Last July, I spoke with an array of leaders about how philanthropy was supporting art emerging from the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and others, and the mass racial justice protests that followed.

We also discussed a set of concrete action items to boost equity across a sector where, as of 2017, only 4% of arts funding from foundations and individuals flowed to groups whose primary mission is to serve communities of color.

Ten months later, where do things stand?

I recently checked in with some of these leaders and asked them to cite ways that philanthropy changed in the past year, as well as ways the sector has failed to change, or still needs to change going forward.

Alexis Frasz, co-director of the Helicon Collaborative, summed up respondents’ sentiments best. “I think there has been enormous progress in the last year, and a recognition by philanthropy that racial justice is systemic and must be considered as a lens no matter what their priorities, be it arts and culture, climate, or health,” she said. But there is much more work to be done.

First, grantmakers must keep the pledges they made to invest in BIPOC-led organizations and embrace multi-year general operating support. Beyond that, respondents sketched out what Frasz called “the next frontier”—a future where funders democratize decision-making, return wealth directly to the most impacted communities and support economic systems change that remedies systemic inequality.

Here’s a summary of leaders’ thoughts about how far arts philanthropy has come—and where it still needs to go.

“A more open and honest dialogue”

Maurine Knighton, director of the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation’s arts program told me that prior to 2020, many leaders “articulated principled stances against discrimination, but on many occasions, we haven’t followed through with meaningful, concrete action either because of a lack of commitment or because we say we don’t have the tools we need to move from vision to implementation.”

The murder of George Floyd heightened funders’ awareness of the demands for racial justice and forced leaders to engage in what Knighton called “vital, deep self-reflection—perhaps for the first time.”

F. Javier Torres-Campos, the director of Surdna Foundation’s Thriving Cultures program, picked up on this theme, telling me that he’s noticed a “more open and honest dialogue about white supremacy and racism.” Funders acknowledge their “historical (and in some cases ongoing) role in underfunding organizations led by BIPOC and movement-based, power building, U.S. Southern-based, and systemic change organizations.”

“Moving past statements of solidary”

Knighton said that funders are “moving past the statements of solidarity” and doing the hard work on the ground—developing partnerships, pooled funds, and other group efforts to address the potential for large-scale change. “We’re engaging in participatory grantmaking models and trust-based philanthropy,” she said, “which is hopefully leading to more general operating support.”

Similarly, Torres-Campos cited “an increased number of pooled funds with an explicit focus on BIPOC and movement leaders and organizations” and grantmakers’ pivot towards general operating support.

Last March, the Ford Foundation and some of its partners drafted “A Call to Action: Philanthropy’s Commitment During COVID-19.” Over 800 funders signed on to the pledge’s action items, which included a commitment to “make new grants as unrestricted as possible, so nonprofit partners have maximum flexibility to respond to this crisis.”

Six months later, Ford launched its America’s Cultural Treasures program. The initiative gave large flexible multi-year grants directly to BIPOC-led arts organizations. This initiative allows grantees to “reimagine what they will be in the future with safety, and not worry about fundraising,” said Margaret Morton, the director of Ford’s creativity and free expression team. By the end of 2020, Ford classified 83% as “general/core support,” up from 36% in 2015.

Funders’ cumulative efforts generated impressive results. A survey of 142 Grantmakers in the Arts (GIA) members conducted late last year found that 41% of respondents increased giving in support of anti-racism, 51% changed their practices by giving to more BIPOC, organizations, and 65% will increase giving to BIPOC organizations and artists as standard practice going forward.

Grantmakers have also successfully cut red tape by streamlining application and reporting requirements. Surdna’s Torres-Campos noted how Marguerite Casey Foundation president and CEO Carmen Rojas updated the funder’s Program Officer position so that staff—rather than applicants—are now responsible for the brunt of the “‘paperwork’ required to get grants.”

Funders must keep their word

Now let’s turn our attention to areas where philanthropy still needs to do more. Our inner optimist assumes funders have made increased funding for BIPOC organizations and flexible support an enduring fixture of their grantmaking. But a December CEP report found that 44% of foundation leaders were either “undecided” about permanently “making new grants as unrestricted as possible” (29%) or ruled out the idea completely (15%).

A few months later, a Candid and Center for Disaster Philanthropy (CDP) brief on 2020 COVID-related giving found that flexible support reflected “only 9% of all dollars awarded to named recipients” once MacKenzie Scott’s grantmaking was taken out of the equation. Excluding high-net-worth donors and looking only at institutional philanthropy, funders only earmarked 13% of support to communities of color.

To be clear, these studies applied to a broad set of grantmakers—not exclusively arts funders. That said, the GIA’s Torres was concerned enough to alert me of a similar Candid/CDP report from July which found that only 5% of the pandemic-response dollars and 12% of the grants were intended for communities of color. Torres also pointed to findings by Exponent Philanthropy and PEAK Grantmaking, which revealed that only 18% of respondents reported changing their practice to including equity as a primary driver for grant decision-making.

“Transparency and shared accountability”

Torres isn’t the only leader concerned that funders may not follow through on their pledges. Kathy Reich, who oversees Ford’s BUILD program, said she fears that “in the next six months, as things start to open up, that a sense of complacency will set in. There’s a risk that foundations will go back to business as usual, and there won’t be a spigot of federal support that organizations can fall back on.”

The risk is even greater if organizations are unaware of funders’ commitments in the first place. Hilary Pennington, Ford’s executive vice president of programs, told me that her team commissioned the Center for Effective Philanthropy (CEP) to conduct a follow-up study on last March’s “A Call to Action.” The CEP found that only a third of grantee organizations knew about the pledge, underscoring Maurine Knighton’s contention that funders must “institute self-accountability measures to assess whether we’re achieving the change to which we aspire as individuals and as a sector.”

In the absence of such measures, nonprofit leaders will have to hold grantmakers’ feet to the fire. “Organizations have a right for general operating support and multi-year funding,” Pennington said. “The more that organizations feel brave enough to ask for that the better, even if they don’t always get it.”

Arts leaders also need to “do community due diligence so that we can ensure the organizations we’re supporting are in fact in full partnership with community members who are most deeply impacted by oppression,” Surdna’s Torres-Campos said. This work requires funders to work closely with anti-racism experts, refrain from awarding grants to BIPOC-serving organizations without first determining “effective financial stewardship,” and to implement “mechanisms to determine which organizations may be changing their websites and putting out statements to take advantage of the moment to raise extra funds.”

“I recently spoke with an amazing artist and movement leader from Minneapolis who reminded me that philanthropy needs to develop the rigor to identify which organizations ‘say and do’ movement work in practice,” said Torres-Campos said. “Which always requires transparency and shared accountability.”

Democratize decision-making

You’ll recall that Doris Duke’s Knighton cited the funder’s foray into participatory grantmaking, which finds funders outsourcing decision-making to community members to drive more equitable funding outcomes. On paper, this approach sounds like a no-brainer for equity-minded funders. But the practice has yet to root across the broader sector.

In my recent chat with Ben Wrobel and Meg Massey, authors of the new book, “Letting Go: How Philanthropists and Impact Investors Can Do More Good By Giving Up Control,” the pair cited some reasons why, with a few exceptions, arts funders are still on the sidelines. For instance, funders fear that by outsourcing this work, they’ll innovate themselves out of a job. Others are ill-equipped to retrain staff around the requisite skills needed for such a shift.

While these are valid concerns, organizations will only tolerate inaction for so long. IP’s 2020 survey of 187 performing arts fundraising professionals found that only 10% of respondents said there is “truly a growing trend towards more democratization of philanthropy with more and more examples that can be documented.” Despite all the progress funders have made in the past year, foundation leaders are still making pretty much all of the funding decisions.

Grantmakers seem to understand that the status quo isn’t sustainable. “Several large foundations are funding research to look at the evidence base for participatory grantmaking, because there’s a ton of anecdotal evidence that it’s super effective,” said Massey who, along with Wrobel, have called on foundation boards to relinquish grantmaking decision-making and sign-off authority to community panels.

Return wealth directly to impacted communities

Leaders discussed ways grantmakers can return wealth to historically undercapitalized communities beyond directly funding BIPOC organizations. Pulling a page from the broader funder space, Ford’s Pennington encouraged grantmakers to accelerate support for intermediaries and grantmakers led by people of color, citing the work of the Decolonizing Wealth Project, the Libra Foundation, and the Groundswell Fund.

These organizations differ from established legacy foundations in a number of important ways, Pennington said. Since they work closely with communities of color, they “know what it means to have authentic relationships.” They also tend to provide more multi-year support than their legacy peers.

Intermediaries “have the ability to disrupt philanthropy—if we back them well—in ways that it’s very hard for us to disrupt ourselves,” Pennington told me. “Let’s pool our money and make sure those kinds of experiments are really adequately resourced.” (Click here for a closer look at how arts funders ramped up support for intermediaries across 2020.)

Build financial self-determination

Respondents acknowledged that permanent flexible multi-year support, while critical, is but one part of a larger equation. To truly galvanize what Fransz called “economic systems change,” funders must provide organizations and artists with access to capital, debt reduction, and asset and wealth building.

The GIA’s Torres shared with me “Solidarity Not Charity: Arts & Culture Grantmaking in the Solidarity Economy,” a report that explores how the grantmaking community can support culture-workers and artists through “an increasingly just economy.” Published in late March, GIA commissioned the report with funding by William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, Kenneth Rainin Foundation and Barr Foundation.

The report’s action items encourage arts grantmakers to grant and loan capital to Solidarity Economy partners, “commit to long-term funding that is not project based,” and support efforts to build out an infrastructure that can include cooperatives and land trusts.

The report noted how several GIA members support the Center for Cultural Innovation’s (CCI) AmbitioUS program, which provides funding beyond-501c3s in the form of “grants, loans, loan guarantees, investments, and recoverable grants to Solidarity Economy initiatives that intersect with arts and culture.”

“The entire nonprofit sector right now is built on filling gaps, fixing problems, and plugging holes in the conventional system,” CCI CEO Angie Kim told me earlier this year. “But if the system is itself unequal and unfair, then it’s necessary to try and get outside the conventional system altogether.”

Advocate for legislative reforms

GIA’s November 2020 survey of members found that only 14% of respondents have supported advocacy for changes to public policy and 19% will make support for advocacy for changes to public policy standard going forward. Arts funders’ hesitancy to wade into public policy debates is understandable—generally speaking, most nonprofits tend to steer clear of anything that smacks of politics.

But GIA’s Torres believes greater advocacy for tax reform from the philanthropy sector can advance the field’s broader efforts to promote racial justice.

“Prior to the pandemic, we’d seen the arts and culture field recovering from the Great Recession in a manner that was uneven, with a smaller number of wealthy supporters giving larger and larger gifts to a small number of organizations,” he said. “A smaller number of donors creates a vulnerable cultural ecosystem, with BIPOC organizations particularly disadvantaged due to their lack of access to wealth.”

The GIA, Torres said, “advocates for charitable giving reform that rewards giving by households that are not wealthy.” He hopes other funders will add their voices to the cause.

At the end of the day, philanthropy’s efforts to advance racial justice, equity, and financial self-determination are about “diagnosing and transforming ourselves,” said Surdna’s Torres-Campos. “It’s in our ability as trustees, admin staff, finance staff, communications teams, and program staff to identify every leverage point within your own organizations to continue down the path of a permanent commitment of care, solidarity/co-conspiracy, transparency, and accountability to and with our grantees and partners.”

This is complicated and often scary work that requires vulnerability, kindness, and practice. “Sometimes we get things wrong and need to heal harms,” Torres-Campos said. “This is all part of the learning process and charting more equitable ways of operating. And it’s a necessary step if we want to ‘walk the talk.’”

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