Sometimes Good Ideas and Good Art Aren't Enough

(This blog was written for the Americans for the Arts salon event occurring the week of March 8)

(2-24-10) I’ve always said, “Money follows good ideas.” But, as we all know, that’s an oversimplification. We wish raising money was as simple as having a good idea, explaining that idea and waiting for the “investor” to respond, like pitching a movie script or TV pilot.

In reality, creative ideas drive the nonprofit arts sector but often, that’s not what gets us funding. While funders are attracted by inspirational and innovative ideas, what seals the grantmaking “deal” is often far from that big brilliant idea. It is organizational consistency, communication, and solid business practices that represent the maturity of the organization that will implement the creative project. But it’s even more than that. There are both internal and external forces at play.

Internally, an organization needs to have strong leadership with vision for the future and management skills for the present. The product must be unique and high quality. It’s very helpful to have enough depth in administrative staff to keep good records, write excellent grant applications and final reports with a program staff that understands evaluation.

Externally, the organization needs to be a vital partner in the community, not an isolated nonprofit that doesn’t interact with business, educational, artistic and social networks. Private philanthropy is putting increasing pressure on organizations to be relevant in their communities. What percentage of the population is served? Who goes? Who cares? Who supports the organization and, in turn, who does the organization support? This means, organizations that have had a sense of entitlement because they have always been funded, must reassess their connection to the local cultural scene, to the public at large and to the philanthropic community. It’s not business as usual and it will become even less so in the next few years.

Private and community foundations are more cautious as their assets have decreased. Many have consolidated programs at the expense of staff with expertise in the arts. When we lose arts specialists within foundations, it can be devastating to the cultural community. Non-arts funding professionals tend to scrutinize arts institutions for their relevance using different definitions than program officers trained and experienced in the nonprofit arts sector. All of a sudden, just being an institution that presents art isn’t enough. Experienced arts program officers understand the value of art for its own sake and also as a tool for social, educational and economic change. Is relevance the new excellence? Arts funders understand these terms, sometimes in ways that arts institutions do not. How does your institution rank in the community, not just within the arts scene? Is the quality of the art more important than the quantity of the service? In the best of all worlds, these two “q’s” would not necessarily be connected. But increasingly, as this economy takes several years to recover, they will be closely related.

Private philanthropy for the arts will continue from private, family and community foundations. Arts organizations may see a change in the behavior of their long-time funders. We have already seen a change in the corporate community…but that’s another blog altogether. The armor that successful arts organizations wear to protect themselves in this recovery is still the old standby: sound business practices producing a quality product that appeals to a population that can sustain the mission with leadership and management that understands marketing and community engagement. Support comes locally and if we’re really good at all the above from a few sources that understand an organization’s worth from afar.

Yes, money does follow good ideas but in most circumstances, good ideas and good art making are not enough.