General Operating Support (Janet's blog)

(4-7-10) I had a conversation with a graduate student of mine from Goucher College last night who is writing his final paper on general operating support by private foundations and local arts agencies. It’s a very complicated topic and I’m always a torn about it.

On the one hand, it seems in these times of economic downtown it makes the most sense for grantmakers to provide funding with the least amount of strings or “hoops.” On the other hand, general operating support seems to go to those organizations that are most able to develop interesting programming that reach new audiences, impact underserved and reach into schools. In that case, does general operating become an entitlement program?

Or should general operating support be given to small, mid-sized and emerging organizations so they can have the greatest opportunity to utilize funds without restriction? But then these organizations are less likely to have strong financial practices and staff? Or do we simply define “projects” in broader terms, which many funders have done. When I was working in rural areas, “new projects” were like a death sentence. The greatest need was a little money to sustain basic programs, not create new ones every three years.

One comment my student made that surprised me was “ most funders don’t give general operating support because they aren’t that knowledgeable about their grantees.” I had to stop him there and say, “I think you have to be careful with that kind of broad statement.” Because, in my experience, with our GIA members, grantmakers are very informed about their grantees, knowledgeable not only about their programs but also about their financial situations and their audiences. It’s their job. The decision to give general operating support needs to be based on the needs of the organization, the community and the mission of the funder. But I’ll have to say, that I think back on the days when grantmakers wouldn’t consider funding administrative staffs or any administrative costs and wonder how anyone thought the arts community was going to deliver all those new and innovative programs? Thank goodness, those days are over. They are, aren’t they?