Arts in Society

A Case Study in Collaborative Cross-Sector Grantmaking

Libby Barbee

As grantmakers, we often ask our applicants to amplify their impact through collaboration, but what happens when we turn this mandate on ourselves and join forces with other funders to magnify our giving?

This was exactly the question that the Bonfils-Stanton and Hemera Foundations set out to test when they joined forces in 2016 to pilot the Arts in Society grant program. Though focused on very different funding areas, the two foundations came together over a shared vision to support projects that utilize the arts and culture as agents of change in social welfare and community impact. Now in its fourth year of giving, the Arts in Society grant program is supported by a cohort of five foundations, including the Bonfils-Stanton Foundation, Hemera Foundation, Colorado Creative Industries, the Scientific and Cultural Facilities District, and the Colorado Health Foundation. The program provides over $500,000 in grant support each year to artists, activists, and organizations across the state of Colorado who seek to implement projects that utilize the arts as an integral element in promoting social justice and community welfare.

The program has demonstrated that collaborative grantmaking, like collaborative programming, can lead to increased efficiency and impact. Some of the benefits that have come from this collaboration have included

  1. the ability to fund work that supports a foundation’s mission but sits outside of its regular grant programming;
  2. more equitable and inclusive grantmaking that allows funders to take risks on innovative projects, new collaborations, and grassroots organizations;
  3. the ability to work with an on-the-ground third-party administrator who is invested in the work and can help level traditional hierarchies, increasing accessibility to individual artists and grassroots organizations;
  4. the ability to nurture and support emerging practitioners and cultivate a community of grantees with a culture of shared learning;
  5. the ability to leverage resources for the evaluation and magnification of the funded work, and
  6. building a coalition for more sustainable support for cross-sector work in the arts.


In 2016, when the Bonfils-Stanton and Hemera Foundations set out to form Arts in Society, the collaboration provided the benefit of a joint funding model through which each of the foundations could expand the scope of their giving to provide significant grants to support cross-sector work through the arts. The intent was to create a platform through which the foundations could fund programming that sat outside of each organization’s existing grant programs but that nevertheless supported the mission of the respective foundations.

The Denver-based Bonfils-Stanton Foundation had in 2012 shifted its philanthropic giving to focus exclusively on arts and leadership in the Denver metropolitan area. This shift in focus from an earlier model that had supported programming across multiple areas of arts and human services had the consequence of making ineligible for funding non-arts organizations that utilize the arts for social and health impacts. Through a collaborative grantmaking program, the foundation could return to supporting the important work that sat at the intersection of the arts and human service sectors.

Similarly, the Hemera Foundation, based out of Boulder, could, through the Arts in Society program, expand its philanthropic reach beyond their existing programmatic focus on the areas of contemplative practices and child development. Following the public announcement of the program in 2016, Arts in Society was quickly joined by Colorado Creative Industries (CCI), the state arts agency and a division of the state’s Office of Economic Development and International Trade. The agency, recognizing the lack of support across the state for social practice projects and cross-sector arts programming, had separately been putting into place its own grant opportunity. Rather than launching their separate initiative, CCI jumped into the Arts in Society pilot. Between 2017 and 2019, the three organizations funded sixty-seven projects amounting to almost 1.5 million dollars.

The upcoming Arts in Society 2020 funding cycle will see the addition of two new organizations to its funding cohort. The Colorado Health Foundation, one of Colorado’s largest health funders, and the Scientific and Cultural Facilities District, a special tax district in the Denver metropolitan area, have together committed an additional $145,000 to the program. Though focused on different areas of giving, each Arts in Society foundation sees arts and community impact as important shared values that support their individual missions and lay the foundation for a meaningful collaboration.

Third-Party Administrator as a Key Partner in Achieving Accessibility and Diversity

In creating a collaborative funding program, the Bonfils-Stanton and Hemera Foundations recognized early on that the collaboration could open up funding not only for new types of projects but also for new types of grantees. By pooling their funds into a new program, they could expand the eligibility requirements that governed their internal funding, thus allowing them to invest in unincorporated grassroots organizations, individuals, and nontraditional collaborations. With an eye toward increased diversity, equity, and inclusion, they chose to open widely the eligibility window to include anyone in Colorado working at the intersection of arts and society, including both arts and non-arts organizations, individual artists and activists, government entities, schools, and universities.

However, they knew that accessibility was a larger issue than eligibility. To support grassroots organizations and individual artists and activists, they would need on-the-ground support to build trust and help folks through the process of applying for a grant, building partnerships, and managing a project. They turned to RedLine, a community-based contemporary art center located in Denver’s Five Points neighborhood.

With a mission to foster education and engagement between artists and communities to create positive social change, RedLine fills many roles in Denver’s arts ecosystem. The art center runs a subsidized two-year artist residency program, providing studio space and professional development to around twenty artists at any given time. They also present locally curated exhibitions in their two large galleries and run a number of community-responsive programs that engage local issues such as gentrification, homelessness, and the availability of safe spaces for Denver creatives. Above all, RedLine is a connector that is deeply embedded within the fabric of the Denver arts community.

This was precisely the quality that led the Bonfils-Stanton and Hemera Foundations to approach RedLine in 2016 to become the administrator of their new Arts in Society grant program. Through their existing relationships with grassroots activists and artists and their experience in running community-responsive programming, RedLine would create a higher level of trust and approachability for the program than any of the foundations could achieve alone. This leveling of hierarchies has allowed for applicant support and grantee relationship building that are unusual in the philanthropic sector.

RedLine oversees the day-to-day operations of the program, including the application process, the grant selection panel, grantee and applicant relationships, the distribution of funds, a grantee learning community program, and grantee evaluation and reporting. Because as a small community organization, relationships are the foundation of RedLine’s work, approachability and support are the guiding principles that steer the management of Arts in Society. RedLine’s existing relationships with artists and grassroots activists have created natural pathways to help cultivate budding projects, make connections between well-aligned efforts, and support inexperienced grant writers. In addition to presenting annual information sessions, the program manager makes time to meet with applicants to discuss their projects individually. Applicants have the opportunity to get feedback on their application drafts, brainstorm ideas, and discuss potential partners. To make the process as accessible as possible, RedLine has offered Arts in Society grant-writing workshops for artists and made applicant phone consultations available through an online appointment app. All of these efforts have resulted in an encouragingly diverse applicant pool, representing a wide range of demographics, sectors, and community topics.

Grantee Spotlight

Tara Rynders, “The Clinic”

Tara Rynders, choreographer, dancer, and longtime registered nurse, partnered with her employer, Rose Medical Center, engaging the community and health care professionals in dialogue about compassion fatigue, grief, and human frailty through a project titled “The Clinic.” The year-long project culminated in an immersive theater performance that came to life in the hallways of Rose Medical Center. The performance, titled First, Do No Harm, evoked in its audience a deeper compassion and new appreciation for the work of nurses, and a sense of pride and recognition for the nurses in attendance.

Tara Rynders in rehearsal for First, Do No Harm at Rose Medical Center, Denver, Colorado. Photo by DW Burnett.

Grantee Spotlight

Alan Domínguez, “Document Ed.”

The "Document Ed." film project was borne out of the idea of meeting needs both in front and behind the camera in contemporary documentary filmmaking. At one point in 2017, more immigrants were living in sanctuary in Colorado than in any other state in the country. Though documenting the lives of these immigrants may have been the impetus of the film, addressing an additional need of the voices who are in charge of the storytelling is what makes this project unique. By partnering with aspiring high school and college-aged filmmakers, Domínguez has created intercultural and intergenerational learning experiences for project participants, while showcasing the determination and resiliency of immigrant rights activists and their communities fighting for justice.

Students interviewing Jeanette Vizguerra for the film project Document Ed. Jeanette Vizguerra has been fighting deportation since 2009. She is a community leader, organizer, and mother of three children, who are all US citizens. She recently reentered sanctuary for a second time. Photo courtesy of Redline Contemporary Art Center.

Supporting Emerging Practitioners and Cultivating a Community for Shared Learning

Recognizing the wide spectrum of experience and knowledge within the pool of grantees, an Arts in Society learning community program has been developed to provide a platform for shared learning and to support emerging practitioners. Each cohort of grantees meets three times during the first year following grant funding. The full-day meetings allow grantees to meet fellow practitioners from across the state, exchange ideas, and share their extensive and diverse knowledge with each other. They also provide a space for brainstorming challenges, for example, coordinating collaborative efforts and sharing resources, such as available space for performances and other grant opportunities. The result of these convenings has been an increase in grantee collaborations and a community of support.

Additionally, through the learning community meetings, the Arts in Society program manager receives direct feedback from grantees and insight into the challenges and concerns that are affecting grantee success. Learning community meetings are often followed up by a series of meetings and phone conversations to address individual grantee needs. This follow-up includes everything from introductions to other artists and organizations, to assistance procuring permissions or space, to general advice and support.

This type of relationship building between grantees and between grantees and funders is unique to the program. It has helped to expand and deepen the impact of the funded work, while also providing lasting connections that will hopefully sustain organizations and practitioners beyond the funded project.

Leveraging Resources

An additional benefit that has emerged from the collaborative nature of the Arts in Society program has been the ability to leverage resources to both evaluate and magnify the work of grantees. During the first year of funding, the Arts in Society team recognized that program evaluation was an area in which they, as funders, could leverage their resources to both support grantees and highlight more broadly the impact of arts and culture in cross-sector work. The cohort of funders chose to divert a small chunk of Arts in Society funds toward hiring a third-party evaluator to create a tool that could be used to measure these impacts. Dr. Michael Seman, director of Creative Industries Research and Policy at the University of Colorado, was enlisted to work on the project. Through interviews with grantees and by working with Animating Democracy’s Aesthetic Perspectives framework, Seman developed a survey tool that could be administered by grantees to measure both individual program successes and the overall impacts of the Arts in Society program. The tool measures impacts across six categories: community development, aesthetic effect, awareness and action, capacity building, holistic economics, and overall satisfaction. An initial report outlining the impact of Arts in Society’s 2017 grantee projects is expected to be released by the end of 2019 and will provide tangible data supporting the impact that arts and culture have through cross-sector work.

Building on Seman’s quantitative evaluation, Arts in Society has subsequently worked with local filmmakers to create mini-documentaries about funded projects and has begun creating yearly Arts in Society cohort catalogs that include a description of each funded project, photographs, and quotes from program participants. All of this is coupled with a robust marketing and communications platform, made possible through the efforts of work-study students who edit grantee blog posts, manage social media outreach, and produce a quarterly Arts in Society newsletter.

Cultivating Support for the Arts Across Sectors

All of these efforts are made with a big goal in mind: to illuminate and broadcast the immense importance of arts and culture in fields outside of what is traditionally understood as the arts’ areas of impact, including health, science, civic engagement, community development, and social justice. The long-term goal of the Arts in Society program is for funders across all sectors to see arts and culture as important tools for furthering their missions and to support the cross-sector impact of the arts through their giving.

Arts in Society is beginning to see glimmers of this transformation. The addition of the Colorado Health Foundation to the Arts in Society funding cohort in 2020 is evidence of the potential for significant investment in the arts from non-arts funders. Collaborative grantmaking initiatives, like Arts in Society, might prove to be a successful model for attracting funding from outside of arts philanthropy for cross-sector work through the arts. The model provides an easy access point for foundations who cannot necessarily take on the organizational burden of creating their own arts-focused grant program, or who simply cannot align their eligibility requirements with these types of projects. Additionally, funding cross-sector work through cross-sector funding collaborations makes simple sense. With a diverse set of backgrounds and knowledge at the table, a collaborative cohort of funders can ensure that funded projects demonstrate excellence in the arts and across the additional sector in which the grantee is working.

Overall, the collaborative nature of the Arts in Society program has provided a multitude of benefits, from expanding each foundation’s reach, to making funding more equitable and inclusive, to leveraging resources to advance cross-sector support for cross-sector work. All of this has made the program more than just another funding source. It is a spark that has initiated exciting new collaborations and ideas across Colorado, created previously unimagined alliances between foundations, and pushed the conversation about the impact of the arts in cross-sector programming.