GIA’s great curiosity: the Black Art Futures Fund

The Black Art Futures Fund was a topic of great curiosity at the 2019 GIA conference, if only because it seemed to the GIA crowd that founder DéLana R.A. Dameron is on to something new with her start-up funding effort.

And so the session titled Our Beloved Community: Collaborative grantmaking, which formally introduced the project to attendees drew an eager audience, even though it started at 8 a.m. Wednesday morning. The room was packed.

Dameron started Black Art Futures Fund after her experiences working at both a black-led and white-led organizations. Both organizations hit the financial skids during her tenure, but there was a difference. The black-led organization immediately started downsizing. The white-led one just made a few phone calls and pulled in “$100,000 by the end of the week,” she said.

Her new fund is the start of a drive, she hopes, to stabilize funding for black arts groups and the organizations that give them money. And it might serve as a model for other funding operations in the future.

BAFF, as its called, is not a giving circle, Dameron insists, though it does solicit and accept money from small donors. One person, she said “found us on Instagram and told their mom to give us $5,000.” The mom complied.

Another gift came in the form of a $2,500 check from a black church in Brooklyn, where BAFF is headquartered.

That keeps BAFF a small operation in the philanthropic community. It gave out just $21,000 to six grantees in 2019.

It also operates small itself, with around four board members and an all-volunteer staff.

But that might be appropriate since its mission is to help small organizations. The average budget of grantees in 2019 was $168,000.

So that means limited sums can have a big impact. One of BAFF’s 2018 grants totaled $6,000, but it went to an organization whose overall budget was just $8,000.

One thing that makes BAFF standout is its refusal to look at organizational growth as a factor for evaluating grantees as many funders do. Or to over-value the number of people a group serves. Small, black arts organizations don’t always have opportunities to grow, and that should not disqualify them from receiving support. BAFF actually holds out some of its annual grants for organizations that are 10 or more years old.

Toya Lillard, executive director, viBe Theater Experience, one of BAFF’s grantees, joined the session to talk about what growth means to her organization — it’s not all about increasing the budget and expanding programming. It’s more about creating an organization that does good work and compensates its employees fairly.

“What it will take for me to stay alive and do this work is a livable wage,” she said.

And, for viBe, growth has meant getting its mission — helping young, black girls tell their stories through theater and video — in order. Lillard has worked to bring black leadership and staff to viBe’s organizational structure.

While its focus will always be on small grantees, Dameron hopes to grow BAFF as an organization. She is building networks of donors and supporters and knows that if BAFF can eventually hire a development staff, it can raise more money for grantees.

But for now, after two granting cycles, BAFF is counting its accomplishments. Donors, she believes, stay more engaged — and feel better about their giving — if they can see how their dollars are spent.