Day III: Sewing Sails in a Perfect Storm

Moderated by Bill Cleveland of the Center for the Study of Art and Community, this session focused on two foundations that have made sweeping changes to their program strategy in the past year. The Boston Foundation, represented by Ann McQueen, recently announced a foundation-wide move toward a venture philanthropy model characterized by larger grants to fewer organizations, longer-term funding commitments, an emphasis on general operating support, and a focus on dealing with the roots of problems rather than the symptoms. The changes were in part motivated by a Center for Effective Philanthropy Grantee Perception Report, which came back with low scores for the foundation (the forced cessation of funding after three years and the project support were singled out in particular). In addition, there was a desire on the part of the Boston Foundation’s President, Paul Grogan, to transcend both sector silos and department silos. After focus groups, interviews, and an environmental scan, foundation staff came up with a new model around which to design programming.

The Boston Foundation arts program logic model and program theory are notable for several reasons. First, rather than being taken as a given, the foundation’s support for arts and culture is justified in the context of one of its two new overarching goals: that “Greater Boston communities are vibrant, safe, and affordable.” One of three objectives in this category is “Enhance civic and cultural vibrancy in Greater Boston,” and the sole strategy associated with the objective is “Strengthen and celebrate the region’s diverse audiences, artists, and nonprofit cultural organizations. Second, the benchmarks and long-term indicators associated with the strategy are defined with remarkable quantitative specificity. For example, a “big hairy audacious goal” of increasing attendance 50% by FY15 has been indentified, and the foundation seeks to increase the number of K-8 public school students receiving arts education from the current baseline of 23,000 students to 32,500 in 2012. Much of the data underpinning the effort to ensure healthy organizations will be provided by the new Massachusetts Cultural Data Project, which launched this past summer.

The McKnight Foundation arts program, represented by Vickie Benson, underwent a similarly drastic change, though the change was limited to the arts program itself and resulted in a rather different approach. McKnight has a long history of arts funding in Minnesota, where it distributes approximately $12 million every year. Over time, it had built up the arts ecosystem to a point where its money was no longer sufficient to cover everything, necessitating more judicious funding decisions. The process was initiated several years ago by a new president who confessed to Benson that she “doesn’t get the arts.” She asked Benson to undertake an evaluation of the program immediately to justify its existence, and Bill Cleveland was retained to carry it out. The result of the evaluation was new guidelines designed to support “an environment in which artists are valued leaders in our community, with access to the resources and opportunities they need to succeed.” This singular artist-centric focus will now permeate McKnight’s program decisions as it redirects the general operating support it had provided to large institutions toward smaller organizations, service organizations, individual artist fellowships, and project support for artist-oriented programming. (As for McKnight’s president, as a result of this process she has now become a strong and visible advocate for the arts.)

I find it interesting to contrast the Boston and McKnight Foundations’ approaches. Whereas Boston’s strategies focus largely on infrastructure and institutions, setting up measurable goals and backing them with robust data, McKnight’s changes reflect a “keep it simple, stupid” essentialism in placing artists at the center of the conversation. It would be interesting to have a reprise of this panel in a few years to see where the winds have blown these two organizations’ boats in the meantime.