Looking Forward

Any enterprise can form a perfect setting for the human comedy. Generations of writers have drawn existential parables from offices, ocean liners, classrooms, farms, and operating theaters. But the philanthropic field seems especially rich—indeed, downright operatic. I think that’s because the noblest of human impulses, empathy and altruism, contend there so passionately with some of the basest, the desire to dominate, the wish to clothe one’s image in glory. When we have the capacity and privilege to grant others’ wishes, a bright light is cast on both the moral grandeur of which human beings are capable and our potential for brokenness and distortion.

Philanthropy presents individuals with an unusually large and intense set of challenges, so I have the greatest admiration for those who are able to stay in touch with a strong inner voice and a clear vision of their own roles in actualizing beauty, meaning, and justice tempered by love.

That’s why I’m really looking forward to the Grantmakers in the Arts 2010 Conference, “Navigating the Art of Change 2.0,” beginning this weekend in Chicago, where I have been given the opportunity to observe, consider, and comment on the proceedings.

As I prepare to depart for the conference, the image arises in my mind of rows of contestants playing tug-of-war. The important questions shaping the present-day philanthropic field all seem to turn on the tension of opposing forces. Here are some of the contending themes:

Peer pressure versus autonomy. It makes sense to maintain a collegial relationship with peers, conferring about common issues and challenges on the sensible grounds that more heads and hearts will yield better responses. The philanthropic field is huge on both self-examination and collective reflection, spending vigorously on retreats, research, and convening. But when does peer consultation elide into herd behavior? In a well-networked, collegial field, it’s a challenge to avoid falling into safety in numbers, following the many fads to which the field is prey rather than crafting one’s own response to circumstances. Evaluation models, grantmaking models, rubrics (such as “best practices”) seize attention for a time before being replaced by something new, and applicants need to keep up if they are to compete successfully.

All of these pressures are exacerbated in arts philanthropy, which is perpetually under attack from beyond the field. Although art’s public purpose is far larger and more central than generally acknowledged (a topic on which I’ve written and spoken often), when you are subject to continual demands to quantify and justify your work—if the justifications never satisfy your critics—it’s hard not to surrender to a sinking despair. As Lily Tomlin expressed it so beautifully, “No matter how cynical you get, you can’t keep up.”

I’ll be looking for independence of thought, those funders who—if they jump on a bandwagon—have sound, well-considered reasons for doing so; and especially, those who think more than twice before they jump, pursuing depth rather than following the crowd.

Risk versus vulnerability. Hippocrates was talking about the art of medicine when he composed the following aphorism, but I think it applies: “Life is short, [the] art long, opportunity fleeting, experiment fallible, judgment difficult.” None of us can truly know the effects of our actions, especially when it comes to art, which acts on us in mysterious ways over time. All action entails risk: it sometimes seems the only law that applies to all of human endeavor is the law of unintended consequences. But the spirit of our own times is particularly suffused with the superstition that it is possible to insulate ourselves from risk, predicting or even guaranteeing outcomes, thus maximizing the likelihood of success. One reason we love that idea so much is that if it were true, it would reduce our vulnerability to looking foolish, to being held responsible for a bad bet, even to becoming the object of ridicule.

Although not everyone has capitulated, much of the philanthropic field is in the grip of this superstition, with funders seizing on tools and frameworks that are supposed to increase the likelihood that each grant will return measurable, demonstrable success. Half a year ago, I wrote about a couple of recent philanthropic fads along these lines (“logic models” and “theories of change”), which have had more impact in winnowing down the pool of applicants than in ensuring the results of their work.

From what I have seen, it takes tremendous courage and wisdom to accept the true level of risk involved in making arts grants, which are more accurately seen as investing in people and process than as purchasing an outcome. I was talking about this with a knowledgeable friend earlier this week. He pointed out that many grantmakers justify their attachment to quantification by citing the need to be accountable to board members drawn from the business sector and other supposedly results-oriented fields. Of course, both of us had heard many stories of such intraorganizational negotiations on the frontiers of risk. But after a few seconds, we both laughed: the business landscape is just as subject as philanthropy to the desire for guarantees, but that’s a desire that can never be satisfied in any sector, as our economy shows us every day. So as I visit the many GIA sessions designed to take a fresh look at risks and results, I will be hoping to see the courage and wisdom to accept risk and invest in process.

Purpose versus self-perpetuation. By law, foundations are required to distribute only a small percentage of their endowments each year, and most of them don’t exceed that. When the return on investments drops, the value of endowments drop too. Even if grantmaking remains stable as a percentage of funds, the total number of dollars declines, with more consequences for grantees’ longevity than for that of funders. The rationale behind this approach is sustainability, preserving a foundation’s giving power for the long haul. The Quixote Foundation is an interesting exception, spending it all by 2017; their Website lists other foundations that have done the same, and links to reports and other resources supporting this approach.

There’s a middle ground between prioritizing the perpetuation of one’s power and influence and spending down, of course; and good arguments for every position on that continuum, depending on one’s values and goals. I will be interested to learn what position different GIA participants occupy on that spectrum, and why.

Dominance versus empowerment. In Maimonides’ eight levels of charity, the highest is to help someone without taking credit, even without making the help visible. Every profession that carries power and authority is susceptible to the type of abuse that entails the opposite approach, making someone feel less than, beholden to, or at the mercy of oneself. A friend who is ill with an imperfectly diagnosed ailment regaled me the other night with stories of the doctor who dismissed her condescendingly merely for suggesting a second opinion, versus the doctor who welcomed her questions and demonstrated an appropriate humility about the answers.

Philanthropy is a challenging profession in this way, because people who want something from you naturally tend to flatter and cosset you, inflating the human tendency to believe our own propaganda. One type of susceptibility preys on the donor, who may have a lifetime of experience that suggests caution about being loved for oneself, rather than one’s money. Another type preys on the staff member, who may find that being the donor’s surrogate suggests new and tempting worlds of personal power over others. This is a very hard thing to handle, demanding vigilance, self-awareness, the willingness to regularly question one’s own assumptions. Despite the difficulties, some funders hold themselves to this high standard, collaborating with grantees as equals. I admire their integrity and fortitude, and hope to meet more of them at GIA.

Meetings like this cost time and money (and often, sleep: every artist asks why everything seems to start at 8 a.m.). There’s a networking aspect to attendance, but no doubt, most of the people who participate truly want to learn something, as do I. When I look at the agenda, I see a consistent thread of acknowledgment that the old certainties are not serving, and a consistent pursuit of creativity, the only capacity that will enable people to perceive, improvise, and respond freshly to an incredibly fluid environment. I admire GIA’s leadership for offering participants so many opportunities to face the future. Whatever I discover, I’m looking forward to sharing it with you over the next few days.

While you ponder all this, listen to this hit from when I lived in Washington, DC, during the regime change from the Carters to the Reagans, multiplying the presence of luxury cars and fur coats. “Money Changes Everything,” the original version by The Brains.