PHOTO BY Andrew Han for the Children’s Museum of Denver at Marsico Campus. THE MUSEUM IS A GRANTEE OF Denver’s Bonfils-Stanton Foundation.
PHOTO BY Andrew Han for the Children’s Museum of Denver at Marsico Campus. THE MUSEUM IS A GRANTEE OF Denver’s Bonfils-Stanton Foundation.

As a growing number of arts funders strive to make their grantmaking more equitable by providing greater support for groups serving communities of color, they may run into a few common challenges. How do funders identify and connect with these groups? What should their support look like? And how should they adjust longstanding support for larger and wealthier grantees?

These can be difficult questions for funders of any size, but even more so for regional grantmakers like Denver’s Bonfils-Stanton Foundation, which allocates approximately $3 million in arts support annually. “We’re pretty much the only dedicated arts funder in our community,” President and CEO Gary Steuer told me. “We don’t have the wealth and flexibility of a Kresge or a Mellon.”

Steuer and his team have been thinking about these issues since 2014, when the foundation began making a series of efforts to center more equitable support of BIPOC groups. The foundation expanded these efforts in 2019 with a five-year, $2.5 million, multi-part strategy, and then a year later in response to the pandemic and surging demands for racial justice.

The results are striking. In 2013, only 2.4% of the foundation’s giving flowed to arts organizations led by and serving people of color. That number jumped to 8.3% in 2018 and now stands at 20% and rising—far exceeding Helicon Collaborative’s 2017 benchmark for the sector of 4%. Seven years into its “racial equity journey,” support for BIPOC organizations has increased 670%, from $75,000 in 2013 to $578,000 in 2020.

The foundation’s rapid evolution is an illuminating case study of a regional funder closing the funding equity gap while providing what Steuer referred to as “continued support and respect for the largest institutions that have sucked up the largest share of the philanthropic pie—mostly Eurocentric arts groups.”

“We have a responsibility to be all things to all people in our community,” he said, “and we want to deliver a message that all art forms have something to offer for all people.”

Narrowing the Focus

The foundation is named after American heiress and philanthropist Mary Madeline “May” Bonfils Stanton (1883-1962), who, along with her sister, succeeded their father Frederick Gilmer Bonfils as principal owners of the Denver Post. Her second husband, Charles Edwin Stanton, established the foundation after her death.

By the mid-2000s, the foundation was allocating a little more than 50% of its grants toward arts projects. The rest went to programs in science, health and human services. Slowly but surely, the foundation began weaning non-arts grantees off the payroll and allocating more money to the arts.

In late 2012, the foundation hired Steuer, then the City of Philadelphia’s chief cultural officer. He previously served as vice president of private-sector affairs and executive director of the Arts & Business Council for Americans for the Arts. Steuer also spent 12 years as president and CEO and director of New York programs for Arts & Business Council Inc. in New York, prior to its merger with Americans for the Arts.

Steuer assumed the role of president and CEO in 2013. Two years later, the foundation announced it was narrowing its mission to focus almost exclusively on the arts. At the time, Steuer told the Chronicle of Philanthropy’s Alex Daniels that while “the breadth and quality of the cultural sector in Denver has grown exponentially over the past 20 years,” the growth had been in foundations “that explicitly exclude arts and culture.” An arts-focused BSF sought to fill this gap in the region’s philanthropic ecosystem.

In mid-March, the foundation launched a COVID-19 relief fund with a $1 million commitment. The fund has received additional contributions from Denver Arts & Venues ($205,000), Gates Family Foundation ($100,000) and PNC ($10,000).

Revisiting the Grantmaking Model

When Steuer took over, only 2.4% of the foundation’s grant dollars flowed to BIPOC organizations. He partially attributed this to the foundation’s grantmaking model, which tied grants to budget size. By doing so, “the biggest institutions absorb a disproportionate share of your philanthropic capacity, and as they grow, that ratio needs to be sustained,” he said.

Maurine Knighton, director of the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation’s arts program, alluded to this dynamic in a recent chat, telling me, “oftentimes, funders are looking for a balance sheet that has more assets than an organization of color might have. That’s because, broadly speaking, an organization of color may not have the kinds of fixed assets that a larger organization will have.”

Steuer and Knighton’s comments reflect the growing consensus across the arts funding community that linking funding to an organization’s budget has harmed organizations of color. Not coincidentally, America’s Cultural Treasures, the Ford Foundation’s new $156 million initiative supporting BIPOC arts organizations, doesn’t limit grant amounts based on budget size. The same can be said for the MacArthur Foundation’s Culture, Equity, and the Arts initiative, which it launched last year.

Making Connections

BSF’s previous grantmaking model also created an environment where its leadership couldn’t access a deep network of smaller organizations serving communities of color. To be clear, the BSF had provided support for grantees like the Museo de las Americas. And Cleo Parker Robinson Dance, an organization that uses dance to honor African-American heritage, received a three-year, 400% increase in annual general operating support, starting in 2016.

That said, Steuer and his team realized that these comparatively large groups “are not the whole universe of BIPOC organizations.” For instance, the biggest provider of arts activity for the Filipino community may be a community center. This kind of scenario wasn’t on the foundation’s radar because “we were looking for organizations with paid staff or those that were 100% dedicated to arts and culture,” Steuer said.

How do funders find these smaller organizations, many of which have no paid staff or a dedicated space? This has emerged as a big question facing arts funders in recent years. It turns out there’s no right answer. In fact, funders’ strategies are all over the map.

Jennifer Coleman, who oversees the George Gund Foundation’s Creative Culture and Arts Program, told me she drew up a list of BIPOC organizations by going online, cold-calling groups, and then asking them to recommend peers. In 2019, the New York Community Trust launched the Mosaic Network and Fund, an initiative seeded by 20 funders who participate in “learning exchanges” in which they introduce themselves to BIPOC organizations. And the Hewlett Foundation rolled out a series of community listening circles after concluding that “crucial artistic work was happening in [these] communities where our funding has not historically flowed,” program director Emiko Ono told me.

Bonfils-Stanton asked community members to create a list of regional BIPOC organizations. The foundation then invited them to a series of listening sessions in early 2019. A consultant facilitated the sessions, with representatives from 30 organizations attending. “We didn’t intend to sit in on the meetings,” Steuer said, “but in the end, the participants asked us to because they wanted to hear our voices.”

Drawing Down Support for Large Grantees

Fast-forward to January 2020. At this point, the foundation had concluded that by tying funding to budget size, it unwittingly shut out organizations serving communities of color. It also successfully introduced itself to many of those organizations in the region. Steuer and his team then turned their attention to the mechanics of grantmaking.

For one, the foundation announced that it would be setting a cap of $60,000 on general operating support grants to free up capacity to make important investments in BIPOC organizations, Steuer said. The change does not affect 2020 grantees, and the foundation still offers multi-year general operating support, but the team decided the cap was necessary to ensure it could spread funding around to more and smaller organizations.

Project grants have no such restrictions, and Steuer encourages larger arts institutions, Denver-based or otherwise, to think about rolling out programming that is more inclusive of historically underserved artists and audiences, echoing the sentiments of fellow performing arts funders like Mellon and the Wallace Foundation.

BSF’s cap on general operating support is based on a realistic look at the resources the funder has at its disposal, about $3 million in grants a year. A search of Kresge’s grants database, by comparison, shows the creative placemaking funder gave approximately $15 million in arts and culture grants in 2019. And in June, Mellon’s board of trustees approved a plan to boost giving in 2020 from $300 million to a staggering $500 million.

In a world of finite resources, one extra dollar for a BIPOC organization is one less dollar for a ballet or opera company. Or, as Steuer put it, “if your funding is fixed, it’s a zero-sum game, because bigger institutions will lose out.” Rather than “pull the rug out” on large recipients, Steuer told me the foundation plans to draw down support for recipients over two years—a 20% reduction in fiscal year 2021, for example, followed by another 20% in 2022.

Reimagining Capital Support

Steuer and his team also revisited the foundation’s support for capital projects. “We don’t have a specific capital grant program, and we didn’t think of ourselves as a big capital funder,” he said. “But we did, over time, support important cultural capital projects in a significant way, given our small size.”

The foundation would occasionally provide a 10-year, $3 million grant, for example, for a large institution’s capital project. While that translates to a seemingly manageable $300,000 a year, it quickly adds up if the foundation adds two or three similar projects to its docket. “That’s one-third of our capacity,” Steuer said. Moreover, “our $3 million gift may be a fraction of the $200 million campaign” for the institution, whose fundraisers have access to wealthy donors and trustees.

The foundation plans to honor existing capital commitments. However, earlier this year, BFS announced it is unlikely to fund significant capital gifts for the largest cultural organizations with operating budgets typically over $5 million. Instead, the foundation will prioritize projects that are “intentional about serving multiple organizations, that serve diverse communities, allow for more equitable access and help fill a critical gap in the arts and culture ecosystem.”

Steuer provided the following example. The region’s Rocky Mountain PBS offers a jazz radio station, KUVO, that is very popular with the area’s Black and Latino population. The foundation’s leadership decided to help fund the construction of KUVO’s new live performance studio to boost engagement with a listenership that Steuer called “more diverse than general public media.”

Toward More Responsive Grantmaking

In April, the foundation launched its Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) Opportunity Grants initiative. The application has only a few questions, and the grants are earmarked for general operating support. The foundation invited the 30 attendees from its listening sessions to apply. After the tragedies of COVID-19 and the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and others at the hands of police, the board signed off on Steuer’s recommendation to fund all 19 applicants.

Grants were $5,000 apiece—a significant amount of money for many of the organizations with annual operating budgets of around $25,000. “In most cases,” Steuer said, “it was the organization’s first foundation grant ever.”

The grants reflect exactly the kind of funding that arts organizations have been asking of funders during the COVID-19 era, but the foundation has been offering such flexible forms of grantmaking for some time.

A few years ago, the International Association of Blacks in Dance asked the foundation to support its annual conference in Denver. Normally, Steuer said, he would draft a proposal, run it by the board, and ask the association to fill out some paperwork. In this case, however, the foundation had to make a decision within an abnormally compressed time frame.

Steuer realized the foundation needed a funding vehicle that was more responsive to fast turnaround times. He convinced the board to approve a budget to make $4,000 “staff-level grants,” which can be proposed by a staff member and approved if the team agrees. The grants allow the foundation to be more nimble in supporting time-sensitive, often grassroots needs, including many projects supporting communities of color.

Back in June, the foundation issued a staff level grant to a local artist working with a Black Lives Matter group on an arts project after Floyd’s death. “They came to us on a Thursday and they needed the money for supplies on Friday,” Steuer said. “We turned it around in one day.”

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