Learning and Legacy at the Fund for Folk Culture

An Interview with Betsy Peterson

Published in: GIA Reader, Vol 21, No 1 (Spring 2010)

Amy Kitchener

In 2009 the Fund for Folk Culture, a national intermediary serving the field of folk and traditional arts, suspended operations after eighteen years. GIA asked Amy Kitchener, executive director of the Alliance for California Traditional Arts, to interview Betsy Peterson, former executive director of the Fund for Folk Culture (FFC), about what led to this decision and to share some of the important experience the Fund gained during its years
of operation.

Amy Kitchener: Betsy, could you talk about how and why the Fund suspended its operations?

Betsy Peterson: It essentially boils down to money and lack of operating support. Over a period of several years, the Fund’s net income slowly decreased. Individual fundraising was always difficult. I think that is the case for many intermediary or service organizations. It takes a special kind of donor to understand the value of infrastructure and capacity building! But also, national funders and funding for national initiatives are disappearing. Things came to a head.

Although the board felt that we could continue to do some version of what we do, we thought it was better to go out with dignity. It was a very difficult decision and not unanimous at first. Also, in the midst of our discussions, all hell broke loose with the stock market and the economy.

Once we decided to suspend operations, the issue of completely dissolving and giving up the 501(c)(3) was a focal point of discussion. The board felt that a national nonprofit dedicated to folk and traditional arts was a vital field asset, and they didn’t want to give that up. So, we decided to go dormant — at least for a period of time. We set aside enough money to pay basic legal and financial obligation expenses over the next couple of years, and we developed a skeletal board and relationship with the American Folklore Society. They are in a position to see opportunities to revive the organization. They work nationally and internationally and have a great network of contacts. The FFC was a particular organizational response to a cultural landscape and moment. It can be that vehicle again, if individuals wish to come forward and take it in a new direction. If not, the decision to dissolve will be made. This sounds more matter-of-fact than the decision was or is. It’s hard. I, for one, am still processing all of it. I commend the board for hanging in there.

Kitchener: Can you say more about the national trends that led to this decision?

Peterson: The Fund began in the early 1990s as the country was entering an incredible expansion in philanthropy, nonprofits and, not coincidentally, the stock market. The Fund started at a very auspicious time, and we benefitted tremendously. But I think the founding board, like many boards, didn’t think ten and twenty years out. By the end of the 1990s, around 2000, between 9/11 and the dot-com crash, many funders began to scale back. I think they became more conservative in what they supported. But I also think this heyday of national capacity-building initiatives, of which there were several in the 1990s, began to fade. A shift to more localized funding approaches occurred. But if you’re trying to operate national re-grant programs, you need money. Ideally, you need seven-figure or high six-figure grants, or else the impact is lessened. I lament the lack of a national perspective among foundations.

I think the shift to localized funding approaches places particular pressures on national or regional intermediaries. The ability to link efforts and connect the dots diminishes. For a field like the folk and traditional arts, which is woefully underinstitutionalized, that ability or intelligence to connect is critical. I think the Fund brought some of that intelligence to the field. Unfortunately, no other organization is quite duplicating that at the national level.

In general, I think the work of intermediaries in the funding universe is often undervalued or misunderstood. Sometimes, in a desire to provide direct support to a field, funders bypass existing expertise or work to create their own mediating structures, sometimes in ways that disrupt or duplicate. Intermediaries know their chosen cultural arena, whether it’s a field, genre, approach, or region. They value their field’s knowledge and understand the areas of weakness. Intermediaries may not be the essence of the field, but they make it stronger, they connect knowledge to resources. If they do their job well, intermediaries are all about making the whole greater than the sum of its parts.

Kitchener: I want to return for a moment to your comment about general operating support. Over the years, you and I have commiserated about the difficult quest for unrestricted funding. What role did this play in the Fund’s decision to suspend operations?

Peterson: It absolutely contributed to the decision, and I think our story is fairly common. I think for many years funders and nonprofits have been engaged in a dysfunctional, codependent relationship with regard to general operating support and the real costs of running a nonprofit. Funders want big bang for the buck, and nonprofits end up promising the world on a shoestring. To be honest, we operated some of our grant programs over the years as loss leaders. Restricted funding put us in the position of always scrambling and being too subject to the changing goals of funders. Like many nonprofits, we often ended up looking for more restricted money to augment and cover the shortfall in operating expenses, a vicious cycle that you never escape.

Even though we were able to cultivate some individual donors and started establishing individual donor funds in the last couple of years, that is a completely different kind of fundraising — much more intensive. And frankly, unless you handle a large volume of individual donor funds like a community foundation, you will not cover the costs. I think foundations sometimes do not recognize how close to the bone many nonprofits operate.

At least now, there seems to be more open and honest discussion about this issue. It’s long overdue. I think all staff and board of nonprofits and foundations should be required to read Clara Miller’s articles (including “Capital Structure Counts: The Business Roots of Capacity and Mission at Nonprofits” and “Let’s Be Brave: Demand ‘Enterprise Friendly’ Deregulation for Nonprofits”). She lays out the organizational and development issues for nonprofits more clearly than I ever could.

Kitchener: What are the most important things the Fund learned in its grantmaking programs? What lessons could others apply?

Peterson: Ultimately, I think it’s less about particular grant programs and more about a style or perspective of grantmaking. Part of it is a folkloristic perspective; part of it is being an intermediary.

1. Honoring requests from the field

I think we listened to our grantees. Our Conferences and Gatherings program (1995–2001), for instance, came directly out of an understanding that we were getting a lot of grant requests for gatherings, certainly among Native American basketmaking organizations, but also among other organizations as well. We saw similar activities in the taiko community and in some Asian dance communities. We recognized the importance of people coming together, talking and sharing information, and, ultimately, being able to organize and build capacity for cultural practice at a grassroots level.

2. Supporting early, risky endeavors

The FFC has always been strong in funding early and risky stuff. We funded the first gathering that led to the formation of the California Basketweavers Association. We’ve done that on several occasions. We funded ethnographic fieldwork-based projects that led to the development of cultural organizations or annual programs. Sometimes, with very large-scale projects, we would fund the initial exploratory stages. And that funding is sometimes the hardest to get.

3. The value of fieldwork

We always understood the value of fieldwork, for example, support for a cultural specialist to identify “under the radar” artists working deeply in communities and evaluating their needs. It’s essential. Fieldwork is like the R&D of traditional arts and culture. If that component is not there, projects will not be as good.

4. The importance of deep cultural knowledge

Hand in hand with fieldwork, we also understood that deep cultural knowledge was incredibly important to any project: the people involved must have deep, serious cultural knowledge of the community and the contexts in which you’re operating to really be successful. In the past, some in the folklore field have thought you have to have the academic credentials to do this work. The knee jerk reaction, I think, is that only community members can develop a project, or understand the tradition, or speak for a community. They are interrelated issues, but I think it’s complicated. Successful projects demonstrate deep understanding of the artists, artistic traditions, and the cultural or community context — wherever that may be. What the FFC learned over time, especially through the Lila Wallace-Reader’s Digest Community Folklife Program (1993-2000), was that the best projects, the ones that had legs or afterlives, were those that were ultimately embraced by the community. Some of these projects were started by community members. But some were started by outsiders — sometimes folk and traditional arts nonprofits, or local or state arts agencies — but they ultimately became owned and developed and furthered by a particular community.

5. Focus on making the greatest impact

As time went on, the FFC realized that we needed to put our support in places where we thought we could make the most difference. For most of our existence, the FFC generally gave fairly small grants, in the $5,000 to $15,000 range. We tended to fund smaller organizations where a $5,000 or $10,000 grant would make a big difference. This grantmaking model also fit with the preponderance of grassroots, volunteer-led organizations that make up the bulk of this field. We tended to look at earlier, exploratory work that we felt might lead to something and develop into some sort of community momentum.

6. Long-term commitment to organizations

One last — but not least — feature of a lot of our grantmaking is that we tended to fund several organizations repeatedly over time. In my many years of doing this work, I have come to think this is key. It was very important to the Fund’s life to have long-term support from the James Irvine Foundation, for instance, or from Lila Wallace. The work we did, the work of community-based organizations, takes time — years to build relationships and trust. It is difficult to do when you are working from project-to-project grants or trying to adapt to the agendas of funders. We funded many organizations, including yours — the Alliance for California Traditional Arts, over many, many years. Having stable streams of funding for core mission work is critical.

Kitchener: Speaking as a grantee, I can say that ACTA would never have launched as a nonprofit organization without the Fund’s support. That’s an example of supporting a risky proposition, because when we started, we were based in three different organizations at local levels, and there was no real structure or governance model. But the idea was to support work where there were pockets of activity and to nurture it to grow. That’s the story of the Fund. You’ve done that all over the country. And then you made some very large investments in infrastructure like you did with ACTA, through the support of the Irvine Foundation.

Changing the topic, I want to push on an idea that I’ve heard funders and others talk about: they’re really concerned about intervening in cultural systems that they may not understand. Because folk and traditional arts are pervasive — it’s happening all around us — people sometimes ask why should it be funded if it’s happening without us? On the other hand, they say we’re concerned that we should do no harm; we don’t want to interrupt a system that may be working. What do you think about that?

Peterson: I think different questions need to be asked. Do public and private funders want to work with individuals and communities to facilitate cultural expression and creativity? If so, they need to think about ways to create a hospitable environment for a diverse population and diverse expressions. Gardeners feed the soil, not the plant. You have to create the right context for artists and artistic traditions to take root. Some plants require a lot of water, some not. Some require periodic pruning. Not to beat the metaphor into the ground, but context is extremely important. Funders need a menu of strategies to serve and support the artists, communities, and cultural traditions already in their midst. And many of them don’t require tons of money, but they require attention, expertise, and a variety of responses. That deep cultural knowledge I mentioned earlier.

Over the past few decades, public and private foundations have developed strategies to feed certain art forms, communities, and structures to support them, many of them mature, articulated art forms requiring big buildings, staff, etc. In many ways, these are the forms and structures familiar to a generation of funders and a lot of the work has been wildly successful. But the landscape is changing. One size does not fit all. Different funding approaches, more systemic funding is needed.

Kitchener: Such as?

Peterson: Well, think about this. If the environments that support artmaking or cultural creativity go away, what happens to the traditions? Some people say you adapt or die. There is some truth to that. But I often think about the people who give things up because they persist in carrying a tradition forward or keeping it alive. Arts funders often privilege the new and idealize those artists who buck the status quo to do new things. But some artists buck the status quo to keep something alive. In an era of globalization and changing technology, how do we deal? What happens when the ethnic corner stores go away, when the street-corner hangouts are demolished, when the social networks that produce the community festival collapse or migrate to virtual realms or different countries? What happens when the independent record store or bookstore collapses under pressure from Walmart, Target, Kindle, and kids ripping, burning, and trading mixes, when rural communities are still woefully underserved by broadband access? I don’t want to demonize all of this activity, but this is what is happening. A lot of it is very exciting, but many artists and communities are in massive upheaval. In these contexts, funding the next performing arts season, museum residency, or folk arts festival may not be the only strategy. More systemic support is called for. So is building alliances with other fields.

I think the Fund for Folk Culture was beginning to develop some of these bridges with other fields and sectors in a way that a lot of arts organizations generally don’t do. In fact, several folk arts and culture organizations are beginning to develop real expertise partnering with other fields such as public health, the environment, and refugee issues.

Kitchener: I know that the Fund’s work will continue to have relevance for many of us. All the research and convening reports, along with other resources will remain accessible on your website www.folkculture.org. And I hope some of the other parts of the fine work of the Fund will be recast as the economy continues to improve.

Betsy Peterson is the former executive director of the Fund for Folk Culture. She is currently working as a consultant with the Library of Congress and assisting the Fund in this period of transition.
Amy Kitchener is the founding executive director of the Alliance for California Traditional Arts, a statewide intermediary and service organization for the field of folk and traditional arts.