A New Take on Crowdsourced Grantmaking: Creative Culture Grants

The Cuyahoga Arts & Culture Team

Imagine what would happen…

If you started with a century-old, robust, and diverse arts and culture community…
added new grant funds for innovative, large-scale projects completed in teams…
and then invited area residents to participate in selecting the projects that would receive funds.

What would you get?

Creative Culture Grants (CCG), a new, $300,000 grant program by Cuyahoga Arts & Culture (CAC), the public funder for arts and culture in the county that includes Cleveland, Ohio. The two winning projects, LAND studio’s AHA! Festival of Lights and Dancing Wheels’ Daring to Be Dumbo documentary, will be presented to area residents in 2014.

Why did we take this on? What did we hope to achieve? And what lessons did we learn that might impact your work, no matter the source of funds for your grantmaking? We hope to answer those questions in this brief essay.

Why Do This?

First, a little bit about us. Cuyahoga County benefits from a dedicated tax for arts and culture, which was passed by voters in 2006 after many years of hard work by the region’s philanthropic and nonprofit communities (http://www.cacgrants.org/mission-and-history.php).

As the public funder, we take seriously our charge to strengthen the community through our grantmaking. Since 2007, we have made operating and project grants totaling more than $95 million, all with the primary purpose of elevating the public value that organizations are providing to the community at large.

And so, when our board charged us with finding a new way to surface highly creative, collaborative projects from organizations already in our midst, we started with that primary purpose.

We decided to create a pilot project that met the following objectives:

  • Increase access to vibrant arts and cultural activities for all area residents by requiring transformative projects designed to reach thousands of people;
  • Encourage organizations to take creative risks and collaborate by requiring applicants to work in teams; and
  • Increase awareness of the impact that dedicated public funds for arts and culture can have on a community by requiring visibility for our agency as a program element.

Taking cues from the highly successful Knight Arts Challenge, we wanted to find ways to elevate interesting work that represented a risk for organizations while also keeping the application process as simple as possible.

But the boldest step that we took was the most straightforward for a public funder: we wanted to hear the public’s voice in the grantmaking process. We manage tax dollars; who better to help decide where to invest those dollars than the taxpayers themselves?

What Did We Do (and how could you replicate it)?

Here are the five key elements of our pilot program, which we rolled out to organizations in the fall of 2012:


  • To allow us to craft a simple application while still providing appropriate due diligence, we required that lead applicants come from the pool of organizations who had just successfully completed our general operating support application, which involves a rigorous organizational review.
  • To allow for success from organizations that might not have professional grant writers on staff, we included a “pitch video” element of the application that we then extended to the public vote phase of the project.


  • To ensure widespread participation, we also required collaboration — no organization could apply as a single entity. This provided an entry point for interesting projects that surfaced outside of our general operating support cohort.


  • To ensure that winning projects had the best chance for implementation, we set limits on the request amount (up to 30 percent of average annual budget) and required matching funds (10 percent cash, 10 percent in-kind). We were prepared to make two grants of up to $150,000.
  • To ensure that only applications that truly adhered to our criteria were put forward to a public vote, we convened an online grant panel composed of experts from around the country, and that panel narrowed down our applications to a set of six finalists.

The Vote

  • Once we moved to the public vote phase of the project, we provided both online and paper voting options, allowing those without digital access a way to make their voices heard. We encouraged the use of both voting methods.
  • To keep costs in check and to provide independence, we engaged a third-party vendor to build and host the online voting site.


  • Our team built and executed a multifaceted public relations plan that included PSAs, ads and promoted posts on Facebook and Twitter, promotion through our email lists, and printing and distributing 18,000 rack cards in libraries, community centers, cultural venues, community development corporations, coffee shops, restaurants, and other high-traffic locations.

Outcomes and Learning

The Creative Culture Grants program was a great success. The two winners (http://www.cacgrants.org/creative-culture-grants.php) crafted creative, collaborative projects that will engage thousands of area residents in their work in meaningful ways, all while providing added visibility to Cuyahoga Arts & Culture and its work.

Sixty-five hundred votes were cast February 1–20, 2013, and most of those participants have stayed connected to Cuyahoga Arts & Culture through its newsletters and other communications vehicles. CAC accomplished this on a very modest program development and marketing budget that maximized the efforts of our small (seven FTEs) team while leveraging the reach of the more than 200 cultural organizations that receive grants from us.

We didn’t anticipate some of the most exciting outcomes of the program:

Organizational Size Didn’t Matter…

The six finalists represented organizations of all sizes. We were a bit concerned that the program might devolve into a popularity contest, with those large organizations with the biggest email and social media reach having an advantage. But we learned that success came not to the largest organizations but to those that used inventive methods for engaging residents and looked beyond their usual participants and audiences. One example: street teams of volunteers from Dancing Wheels, armed with paper ballots, moved out of their typical performance venues and engaged shoppers and commuters at a downtown mall and transit center. Fresh ways of thinking about engagement mattered more than organizational size.

…But Diverse Coalitions Did Matter

Building coalitions, particularly those that extended beyond a typical definition of arts and culture, was also an essential way for organizations to spread the word and encourage voter participation from a wide audience. One finalist, a unique partnership between a large museum, an urban design collaborative affiliated with an area university, and a small nonprofit dedicated to promoting bike culture, worked together to share consistent messages with an aggregate audience much larger and more diverse than the audience of the large museum alone.

Partnerships Continued

We were also unprepared for the coalitions and partnerships that were part of the application process to continue, even for organizations that didn’t make it to finalist or winner status. We were delighted to learn that the act of creating a proposal forged some new community partnerships that will benefit all area residents in the months to come, including the “Play Me I’m Yours” project currently under way and presented by the Cleveland International Piano Competition and Case Western Reserve University.

And it was terrific to see unsuccessful applicants stay engaged and continue to promote the finalists in positive ways, as Cleveland Play House did by using Facebook and Twitter to help to promote the finalist project presented by Cleveland Public Theater.

Social Media Worked

We anticipated that social media would be an important communications channel for promoting this project, but we were pleasantly surprised at the efficacy of advertising through those channels, specifically ads and promoted posts on Facebook and Twitter targeted to specific geographic areas of the county. One result: the twenty-day social media campaign increased our Facebook page “likes” by 44 percent.

We Reached beyond the Arts

But more than that, for the first time, we began to hear about our work from people outside the concert hall or museum gallery. How did that happen? The newness of this project allowed us to spark the interest of local television and radio news outlets, which certainly helped us gain momentum. Printing rack cards and distributing them in community venues also helped us break through to less-typical arts audiences.

We knew we were onto something interesting, however, when a friendly barista at a nearby Starbucks asked us if we’d heard of the program. By creating an atmosphere and encouraging organizations of all shapes and sizes to promote creativity and transformational work, we also helped raise the profile of arts and culture in our community, a terrific outcome that will return far more than our investment.

Next Steps

The Creative Culture Grants program reaped benefits for our community beyond our expectations. The two winners are now planning their projects, and we are active partners with them as they continue to raise additional funds, secure locations, and promote their work throughout this year and into 2014.

We are evaluating this pilot project with an eye toward another grant round in the near future, and while the specifics of the program may evolve (e.g., a move toward text/mobile access for the voting platform), the key elements, including involving the general public in the decision making, will remain unchanged.

We hope that the partnerships created through this process — partnerships that extended beyond traditional arts and culture — will continue to help make our community shine a little brighter in the years ahead.