Revaluating “Normal”: Grantmaking During a Pandemic

Reflecting on: What strategies exist to support, regrant to, and advocate for cultural organizations (without formal audits)?

The current crisis has necessitated that we — as with many of our colleagues around the country — reassess our “normal” way of conducting philanthropic business because these are not “normal” times. The crisis we are facing is of an existential nature — the very survival of our cultural organizations and artists is at stake.

We have already been practicing or moving toward many of the strategies now being espoused: prioritizing general operating support and multi-year support, implementing trust-based models where we minimize reporting and “hoop-jumping” as much as possible, supporting more small grass-roots organizations led by and serving people of color and other historically marginalized communities, and finding ways to be responsive to time-sensitive small project needs that may not be able to wait for a quarterly board meeting.

We have responded to the COVID-19 crisis by immediately providing extra funding to all our grantees equivalent to 10% of their most recent grant (with a $6,000 cap) — no-strings-attached, no application needed, no final reporting required. This was done on March 16, relatively early in the crisis, and amounted to about $125,000 in funding. The goal was not only to provide some immediate financial support, but to send a message of trust and concern to our grantees and model behavior for other funders. We have also used our staff-level small grant capacity to fund immediate artist-led responses to create web-based arts projects responding to the crisis, for which artists are being paid. However, it was clear these responses were but opening salvos in what has become a life-or-death battle for many organizations — not to minimize the literal human life-or-death battles being fought in our community and throughout the country.

We had already put in motion a program to provide ten $5,000 grants to small grass-roots organizations led by and serving people of color and other historically marginalized communities — groups we have never funded before, often with minimal staffing. Considering the current crisis, we decided to fund every qualified applicant (approximately 18 groups), resulting in nearly double the level of support. In our ongoing grantmaking, we are shifting as many groups as possible to general operating support, in most cases multi-year. With our Arts in Society grant program, we are providing flexibility around adjusted timetables and budgets with existing grants. For the 2021 grant year, we are accelerating the process into the summer of 2020 and will be specifically looking to support arts-based responses that address community needs and well-being in the crisis. This represents over $500,000 in support for 2021 being accelerated into 2020, in response to the crisis.

Messaging the value of arts and culture during these times is critical — both the need to support impacted artists, creative workers, and cultural organizations, as well as highlighting the equally important role artists and arts organizations are playing in delivering artistic experiences and projects that serving the community in essential ways. This has led to a collaborative messaging campaign in Colorado called Arts Through It All, developed and implemented by a coalition of groups that includes Bonfils-Stanton Foundation, Colorado Business Committee for the Arts, Scientific, and Cultural Facilities District (SCFD). I believe funders need to be vocal advocates for the enormous financial challenges arts groups and artists are facing, and also messengers about the essential role of the arts in our community’s well-being, healing, and recovery.

Several very important collaborative relief funding efforts have been created for the arts in Colorado and Denver, but virtually all have been focused on individual artists and creative workers — an extremely needed and welcome reverse of the usual priorities. But it is also clear that our initial grant program (and the relief-focused arts organization grantmaking of Colorado Creative Industries and Denver Arts & Venues) barely scratches the surface of the true needs. Extrapolating from the national data being gathered by Americans for the Arts, the impact of the crisis on Colorado arts groups may already exceed $17 million. Furthermore, the large state relief fund spearheaded by the Governor is not including the arts as an eligible sector; as a result, the Foundation is taking some immediate actions:

  • Making a leadership $1 million gift toward the creation of a new Colorado arts and culture relief fund, and actively recruiting local and national arts funders to contribute towards this fund.
  • Committing to doubling our grantmaking in the fiscal year 2021, which — including the $1 million fund grant cited above — amounts to as much as $3 million in additional grantmaking.
  • Approving a new mission-aligned investment policy that will create a framework for looking at opportunities to provide loans, loan guarantees, and equity investments as additional tools to support the creative sector throughout the crisis and recovery.

These actions, combined with the significant decline in the value of our endowment, are likely to somewhat limit our grantmaking capacity when we get through this crisis — but they allow us to continue to make a difference. What purpose does focusing narrowly on the preservation of our endowment serve when the sector we support is in such a deep crisis? This is the time for foundations to step up and use every tool at their disposal to make a difference: our grantmaking, our voice, our corpus, and our convening ability. If not now, when; if not us, who?

Gary Steuer is President and CEO of the Bonfils-Stanton Foundation and a GIA board member.