Funding Mid-Sized Organizations

Michael Jones

How can funders apply what they know about changes in the external environment—in demographics, use of free time, use of disposable income—to best serve and stabilize theaters and other mid-sized arts groups?

Sue Coliton, Paul G. Allen Family Foundation (moderator); Nancy Fushan, Bush Foundation; Lawrence Thoo, San Jose Office of Cultural Affairs; Ben Cameron, Doris Duke Charitable Foundation (interlocutors).

One of the largest and most animated workshops during the Taos Journey was the working session “Funding Mid-Size Organizations,” moderated by Sue Coliton, vice president of the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation in Seattle.

What is a mid-sized organization?

Among the first things that participants in the session recognized was the difficultly of defining a mid-sized arts organization. They rejected financial definitions because they differed so much according to artistic discipline and geographic region. In one community, mid-sized meant those with budgets under $1.2 million; in another region, they ranged from $250,000 up to $5 million. Staff size, too, was discarded as a defining factor; depending on discipline and context, full-time staff could range from two to twelve people.

Definitions that were not quantitative resonated more strongly at the working session. Mid-sized arts organizations were defined by one participant as “always on the edge, struggling with the community's expectations and functioning without capital reserves.” Such organizations are constantly in conflict about investing in human resources versus building capital resources. Ben Cameron, program director for the arts at the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, suggested that mid-sized organizations were “expected to perform like the big guys but with the limited infrastructure of the little guys.”

What are the particular challenges of mid-sized organizations?

The most pressing concern for mid-sized arts organizations is human resources. Low wages and difficult working conditions make it hard for them to retain strong staff, particularly middle managers and employees in marketing and development departments. Poor compensation forces the next generation of leaders into the for-profit sector or other charitable sectors, such as social services or health, where greater salaries are available. Even when emerging professionals are willing to work in mid-sized organizations, the organizations' leaders resist the way newcomers challenge the existing artistic and administrative structures. As a result, younger leaders don't feel welcome. Poor working conditions lead to burnout for remaining staff members. Human resource issues are also a challenge at the volunteer level. Mid-sizers find it difficult to attract board members who understand the work and have sufficient community connections to leverage funding.

Sustainability is another challenge, particularly as organizations age, move away from founder-led models, or close entirely. Session participants gave examples of founder-led organizations that ceased functioning, in a healthy manner, at the end of that individual's tenure with the company.

Decreasing audiences and competition from new technological forms, such as video-on-demand and music file-sharing were also was identified as problems for mid-sized companies. They could benefit from capacity-building programs and funding for marketing, too. The arts organizations realized that they need to build the demand for their product, not just the supply.

One of the most interesting challenges identified was funders' expectations. We can equate growth with success in mid-sized organizations, participants suggested, even in circumstances where stability could be a more important goal. We also may expect the organizations to be “cutting edge” or “innovative,” which may be unrealistic. It's fine for a large opera company to present La Bohème or Carmen every year, and we are pleased with bare-bones productions from small, independent companies, but we expect mid-sized organizations to consistently present challenging, innovative work and to maintain a full complement of outreach activities. We may be creating extraordinary pressures for these companies.

What can funders do differently?

Recognizing these challenges, the conversation moved to how funders could help mid-sized organizations. Among the suggestions:

  • Be more proactive in “network weaving,” encouraging organizations to work collectively and to share knowledge. This could be particularly powerful if they explore relationships with similar organizations in different geographic regions or with companies from other artistic disciplines.
  • Consider supporting research to strengthen the field—studies in such areas as human resources at both professional and volunteer levels, demographic changes and promoting the arts in diverse communities.
  • Act as an information conduit for mid-sized arts organizations, providing professional development opportunities and technical assistance. Participants acknowledged, however, that funders play this role best when they work in a non-threatening manner, getting people to think about and investigate possible solutions on their own.

Most important, participants in this working session believe we need to remain open to new definitions of success—definitions the mid-sized organizations develop themselves—and to recognize that the innovation we seek to support may emerge from a volatile, changing environment.