Grass Growing through Concrete

Identifying Assets, Needs, and Funding Opportunities for Small Arts Organizations

Naturally Occurring Cultural Districts NY (NOCD-NY)

This article was written prior to the COVID-19 crisis. The pandemic has served to illuminate how small arts organizations have shown up for their communities, despite facing their own existential crises and barriers to public relief opportunities. They have become sites of mutual aid, healing, and connection for communities suffering historic health inequities, economic insecurity, and structural racism.


Small arts organizations are a critical part of healthy, equitable, and thriving communities. Many are mission-driven cultural hubs and incubators of creativity. In a rapidly changing New York City, they bring people together and further a sense of belonging. Their social impact in low-income communities includes improved education, health, and public safety.1 Often led by artists and culture bearers, small arts organizations are creative homes and peer support systems. As facilitators of and participants in community and citywide networks, they are catalysts of transformative change, with an impact far greater than their size.

NOCD-NY is a citywide alliance of cultural hubs and community networks that have joined together to revitalize New York City from the neighborhood up. Between May and September of 2019, we carried out research on small arts organizations, drawing on the knowledge and experience that exists in the field — including our own, as both a small arts organization and a network of small organizations. We learned from current research, small arts organizations, service organizations/intermediaries, funders, consultants, community development experts, and other colleagues in the field. Participants were paid an honorarium for their time and expertise. Our research was supported by The New York Community Trust.

Alternate ROOTS — Sanctuaries, part of the 2018–2019 Partners in Action cohort, leads a workshop at ROOTS Weekend, Jacksonville. Photo: Toni Smailagic.

We grounded our inquiry in equity as a core value. Equity was a top issue raised by participants in CreateNYC, New York City’s cultural plan. A historic lack of investment, both public and private, has had a deep impact on many small organizations that are led by and serve communities of color and low income communities. The Social Impact of the Arts Project (SIAP) report, Culture and Social Wellbeing in New York City, states “If we believe that culture is an intrinsic element of wellbeing, the unequal distribution of cultural resources stands out as a major challenge to social justice. This would be the case even if the unequal distribution was random. But of course it isn’t random. It is deeply etched into the contours of social class, racial, and ethnic inequality.”2 Helicon Collaborative’s Not Just Money demonstrates how inequity is endemic to arts philanthropy and that, in spite of increased attention and some promising practices, inequity has increased in recent years.3 We need to proactively address historic inequities and a discriminatory system, with equity at the center of the design.

When investment does happen, it can be accompanied by inappropriate assumptions and based on mismatched institutional models. As one arts service interviewee shared during our research, “This whole idea that we’re going to support these organizations, and then they can start out being fiscally sponsored, and then they’ll grow up and one day they’ll have their own space and an endowment. The expectation that every organization in every community must aspire to this and also that success can only be measured by whether or not they’re on track to fulfill that vision — this is no longer or perhaps never was really the best model for all organizations.”

A smaller scale can make it easier for groups to be organizationally dynamic, responsive, and resilient; create hybrid structures and solidarity models; and dismantle — or at least not replicate — entrenched structures that perpetuate racism and other conditions of inequity. These value-based structures are promising models for the cultural field.

Funders need to understand small organizations on their own terms, recognizing their multiple forms, contexts, aspirations, and cultures. While it is critical to address the needs that have resulted from inadequate investment, it is not enough. Funders need to support these organizations as leaders, creative catalysts, and drivers of transformative change.

A successful funding strategy will be asset-based and participatory. It will support small arts organizations and cultural ecologies, and envision opportunities for them to thrive by building on their strengths. This will take openness and imagination — a small organization’s assets (and their cultivation of them) might vary as widely as the cultures they support. To lift up this work will require a diversity of complementary approaches and a willingness to collaborate, both with the field and other funders.

Creative Impact and Resilience

The ways in which small arts organizations function, and the impact felt within various communities is often far beyond the confines of a single telling. One small arts organization interviewee shared this experience from years of service to their communities, “We were in the gay pride parade and there were people who looked at us, and they saw that we were still there. One man openly wept. There’s a level of what an organization means to a community and the work that they do that you can’t always quantify in black and white on a piece of paper.“

Small arts organizations organize themselves in multiple ways, with flexibility and resourcefulness. That includes 501(c)(3)s, fiscally-sponsored organizations, LLCs, cooperatives, collaboratives, cultural entrepreneurs, self-directed nonprofits, and networks. These groups reflect a broad diversity of disciplines, geography, and histories. Some groups formed recently, while others have been operating for decades.

Wing on Wo & Co owner and The W.O.W. Project founder and director Mei Lum. Photo: Teddy Wolf.

For the purposes of this study, small organizations are defined as those having budgets below $250,000 — a typical cut-off point for many foundations, and the New York threshold for which a CPA review of finances is required. During our research, we were repeatedly reminded that budgets do not adequately reflect the true size of organizations. They often exclude significant volunteer and in-kind resources and the full scale of collaborative work, and annual budgets can misrepresent multi-year work. When we use the phrase “small arts organizations,” we in fact mean small-budget arts organizations.

“I have worked with small organizations whose impact, resiliency, and creative problem solving are stunning,” shared an arts worker during our interviews. “Reinforcing the notion that small budget does not mean small work cannot be emphasized enough.”

Small organizations leverage assets in their communities and form collaborative nodes that connect to broader networks across the city. In many cases, they help build and legitimize relationships of trust between communities and cultural partners, modeling mutual collaboration, cross sector partnerships, and demonstrating how leadership and decision-making can be distributed.

They are creative incubators of both artists and ideas, nurturing new work to stand at the forefront of the field and spark public discourse. With a focus on process as well as product, small arts organizations play a key role in research and development, and help ensure artists can take risks and experiment. One interviewee stated, “Just because we work deeply in communities doesn’t mean we aren’t ‘leaders;’ small groups have a different knowledge base that large groups do not have.”

According to report collaborator Vanessa Whang, a consultant working with arts foundations across the country, “We should be looking to small cultural organizations in communities of color as knowledge resources and take the lead from them about how to operate under different value systems — that is, as ways to imagine pathways out of structural racism. What you don’t want to do with capacity building is assimilate groups to dominant culture by looking at their different ways of working as deficits. If the arts and culture field aspires to tackle dismantling racism head on, it must stop trying to pull marginalized groups into the power center of Western European elite cultural systems and actually embrace the cultures at the margins.”

Challenges and Needs

Small arts organizations in New York City are historically undercounted. The SIAP study estimated 4,700 small arts organizations in its nonprofit cultural inventory, identifying them through sources such as tax-exempt filings, foundation directories, fiscal sponsors, and borough council data.4 SIAP recognized that this data was incomplete, and built on it by having groups identify other groups in their neighborhoods. Still, they concluded that their estimate was likely low.5

The needs of small organizations are heightened versions of the broader challenges that plague the arts and culture sector, as well as being unique to this group, thanks to the long-term effects of a lack of investment. Dependence on contract and part-time staff, or lack of paid staff, limited operating cash, and a need for working capital threaten their health, vitality, and ability to plan ahead.

Space is a particularly critical issue for place-based small groups, where consistency can ground community-building and a sense of belonging. But New York City is in the midst of an affordability and displacement crisis — groups located in under-resourced neighborhoods that are undergoing speculation and gentrification face heightened competition for space. Organizations also need ways to own, maintain, and improve the spaces they occupy, as well as the chance to negotiate long-term, affordable leases. They are interested in new models of community ownership, including community land trusts and other shared ownership structures that can stabilize neighborhoods in transition and chart new pathways moving forward.

Small-budget arts groups face barriers to funding that have very little to do with the quality or impact of their work:

  • systemic racism has led to a historic lack of investment or disinvestment in communities of color, POC-led groups, and groups that predominantly serve communities of color;
  • groups are barred from funding opportunities for making the responsible choice to work within their own capacity through fiscal sponsorship rather than becoming a 501(c)(3);
  • funder silos can work against small organizations that leverage a holistic and intersectional approach. Funding guidelines and expected outcomes often make them choose between art or activism, selling the work short;
  • short-term project grants and shifts in foundation priorities challenge long-term program timeframes that build community trust and consistency, which contribute to quality work;
  • with limited time and resources, it is challenging to navigate gatekeepers, build relationships with funders, and complete lengthy proposals and reports; and
  • there is no consistent standard among auditors and foundations for reporting in-kind donations in audits, proposals, and reports. Also, budgets often don’t factor in partners’ contributions on collaborative projects when contributions are only reported through one organization.

Transformative grantmaking for small arts organizations should:

  • leverage an asset-based approach that understands the multiple contexts that small organizations work in;
  • incorporate a racial and economic equity lens from the start, and prioritize groups who have been historically excluded from organizational leadership and funding;
  • participate in ongoing dialogue and relationship-building with the field that consciously addresses power dynamics and imbalances, cultivates a culture of curiosity and learning, questions biases and assumptions, and reflects mutuality and trust;
  • have philanthropic leadership that reflects the diversity of the field and has in-depth field knowledge;
  • interrogate the bias in application and reporting requirements, as well as the unnecessary burdens they impose. Simplify proposals and reporting, providing for language access and neuro-divergence; and
  • make sustained commitments, and support collaboration rather than competition.

We recommend co-creating grant programs with those most impacted by them, engaging in a participatory approach to set priorities, develop strategies, and make decisions. This is important, says research by the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy, because “As a grantmaker, you cannot truly strive for and advance equity until you understand your own power and privilege in society and in relation to your grantees.”6 The bottom line: participatory grantmaking is a lever for disrupting and democratizing philanthropy.

Funder collaboratives make it possible for funders to support and increase their commitment to small arts organizations when their own foundations prohibit support to groups that are under a $250,000 budget. For example, The New York Community Trust’s new Mosaic Network and Fund’s flexible, multi-year financial support for organizations over $20,000 includes small organizations, to address racial inequity.

Funding Scenarios

Small arts organizations can best be served by a mix of complementary funding strategies. Our priority scenarios include a mix of support for individual organizations, systems that strengthen the field, and cross-sector approaches to building healthy neighborhoods.

Core Support

As Philip Buchanan shared in the Chronicle of Philanthropy, core support is essential to the survival of small cultural organizations. Buchanan posits, “What if foundations . . . made multi-year support the default, with one-year grants requiring special justification to either the CEO or the board?” This kind of shift in grantmaking strategy would dramatically enhance the landscape for the field, those who led small cultural organizations, the populations they work with, and the neighborhoods they are apart of and serve.

General Operating Support
Our investigation confirmed report after report on the overwhelming need for and benefit of multi-year unrestricted general operating support. Ninety-five percent of our interviewees, focus group members, and advisors put this at the top of their lists. As a funding strategy with multiple benefits that are rarely available to small organizations, this is the top priority.

General operating support provides the infrastructure, stability, and continuity that small arts organizations need to succeed. It values the resourceful nature of these organizations and their ability to translate grants into exemplary practices. Working capital and debt relief help address core structural inequities. Cash reserves can enable a response to the unpredictable nature of project support and help small arts groups plan ahead and commit to staff over time. When small organizations are strong internally, they are more effective externally, as cultivators of healthy communities and agents of transformative change.

This support can be a catalyst. Support for a living wage can be a game changer when it allows a person to quit their day job and devote their full attention to an arts organization. When small arts organizations can pay competitive artist fees, gain access to a consistent and convenient space for ongoing rehearsals, and purchase high-quality media equipment, the quality of their artistic work can significantly improve.

Multi-Year Program Support
Multi-year program support furthers excellence by recognizing both the multiple phases of programs and the time and investment it takes to successfully carry them out. This includes planning, artistic research and development, building community relationships and cross-sector partnerships, and following up on programs. Support for peer learning, external evaluation and documentation, marketing, and advocacy enhances program grants. A percentage of general operating support within program funding will strengthen small organizations’ ability to carry them out.

Systems of Services

Support for services helps address the specific needs and contexts of individual organizations, and operates at a systemic level to provide services at scale and build ongoing infrastructure for the field.

Services do not work when programs designed for large organizations are inappropriately applied to smaller organizations (e.g. a major donor approach for an organization building community support), fail to outline appropriate capacity building (e.g. hierarchical leadership models), contain unhelpful assumptions (e.g. all small groups have the same needs), and pursue cookie cutter approaches. As one person put it, “When people say they have tools and methods that work in every community but don’t start with self-determination, that should be a red flag.”

Instead, support should go to value-aligned organizations that provide diverse, high-touch services and opportunities such as residencies, space, advice, mentorships, fundraising support, bookkeeping, templates, and incubators. This includes small organizations that are part of the ecology helping other small arts organizations to distribute their work and leverage earned income — examples include independent book stores and small presenters that provide office space, residencies, distribution, and performance opportunities.

Small grants for administrative needs are beneficial when they include support for both staff and consultants to implement the work. In the case of the Arts Work Fund for Organizational Development — a funder collaborative in Chicago — multiple capacity building grants can be received over time, recognizing the different phases of the work. These grants are simple to apply for, have clear measures, and are available to a wide range of groups, including those with all-volunteer staff.

Systemic support includes shared services that create an affordable economy and extended scale. This can mean supporting organizations providing vital back office services, fiscal sponsorship, space, bridge loans, and more to small arts organizations. Funders can identify good work that is already happening and help stabilize it in order to make it more accessible and adaptable for small organizations. To start to address unmet needs, they can support a range of organizations and develop scaled responses, as the Kenneth Rainin Foundation has in the Bay Area with their new Supporting Artists through a Network of Services program.

In the case of space, systemic support could include shared space models, rental subsidies, and the use of underutilized spaces in communities with limited cultural infrastructure and little prior investment. Or, as implemented by the League of Chicago Theaters with support from the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs, it might entail a citywide effort to make theaters (or potentially other arts spaces) accessible and up to code.

Easy Access Project Grants

Small organizations, whose agility is an asset, benefit from quick turnaround grants. $5,000–$25,000 grants can help them take advantage of creative opportunities and respond to community needs as they emerge. With a streamlined application and reporting process, these grants could be made accessible to groups with little fundraising infrastructure. Flexible criteria could ensure they can be inclusive of organizations with diverse structures and areas of focus.

If made directly by the foundation, an advisory committee, program consultant, and peer panel process can help ensure that easy-access project grants meet the needs of diverse small organizations. Alternatively, grants could be made through value-aligned and culturally competent intermediaries such as BAAD! (the Bronx Academy of Arts and Dance), Alternate ROOTS, and the California Alliance for Traditional Arts. The key to the success of these regrant programs is who is running them, their knowledge and network in the field, their ability to make programs fully inclusive and to continue them over time, and their relationship with the funder. Also critical is the ability of intermediaries to administer programs well, with thoughtful selection processes and well-cultivated relationships with grantees and applicants. To accomplish this requires sufficient administrative support for intermediaries.

There is a need to invest in building the capacity of intermediaries to better identify and serve small arts organizations, and to strengthen diverse intermediaries that are rooted in community, including cultural hubs and incubators. By effectively capitalizing these intermediaries over the long-term, we can create a cohesive and equitable ecosystem of support. As one interviewee put it, “The infrastructure to fund equitably in itself needs to be invested in.”

Bangladesh Institute of Performing Arts. Photo: Sue Brisk.

Innovative Cooperative Opportunities

Foundations can play a leadership role in supporting arts and culture cooperatives and in leveraging the momentum of cooperative land and space ownership models to more fully incorporate small arts organizations. These value-driven structures offer forward-looking opportunities for greater equity by shifting power relationships and supporting solidarity economies. However, these opportunities are not well understood or resourced in the arts, and the arts are often left out of innovations from other fields.

This scenario could take the form of investing in cooperatives, collaboratives, and hybrid models, learning what makes them thrive and co-designing appropriate funding strategies. It is important to recognize that leadership and impact will look different in these cross-sector and decentralized approaches.

As a strategy, this might include learning about and supporting arts and culture as part of community land trusts (CLTs) and other collective ownership models that could help small organizations create a home in cities with a fundamental affordability crisis. This form of community control of land is gaining momentum in New York City, where the City Council invested $870,000 in discretionary support in FY2020 to help incubate and expand CLTs and curb displacement in low-income communities. Feasibility studies and design, capital investment, peer learning about fundraising and governance, and the cultural activation of spaces in acquisition are key areas for investment.

A land trust director described the planning process as an important opportunity for foundation support. “Before you can even establish a land trust, you need to educate and engage the community on CLTs, the expectations and scope of commitment, the impact. . . and foundations could support that engagement.”

Healthy Neighborhood Ecologies

The health of a community and the health of its culture are interdependent. Small arts organizations strengthen their communities, and are, in turn, supported by them. Investing in these synergies can have a sustained impact. Supporting neighborhood ecologies — including naturally occurring cultural districts or “civic clusters”7 that include artists, cultural organizations, small businesses, and community groups — can contribute to neighborhood wellbeing. For instance, take Leimert Park, the African American cultural hub in Los Angeles, where LA Commons functions as a key member of the cultural infrastructure, serving to bridge sectors and providing a link to the broader city.

A multi-year investment that proactively builds connections and the capacity for this kind of work to continue after initial philanthropic support ends would be particularly effective, and could be a good public/private partnership. There could be multiple outcomes: support for grassroots cultural infrastructure in communities that have rich tangible and intangible cultural assets but lack formal arts institutions, strengthened cross-sector community networks that further resiliency, benefits in adjacent neighborhoods with fewer cultural resources, and extended impact through citywide networks.

This scenario could be carried out in collaboration with other foundation programs as part of an anti-displacement strategy with clear equity goals, supporting belonging and neighborhood identity in conjunction with affordable housing and space. A cross-sector approach will support opportunities for small cultural groups to strengthen relationships with residents, local businesses, community activists, and local elected officials. It could also help safeguard against the loss of local cultural places and spaces, which is exemplified through the work of the City of London’s innovative Culture at Risk Office.8

The program could strengthen enduring cultural hubs and networks, and support innovative uses of neighborhood public and private spaces such as plazas, libraries, public housing community centers, and storefronts. It would support local expertise with research, data, ethical practices, and evaluation shaped by participants and shared with the community in accessible languages. Other key areas of support include coalition-building, peer learning, fundraising, and marketing.

Support Beyond Grants

Small arts organizations could also greatly benefit from philanthropic support that goes beyond grants. This includes increasing the visibility of the field and addressing the lack of data about it. Recognizing that “what doesn’t get seen, often doesn’t get funded,” the Akonadi and Rainin Foundations commissioned Creative Equity Research Partners to map 138 arts and culture organizations serving communities of color in Oakland with budgets under $250,000. The purpose of this benchmark study was to “encourage funders to adopt intentional investment strategies to support the long-term stability of this important sector.”9

Data-related support could include aggregating multiple data sources related to small arts organizations and connecting funders, small organizations, and universities to generate neighborhood data. Richer data will help to build a greater understanding of the social impact of the arts within and across neighborhoods, knowledge that can be used to strengthen cross-sector relationships and further fund equity.

Additional support includes advocacy for the value of the work being done by small arts organizations and the importance of supporting them. It can help build recognition for alternative structures and the use of fiscal sponsors. Funders can advance the role of the arts in cross-sector work and during leadership transitions (as will happen in New York City in 2021).

Learning, evaluation, and connections are also key areas where funders can provide support. This includes non-competitive peer learning opportunities that recognize and support the expertise in the field and are led by the field, where groups are compensated for participating. Support for the co-creation of appropriate metrics and for ongoing evaluation will make a difference in effectively measuring impact. Connections with other grantmakers, impact investors, donors, and potential project partners can provide opportunities to build relationships, pitch projects, and deepen mutual learning.

Overall, philanthropy has an opportunity to invest in small arts organizations and create a healthy environment for them to thrive. One organization was described as having the “tenacity of grass growing through concrete.”10 These funding scenarios aim to build on this tenacity. They also recognize that a strong cultural ecology does not exist in isolation, but flourishes as a part of just and equitable communities, cities, and towns.


  1. Stern, Mark J. and Seifert, Susan C., “The Social Wellbeing of New York City’s Neighborhoods: The Contribution of Culture and the Arts.” Culture and Social Wellbeing in New York City. 1. 2017. https://
  2. ibid.
  3. Helicon Collaborative, “Not Just Money: Equity Issues in Cultural Philanthropy.” Jun. 2017.
  4. Stern and Seifert, “The Social Wellbeing of New York City’s Neighborhoods.”
  5. Stern, Mark J. University of Pennsylvania Social Impact of the Arts Project. Personal interview. 29 Aug. 2019
  6. National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy. “Power Moves: Your Essential Philanthropy Assessment Guide for Equity and Justice.” May 2018. /Power-Moves-Philanthropy.pdf
  7. Stern and Seifert, “The Social Wellbeing of New York City’s Neighborhoods.”
  8. Mayor of London, “Cultural Infrastructure Plan.” Greater London Au-thority. March 2019, 44. Their Cultural Infrastructure Toolbox includes an online form ( for people to inform the city when a space is at risk.
  9. Kenneth Rainin Foundation and Akonadi Foundation, “Mapping Small Arts & Cultural Organizations of Color in Oakland,” http://mapartscul
  10. The title of this article and longer research report was inspired by Charles Rice-Gonzalez’s New York City Council testimony where he spoke about BAAD! as having the tenacity of grass growing through concrete. Gonzalez, Charles R. Testimony. New York City Council. New York. 25 Feb. 2016.