Grantmakers and Consensus (Janet's Blog)

In much of what I’m involved with these days from discussions of improving arts education and the under-capitalization of the nonprofit world to increasing the value of the arts for average Americans, the word consensus keeps coming up. Mostly it comes up and then, like a hot potato, it gets thrown out. It’s a word that we’re hesitant to use as funders. Why is that? I have a couple of theories. Firstly, we in the arts want to be pretty open to all voices and respectful of one another’s uniqueness. This is a good thing. However, this desire to be inclusive makes us afraid to “come to consensus” because it might be perceived as favoring some practice over the exclusion of others. Again, it is a desire to not exclude or seem prescriptive.

Secondly, we come from a culture of scarcity in the arts, from both the funder and grantee side of things. Private foundation program directors, in many instances, are advocating for the arts within their own organizations (even if those organizations are large foundations) because the arts seem to hold a precarious spot in many multi-sector funding organizations. Public funders are fighting for annual budgets, competing with social services, education and other areas funded primarily from the general fund of their state, county or city budgets. We are, after all, the “lots for little” people. (This phrase comes from a restaurant my friends and I used to go to in NY when I was a starving arts administrator.) We, in the arts, do a great deal with not very much money in the total scheme of things. So to have consensus that some practices are better than others, means we are somehow judging organizations and funders who have worked hard to maintain that funding. This should be praised, not criticized.

For GIA, this is further complicated by the diversity of our membership, which includes private and public (community) foundations, corporations and public agencies. Each of these groups has specific missions and sometimes they are at polar opposites. Public agencies have an obligation to provide access and equitable funding seeing their tax dollars spread throughout the state, county or city. Private funders are, well, private. Their giving is dictated by their own mission and regulated by the IRS tax code. In other words, it’s their money to give to whomever they please as long as it’s within the law. In many instances, corporations have moved away from philanthropy and into marketing as their major goal and community foundations are pressed by local social issues and bound by geography.

So how do all these disparate groups come to consensus? Consensus doesn’t mean everyone needs to conform to one operational style. It does mean that we’ve concur that if these practices were adopted in some way, shape or form, the nonprofit arts sector might be better off. I think we all agree, looking back, that not funding staff or overhead 25 years ago, was probably not a sector building decision. Do we have consensus on that? Being afraid to come to consensus is, ironically, on par with not being accepting of other points of view. There are basic practices and procedures on which we all agree. I know that. And it’s OK to call that consensus.

Be Better Together.

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