Ben Cameron, president of the Jerome Foundation
Ben Cameron, president of the Jerome Foundation

Like many other arts grantmakers, the St. Paul, Minnesota-based Jerome Foundation helped the artists and organizations it supports survive a tumultuous 2020 by repurposing grants to general operating support, extending commitments and allocating emergency funding.

But as the year came to a close, foundation President Ben Cameron began to worry about grantees’ ability to thoughtfully plan for what comes after COVID-19. “We remembered the 2008 recession,” he told me. “There was a lot of urgent giving in the short term. But two years later, those special initiatives largely disappeared, and donors said, ‘Why haven’t you fixed things?’ But the crisis was far from over.”

In a similar way, while the pandemic may be gradually receding, arts organizations’ problems are far from resolved. “Many art fields were undercapitalized and struggling even before COVID,” Cameron said. “So the question is, ‘Should you go back to what you were doing before, or is this an opportunity to restructure and rethink who you are and what you exist to do?”

Cameron and his team spoke with artists, organizations and the board about how the foundation, whose annual grantmaking budget is less than $4 million, could strike a balance between immediate and more forward-looking aspirations.

In December, the foundation presented the results of this exercise. As part of its “commitment to the long game,” it would commit at least an additional $8 million to the arts, which puts them over the 5% payout rate mandated under tax law. The foundation pledged to commit the bulk of this support between 2022–2025 to address funding gaps that may arise as grantmakers phase out emergency funding opportunities. The foundation has allocated $2 million of the new commitment so far and will likely allocate an additional $1 million in 2021.

The reality that grantees need to survive, while simultaneously creating new pathways for post-crisis sustainability, required what Cameron called a “longer calibration of economic need.” The foundation’s plan is meant to assure artists and organizations that they’ll still have a stream of funding, even as other special initiatives dry up.

Core values

Jerome Hill (1905–1972) was an Academy Award-winning filmmaker, painter, photographer, composer and patron of the arts and artists in the United States and Europe. Established by Hill in 1964, the foundation supports early-career artists and those nonprofit arts organizations that serve them in Hill’s home state of Minnesota and the five boroughs of New York City, where he spent most of his creative life.

The foundation aligns its grantmaking with three core values—diversity, innovation and risk, and humility. Regarding diversity, the foundation supports a broad range of artists and organizations, including but not limited to those of diverse cultures, races, sexual identities, genders, generations, aesthetics, points of view, physical abilities, and missions.

The foundation traces “innovation and risk” directly to its namesake, who gravitated toward more experimental art forms at the end of his life. “We’re inclined to artists that are pushing at the boundaries of their respective art forms and questioning tradition,” Cameron said.

Hill gave anonymously, which explains the foundation’s core value of “humility.” Cameron told me that he and his team are guided by the belief that artists and organizations know “more about what they need than we as philanthropy professionals do.” This idea of humility also applies to artists. “It means that they see themselves in service of a larger aesthetic tradition, to a community, or to both,” he said.

Surveying the community

Before becoming president in 2016, Cameron was program director for the arts at the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation from 2006 to 2015. During his tenure, the foundation created the Doris Duke Artists Awards and received the National Medal of the Arts from President Barack Obama.

He previously served as the executive director of Theatre Communications Group, manager of community relations for Target Stores, and director of the theater program at the National Endowment for the Arts.

One of Cameron’s first action items at the Jerome Foundation was overseeing an anonymous online survey of the funder’s grantee community. The survey consisted of four questions:

  1. What is the most urgent challenge for you in your life today?
  2. If you held the checkbook, what are the two or three things you’d urge us to write checks for?
  3. How would you describe your experience with the Jerome Foundation?
  4. Is there anything else you’d like to tell us?

Cameron and his team received responses from more than 1,100 artists and 400 arts organizations. The feedback provided foundation leadership with “our sense of our value, what we were urged to do, and what we were urged not to do,” he said.

Pre- and post-pandemic developments

The survey informed a series of pre-2020 changes to the foundation’s grantmaking that, in hindsight, look rather prescient. For example, the foundation simplified the grantee reporting process and moved entirely to multi-year grants, sparing recipients the need to scramble for funding on an annual basis.

Pre-pandemic, the foundation’s grants to organizations were project grants. However, leadership recognized that this support overlooked indirect costs like utilities, space and staff time to prepare applications. The foundation subsequently encouraged organizations to include indirect costs in their proposals.

Leadership also recognized that project grants do little if anything to help an organization strengthen what Cameron called its “basic business enterprise.” As a result, the foundation allowed organizations to earmark up to 25% of their request for general operating purposes, beyond those necessary direct and indirect project costs. “In this way, we hoped to promote stronger projects and stronger organizations,” he said.

Anticipating grantmakers’ gravitation toward participatory grantmaking, the foundation moved to a panel-based model where community members, professional artists, and administrators adjudicate peer competitions and recommend grantees to leadership. The foundation also “leaned more heavily into diverse communities and communities of color,” Cameron said.

With this architecture in place, the foundation didn’t need to radically reconfigure its fundamental grantmaking practices to meet the demands of 2020. It did, however, ramp up emergency support to artists and organizations.

As of last December, the foundation repurposed more than $4.15 million of grants to general operating support, and provided more than $125,000 in emergency funding to some of its grantees. Organizations whose previous grants were winding down were given automatic two-year renewals without having to apply again.

“At this point, what are they going to tell us?” Cameron said. “They don’t know who’s going to be working there and when they’re going to resume, so why run them through the charade?”

Building an on-ramp

The foundation’s broader strategic thinking in late 2020 was informed by the unpredictability of COVID-19. At the time, no one could predict when the country would have a sufficient amount of vaccinations, when audiences would feel comfortable attending public events, or to what extent 2020-era innovations like virtual programming would carry over into a post-pandemic environment.

As a result, leadership focused on what Cameron called the “longer-term period necessary for the arts to recover and reinvent.” His team concluded that “our greatest value was to be aggressive in earmarking what we could afford to reasonably commit over and beyond our 5%, but to schedule it where we would take an on-ramp reserving the bulk of it for years three, four and five out of a five-year arc.”

Four months after the foundation announced this commitment, the Ford Foundation extended its Building Institutions and Networks Initiative (BUILD), a program that provides organizations with five-year flexible funding and institutional strengthening grants, by another $1 billion. Echoing Cameron’s concerns, Program Director Kathy Reich worried that “in the next six months, as things start to open up, … 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.”

Cameron also pointed to the growing realization across the philanthropic and business community that the pandemic may not be a one-off crisis, but rather the first in “a series of periodic disruptions,” further compelling funders to help organizations build long-term resilience and adaptability.

In January, the foundation announced the second round of Jerome Hill Artist Fellowships. Sixty early-career artists will receive a total of $50,000 evenly spread over two years. In addition, the board agreed to award one-time grants of $7,500 each to the 24 finalists who were designated as alternates and $5,000 each to the remaining 60 finalists.

How to best advance equity

The previous year found Cameron and his team identifying ways to “lean more deeply into the directions we’ve been heading and become even more responsible, especially around issues of social equity and anti-racism.”

These latter challenges require leaders to make a critical strategic calculation. “There’s a huge division within the grantmaking world between grantmakers who try to encourage people to make change versus people who are trying to support those who are living the change they wish to see in the larger world,” Cameron said.

Under the first model, funders typically support predominantly white institutions’ efforts to diversify their audiences and workforces. The second approach finds grantmakers supporting organizations that, according to Cameron, “already have diverse workforces and who are already deeply embedded in communities of color, and help them thrive and prosper.”

While Cameron thinks there is value in both kinds of philanthropic approaches, “my own bias has always been to fund people who are already living the change you wish to see rather than trying to entice people in a direction which may be inauthentic or inorganic to what they do. Because as you know, we’ve seen a number of well-intentioned initiatives disappear when the checks behind them ended.” The Jerome Foundation tends to emphasize “achieved diversity” rather than “aspirational diversity,” he said.

Again, we’re seeing other foundations move in this direction. Cameron cited Ford’s America’s Cultural Treasures program, which provides direct support to Black, Indigenous and people-of-color-led arts organizations. “I think the recognition is that there has been inequitable funding in the past,” he said. “People are rightly reconfiguring the core portfolios of who they are investing in.”

“It’s not easy work”

Cutting checks to organizations that serve historically underrepresented communities is relatively easy. But becoming a more responsive funder that is responsibly serving such communities requires shifts in organizational thinking and governance.

At the most fundamental level, funders need to engage in “all sorts of self-reflection about refining your practice, to make your own giving porous and permeable and responsible to communities that you may have perceived as being outside your interests in the past,” Cameron said.

Arts funders must also choose from a variety of operational grantmaking strategies. The Hewlett Foundation partnered with the Helicon Collaborative on its strategic refresh and reached out to previously under-accessed Bay Area communities through a series of “Listening Circles.” The MacArthur Foundation implemented a participatory grantmaking panel. The Denver-based Bonfil-Stanton Foundation asked community members to create a list of regional BIPOC organizations and invited them to a series of consultant-led listening sessions.

Cameron sees the value of each approach. A good consultant can learn things that wouldn’t be said as openly if foundation leaders were running the discussion. Leaders may end up hearing some unpleasant feedback, “but it will only continue to be an honest exchange to the extent you listen and change your behavior based on what you are being told,” he said.

Cameron threw other ideas into the mix. Previously, the foundation recruited its board according to the disciplines it funded. “We’d say, ‘We need a dance person or a theater person.” Now, the foundation’s board recruitment conversations are “values-based, they’re about what you see coming in the future.”

He also encourages funders to embrace generational diversity among its board. “Gen X and Y-ers think about these issues differently than millennials and boomers do, both in terms of how they see the world and the speed in which they expect change,” he said. Meanwhile, the foundation’s grantmaking panel has provided the foundation with “a living feedback mechanism about our own work and where our initiates are falling short and short-circuiting or not reaching communities the way we wish they did.”

As one would expect, Cameron doesn’t believe that there’s a one-size-fits-all strategy when it comes to implementing equitable grantmaking. “It’s not easy work that you can check off the list and say, ‘We got it, we’re done,’” he said. “Everyone starts that journey in a different place and a different moment.”