Who is Being Marginalized and Why?

by Judi Jennings (bio), executive director, Kentucky Foundation for Women

Fusing Arts, Culture and Social Change is a wake up call to our field. The report shows that only 10% of grants of $10,000 or more given by private foundations with a primary or secondary purpose of supporting arts and culture benefit underserved communities. The report identifies eleven such underserved communities, including ALANA (African Americans, Latino, Asian-Americans and Native Americans), low income, rural, women and girls.

Do private foundations need to be concerned about equity in grantmaking? As a director of a private foundation, I say yes. The private foundation where I work, like all others in the US, exists because of a federal tax status allowing us to retain the bulk of our funds as long as we pay out 5% of our earnings each year. To me, this privileged federal tax status means private foundations have a responsibility to serve the public equitably.

Many private foundations are already seeking greater equity in their arts and cultural funding. These funders are also asking hard questions. “Let’s talk about who benefits” from current grantmaking practices, Maurine Knighton, Director of the Arts and Culture Program at Nathan Cummings Foundation, pointed out in a recent conversation. I agree. When private foundations ask themselves who benefits, the conversation shifts from identifying which groups are marginalized to thinking about who is doing the marginalizing and why.

Before I go further, I need to say that, in my opinion, lumping together all the underserved people and calling them marginalized is not the best way to approach equity. This is not about being politically correct. It’s about being effective.

Take, for example, the seemingly simple category rural. See Erik Takeshita’s recent blog about a rural roundtable in New Mexico. As he shows, place is a powerful concept for many rural people, but rural people live and create culture in many different ways in different places.

Or consider The Art of the Rural. This site “works to gather a variety of perspectives on the state of rural arts and culture in American life, humbly seeking to bring a variety of arts organizations, artists and media outlets into conversation.” Even a quick review of the posts reveals the wide range of issues and diversity of rural life today.

Fortunately for funders seeking greater equity, Fusing Arts, Culture and Social Change presents solid tips for “Making Change Happen.” A helpful appendix summarizes important points in the recent bestseller, Switch: How To Change Things When Change Is Hard, by brothers, Chip and Dan Heath. Based on the work of these young social entrepreneurs, the report lays out concrete and effective ways for arts and cultural grantmakers to move toward greater equity, including:

  • Gather information and discuss the social, educational, economic and political inequalities in the communities of your grantmaking focus;
  • Meet people from these communities, make site visits, invite presentations at board meetings;
  • Add advisors, panelists, staff and board members who represent or are knowledgeable about these communities;
  • Take cultural literacy/cultural competency training.

These tips also stress the importance of understanding who benefits from current grantmaking. One point advises grantmakers to “candidly examine the demographic profile and relative need of the people who are benefiting from your current grants.” Understanding and naming those who are benefiting is essential to understanding who is being marginalizing in current grantmaking practices.

Then, funders can better align grantmaking practices in specific and knowledge-based ways to create greater equity. There will be no “one size fits all” set of practices that will ensure access to all eleven groups or all underserved people. Recognizing the differences and unique aspects among communities and developing appropriate grantmaking practices for each is really what equity is all about. Funders who thinking carefully about the underserved communities they can best serve based on their missions and geographical scope can best develop respectful and successful strategies.

An article in the next issue of the GIA Reader will look at specific strategies and success stories in advancing equity. I hope many of you will want to join in developing action steps at the local, regional and national levels to address the serious imbalances in our field.