The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston is one of 46 arts organizations participating in Bloomberg’s Digital Accelerator program. LnP images/shutterstock
The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston is one of 46 arts organizations participating in Bloomberg’s Digital Accelerator program. LnP images/shutterstock

When the pandemic began to unfold last spring, cultural organizations quickly ramped up their digital presence. Annual galas went virtual. Dancers streamed performances from their bedrooms. Museums rolled out online galleries. It wasn’t always smooth sailing, but countless organizations were able to stay afloat throughout 2020 thanks, in part, to an expanded virtual footprint.

Arts organizations now find themselves at an inflection point. The resumption of in-person gatherings will require leaders to revisit pre-COVID expenses like staffing and facility rentals. They’ll need to formulate a forward-looking digital strategy since it appears that streaming performances are here to stay. And many will have to do it all while earning less income compared to pre-pandemic levels.

It’s a problem perfectly suited for Bloomberg Philanthropies. The funder, which has been bankrolling technological innovation at cultural organizations for over 20 years, recently announced the $30 million Digital Accelerator program to help its first cohort of 46 organizations in the U.S. and U.K. “stabilize and thrive in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic through strategic improvements to their technology infrastructure.” Grantees include art museums like Oakland Museum of California and the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, but also performing arts groups like the Apollo Theater and Ballet Hispánico.

Kate Levin, who oversees the Bloomberg Philanthropies’ Arts program, told me the initiative will provide funding for technology acquisition and strategic guidance “at a time when cultural organizations are stretched incredibly thin—but have unique opportunities to benefit from tech-based strategies piloted as a means of surviving the pandemic.”

The program is textbook Bloomberg, as it reflects its namesake’s steadfast belief that technology can help institutions achieve their strategic goals. It’s also a testament to grantmakers’ enduring affinity for restricted funding. While more grantmakers are beginning to appreciate the flexibility that comes with general operating support, they also know that many nonprofit leaders lack the time and in-house expertise to execute critical projects like strengthening their technology infrastructure. Programs like Digital Accelerator represent a kind of classic pre-pandemic grantmaking with high funder involvement and targeted outcomes, set up to ensure participants can and do carry out a specific line of necessary work.

Lay of the land

Bloomberg Philanthropies’ work in the cultural tech space dates back to 1999. It was one of the first funders to harness the power of audio guides, mobile apps and location-aware navigational tools in a museum setting. In November 2019, it launched Bloomberg Connects, a free digital guide to cultural organizations around the world.

Arts nonprofit leaders often had trouble developing digital infrastructure strategies during this pre-COVID period. Levin told me that many lacked “time to assess strategic goals and expertise to understand how technology can—and can’t—help,” which, in turn, frustrated their efforts to generate sufficient buy-in from key stakeholders.

So while organizations transitioned to a virtual footprint in the early days of the pandemic, they often did so arbitrarily and without sufficient foresight. As the crisis deepened, leaders didn’t have the time or resources to prioritize investments in improving technology infrastructure, Levin said.

Bloomberg’s program announcement cites a Knight Foundation survey that laid out the state of play in October 2020. Seven months into the pandemic, 31% of museums had no digital strategy while 29% said theirs was in development. Only 25% had a shared digital strategy or incorporated one into their overall strategic plan. Knight also found that 41% of museums did not have “defined goals, key performance metrics, or outcome measures for digital projects,” and another 37% did so only on an ad hoc basis.

Most alarmingly, only 18% of respondents said they used audience data to shape their offerings—a statistic that probably made the notoriously technocratic Mike Bloomberg reflexively spit coffee on his computer screen.

The timeless appeal of restricted support

Bloomberg’s Digital Accelerator program funds technology acquisition, including hardware, software and staffing expertise to help organizations build audiences, increase fundraising and boost revenues. It also provides guidance from technology experts—dubbed Bloomberg Tech Fellows—to help organizations plan and implement these new assets, Levin said.

For example, in the program’s first phase, a Bloomberg tech fellow will help grants in the U.S. and the U.K. roll out a digital project. (The initiative does not provide direct funding for staff training at recipient organizations.)

The announcement comes as some funders are likely backing away from pandemic-era pledges to provide organizations with general operating support. A December Center for Effective Philanthropy report found that 44% of foundation leaders were either undecided about permanently “making new grants as unrestricted as possible” (29%), or had ruled out the idea completely (15%).

For years, grantees and philanthropy critics alike have been calling for fewer restrictions in grantmaking, and for good reason, with the overwhelming majority of funding limited to specific projects. Even if only a slight majority emerged from the pandemic making more general support grants, that would signal some serious progress. But the Digital Accelerator program shows why there will always be funders like Bloomberg—driven by data and specific goals—that will continue to lean on restricted support. That’s not always a bad thing.

Bloomberg could have awarded general operating support with the hopes that recipients would direct funds toward strengthening their digital infrastructure. But as Levin’s comments illustrate, many leaders don’t have the bandwidth to identify and engage tech consultants, shop around for the requisite assets, and implement the kinds of data management techniques cited in the Knight study.

“Our goal,” Levin said, “is to provide holistic support along with enhanced perspectives on evolving digital strategies to achieve long-term objectives.”

Making the case for technology

Bloomberg Philanthropies invited organizations to apply based on criteria that included “creative excellence, service to diverse communities, and talented leadership.” Organizations that didn’t get a call will find comfort in knowing that the funder will develop and share best practices gleaned from its Digital Accelerator cohort.

Digital Accelerator’s emphasis on best practices finds its architects taking yet another page from the Bloomberg grantmaking playbook. The funder’s flagship arts program, Arts Innovation and Management, has been helping leaders from small and mid-sized arts organizations share best practices throughout the pandemic.

“There seems to be a renewed appetite to learn from each other, share best practices, and advance the entire sector,” Levin told me. “Our hope is that this initiative will help build on the generosity and insight of dynamic arts administrators to benefit the field as a whole.”

Digital Accelerator also surfaces another challenge for arts fundraisers: How do they make the case to grantmakers for admittedly unsexy technology support in a post-pandemic world?

For Levin, fundraisers can frame the ask as “critical infrastructure for effectively delivering services at a time when the responsive, inspiring, and healing elements of creative practice are urgently needed.” Every piece of technology, from customer relationship management systems to online archives, plays a key role in helping organizations “reach new audiences, develop new revenue streams, and deepen impact.”

As for the next phase in the initiative, Levin said she and her colleagues “strongly believe in the importance of data and evaluation to drive program expansion, and plan to evaluate the impact of Digital Accelerator before determining next steps in its development.”