Collaboration or Collusion (Janet's Blog)

(6-14-10) I’ve been executive director of Grantmakers in the Arts for 18 months. During that time I’ve learned so much about the dedication, courage and passion of our members for improving the state of artists and arts organizations. Our members believe strongly in their work and actively advocate for the arts within their own institutions, which represent state and local government, private and community foundation presidents and boards and corporate decision-makers. It’s a big and sometimes stressful job these days.

One issue that has been of great interest to me is how funders share and talk to each other and, if possible, collaborate. It brings up questions about grantee confidentiality, funder integrity and the culture of grantmaking among others. Collusion (which might be a little strong when talking about grantmakers but it makes for a good alliterative title) was brought up at a meeting of national and regional funders recently. Where is the line between honest collaborative discussions between funders and collusion to direct rather than respond to the nonprofit arts sector. This seems on the surface like a tough question but in reality, it’s pretty simple. Collusion is done in secrecy, (according to the dictionary) and successful collaboration is done openly. Collusion puts those without knowledge at a disadvantage and successful collaboration brings all parties to the table so that informed decisions can be made and equitable programs designed.

I do not believe there is “collusion” in grantmaking. What I believe is that the fear of appearing like there might be collusion may keep funders from investing time, research and funds into collaborative projects. The concern to make sure we are not violating constituent trust or being prescriptive may be keeping some funders from talking about how to work jointly together to help organizations. I am using the term “collaboration” pretty loosely. I think it starts with talk about mutual need, challenges and then, if possible (and sometimes it’s not possible or wise) can move to actual partnerships in programs. But it starts with talking, understanding missions and goals and building relationships based on mutual concerns.

A very smart lady recently said to me, “This is a time of change. Old systems are not working and new systems are being built. It is a time when norms that we believed to be tight and secure are now loose and flowing. It is a time of questions and assessment.” We weren’t talking about the funding or arts world, but it certainly makes sense to me that we need to assess old models of operation and learn what we can from new trends, and new ideas. We learn those from each other.

There are some wonderful examples of successful funder collaborations in the country. They almost always have to do with funders looking broadly at the needs of their constituents as a whole and determining actions together that would have a positive effect. Capitalization, professional development, loan funds, advocacy issues around arts education, equity and social justice are all areas of great collaboration in cities like Los Angeles, Seattle, Chicago, San Francisco, Portland and New York. And they all started by people in a room talking about challenges in their communities. They started with building relationships of trust and understanding. No collusion there, only collaboration. Be Better Together.