized communities and can lead to more trauma. 

Not all of our work at ArtsWatch is deadline-driven, and not all of our subjects seek the limelight, craving publicity to attract ticket-buyers. We have ongoing projects that give voice and visibility to people who have been historically underrepresented and sometimes these are the non-alpha quiet kids in the back of the room or are people who have been accustomed to living in the shadows so they can survive.

Working with vulnerable people takes time and extra care to build trust and respect, but most grants are on a firm one-year timeline that can cause added stress. The job has to get done, the final report has to be submitted, but this is the most difficult work, and if it’s rushed it can be detrimental and cause harm.

I have dealt with deadlines my entire professional career, but our most delicate projects have taught me a few things and made me rethink how we operate and how we can make accommodations. The deadline dynamic doesn’t work for everyone.

People who have experienced trauma or live with disabilities (mental or physical) sometimes need downtime. They need a calm, less busy time so they can process and regroup. Expecting nonstop productivity is the linear approach, or the traditional approach to labor that has roots in colonialism. The traditional approach might consider downtime unproductive, but perhaps, in fact, it’s the most important part of the process. If we’re going to reach underserved people, we need to respect that, and offer grace and patience in allowing extra time.

Art is messy, and it doesn’t always fit squarely into a box on a final report. The cost of emotional labor does not neatly fill into a line item on a budget, but it’s often the most expensive. 

We have both contributors and subjects who have seen atrocities, suffered abuse, or dealt with personal or intergenerational trauma. They are low income, veterans, people of color, people living with disabilities, transgender, and immigrants, the very people we should be learning from and supporting. It’s worth the wait, because they produce the very best material and trust us with their remarkable stories. This is how we make a difference. This is how we heal. This is how we bring people together. This is how we learn empathy. The arts teach us empathy, and the reporting process for grants that make this hard work possible should be flexible enough to allow the same.

Volunteers: A datapoint loaded with empty calories

Volunteers can be the real backbone of an organization, performing noble acts that give back to the community. I am not knocking this. But consider this: The sheer ability to volunteer requires privilege. These are people who can afford to work without pay, and have the time to do it. I flinch when I see a spot on a grant application to fill in how many volunteers we have, and I always worry that I will answer it wrong.

As I work to build a company so it doesn’t have to rely on volunteer efforts and can afford to pay workers a living wage and not exploit them, I am also asked how many people work for free. I worry that a low number of volunteers will mean I’m not demonstrating that we have broad community support, but I worry that a high number will mean that we’re still in the toddler stage and not able to pay fair wages.

Are we going to be dinged for trying to be more professional and offer fair compensation? Like us, not all arts organizations have obvious volunteer jobs such as ushers or phone banks or swag bags that need to be filled. Though we have people who willingly provide content to us for free – again, because they can afford to – for some cultural organizations, asking for volunteers means asking artists to work for free, as if their skills are not valued. 

If I bring on board someone young who doesn’t have the benefit of savings or a retirement fund, they can’t afford to work for little pay. Yet I need a diverse staff, which also means in terms of ages and financial resources. I need to incorporate the voices of lower-income people, and I want to give them job opportunities and pay them fairly. How can we be rewarded for this? 

How are we to address equity if we’re expected to have free labor, which means constantly relying on the good graces of the privileged class? I DO appreciate it, however, when funders ask more broadly how we demonstrate community support.

The cherry on top

What is my very favorite ingredient? The one I would spoon on every time? Funding with no restrictions, no hoops, no projects, no pivots in our programming that make us contort into ungainly shapes to stand out. Annual operating grants would cover that unsexy underwear. They could also be applied to more sensitive projects as needed, without having to meet a hard deadline. 

Sometimes we have legitimate projects with bows and bling or a new program that’s a genuine pivot. But even then, it takes time to present it in a pretty package, figure out all the bells and whistles, come up with the right language, strategize where to get the funding and when and how much, and then keep track of restricted funds for months. I want to be able to fund an unpredictable news story that doesn’t fit into a nice package just as much as I want to fund a long-term project.

Applications: Extra seasonings

What would make writing proposals easier and reduce burden?

-Multiple deadlines: Revolving or multiple deadlines a year would relieve having to conform to a schedule, stress about meeting a deadline, or worry about lining up the right project at the right time. 

-Flexibility: Rethinking steps big and small that go into an application would help to identify barriers – whether it’s the process, timing, or formatting.

-Easy to use: Applications should not require a tutorial video.

-Downloadable questions: A Word document that can be downloaded would help applicants write answers ahead of time. The type on a PDF doesn’t always easily copy and paste into another document, because it often comes with extra material, blocked-out areas, or missing letters. Filling in grants online is difficult, especially when applicants haven’t had a chance to prepare questions and the portal repeatedly times out. 

-Applications fully readable: An application broken into separate sections that can’t be viewed all at once makes it hard to refer back to what has already been written to ensure continuity and to avoid duplicating information.

-Better budgets: Allow more ways to provide this information, such as accepting a budget document to be uploaded. Filling in all of those separate line items and trying to click the right places, which usually means transcribing an already prepared budget, can be frustrating and take time.

Funders: The master chef heroes

The Oregon philanthropic community responded heroically to the economic crisis caused by the pandemic and the wildfires that swept the state. Faced with unprecedented circumstances, many foundations impressively came together and collaborated, figured out new funding mechanisms, streamlined processes, and quickly dispersed money where it was needed. State officials, already always busy, now had to shepherd additional federal money on top of performing their usual duties and administering regular programming.

I have recognized and appreciated the efforts by some philanthropic organizations that try to ease the burden of the application process. Some welcome alternative materials such as videos and audios or already-prepared documents so applicants don’t have to present the same information in new ways in order to fit their format. They welcome other grant proposals already written. They invite making a case and say that if they have additional questions they’ll reach out.

I appreciate the move by granting organizations that look at overall budgets and opt to fund a certain percentage for operating costs, which ensures equitable distributions to arts groups big and small. Thank you!

All of these efforts speak to care and respect, and the understanding of what nonprofit administrators are up against.

Seeing and hearing a diverse mix of people around a table, and prioritizing funding for underrepresented communities, are terrific steps. We can rummage deeper into the back of the fridge. Achieving real diversity, equity, and inclusion also means examining all the little mechanisms that go into the process.

It means taking a hard, heartfelt, honest look at how class, privilege, and able-bodied approaches create barriers (hint: able-bodied doesn’t just mean physical ability).

It means thinking about philanthropy, true giving back to the community, not just in terms of money, but also by respecting productivity and emotional labor.

It means seeking out and listening to a variety of perspectives to get input.

It means breaking down steps and rethinking our structures to make room for less linear ways of doing business.

Only then can we cook up a true lavish banquet for everyone.

Laura Grimes

Laura Grimes

Laura Grimes is the executive director of Oregon ArtsWatch. She worked as a journalist at The Oregonian for 24 years, where for most of that time she produced features sections. She occasionally writes quirky essays when the muse strikes, and has published in The Oregonian, Oregon ArtsWatch, and Art Scatter. When she’s not keeping ArtsWatch in line, she’s the marketing and public relations manager for The Portland Ballet. Always a sucker for cute kids, she spent several years growing arts programs in schools and working to improve playgrounds.
Laura Grimes

Laura Grimes

Laura Grimes is the executive director of Oregon ArtsWatch. She worked as a journalist at The Oregonian for 24 years, where for most of that time she produced features sections. She occasionally writes quirky essays when the muse strikes, and has published in The Oregonian, Oregon ArtsWatch, and Art Scatter. When she’s not keeping ArtsWatch in line, she’s the marketing and public relations manager for The Portland Ballet. Always a sucker for cute kids, she spent several years growing arts programs in schools and working to improve playgrounds.

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One Response

  1. Thank you, Laura! So much of this resonates with me as a founder of an atypical nonprofit rooted in equity, and as a grant funder. We are offering unrestricted funding. But I still lose sleep trying to serve all the applicants.

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