Seizing Opportunity amid Uncertainty

Lessons in Funder Collaboration

Michele Kumi Baer

What can you do when times are uncertain, and yet a clear opportunity to advance a collective agenda presents itself? Take action.

Election seasons bring a litany of hyperbolized promises, tense divisions, and unclear futures. Once the leadership of the next administration is clearer, the reality sets in that job placements, policies, agency structures, and funding allocations will shift in predictable and unpredictable ways. There are those who view these moments of change as opportunities. We commit ourselves to our desks to strategize, plan, and develop policies and programs to push under the new administration.

There is power in numbers, and funder collaboratives are a great way to respond in moments of transition. At The New York Community Trust,1 our forty-year history of running collaborative funds has taught us that local funder networks, especially when organized by community foundations, are well positioned for coordinated action in times of uncertainty.

As many of us in philanthropy prepare for a new political landscape, we offer up one example of what we have done through a donor collaborative focused on cultural policy and advocacy that was created in the wake of New York City’s last mayoral election. In this article, we share four lessons learned that we hope can help other funders who are looking to band together in new ways while girding for dramatic policy shifts coming from Washington.


The New York City Cultural Agenda Fund in The New York Community Trust was born in a context of political change. Like many donor collaboratives, it started with shared vision and foresight.

Shortly after the 2013 New York City mayoral election, the Lambent Foundation and The New York Community Trust identified an opportunity to connect and unite disparate networks of arts advocates that would advance cultural equity goals in the context of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s inclusive agenda. From January to March 2014, the Lambent Foundation and The Trust organized meetings with arts advocates, listened to their concerns and priorities, and confirmed a suspicion that advocates were acting as disconnected constellations of groups and could be strengthened into a larger network. They concluded that the situation required targeted investment to coordinate advocacy efforts for greater impact and to respond to advocates’ calls for increased cultural equity. Such investment would ensure that arts groups that were small, directed by African, Latine,2 Asian, Arab, and Native American (ALAANA) leaders, and located outside of Manhattan would get more public and private support, resulting in a variety of audiences in all boroughs being better served.

Funder colleagues agreed: A donor collaborative was needed to knit together a stronger arts advocacy network and create a more cohesive cultural policy agenda grounded in a commitment to equity. Momentum built toward establishing such a collaborative, and The Trust created and became the administrative home of the New York City Cultural Agenda Fund later that year. Additional donors to the fund have included the Booth Ferris Foundation, the David Rockefeller Fund, the Robert Sterling Clark Foundation, the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation, the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, and the Stavros Niarchos Foundation. An advisory committee of representatives from each funder oversees the fund’s activities, which are managed by staff at The Trust.

Activities to Date

Since 2014, the Cultural Agenda Fund has worked to strengthen local advocacy, promote equitable cultural policy, and ensure that community arts groups, groups led by people of color, and culturally and economically diverse artists are as valued for their contributions to the city’s cultural ecology as larger institutions. The fund defines cultural equity as fairness in opportunities — for example, access to information, financial resources, or programming — for cultural organizations, workers, and participants. Key to advancing an equity-based cultural policy agenda is a robust infrastructure of experienced advocates who are savvy in the principles and practices of cultural equity. The fund has sought to bolster such an infrastructure through grantmaking, providing technical assistance, and convening activities.

In 2015, the fund created the Cultural Advocacy & Equity Program (CAEP) to afford a cohort of forty-nine arts advocates the time and resources needed to generate ideas together, improve advocacy coordination, and foster a more equitable cultural ecosystem in New York City. Representatives from Race Forward, the Opportunity Agenda, i2i Experience, and Hester Street Collaborative — which was later hired to lead the city’s cultural planning process — provided capacity-building workshops for grantees in racial equity, strategic communications, design thinking, and community design and planning, respectively.

At the end of the workshop series, cohort members became eligible to apply (as units of two groups or more) for six-month collaborative planning grants to further develop their ideas into projects. At the completion of those planning grants last summer, several collaborations were invited to submit proposals to turn their plans into reality. Programs developed during the planning grant period that have received awards for implementation include (1) a salaried fellowship for emerging arts administrators from ALAANA backgrounds, (2) the coordination of a citywide program that better integrates arts and cultural activities in public housing communities, and (3) the integration of a “Blueprint for Culturally Healthy Communities” tool into neighborhood planning processes in Bushwick and Gowanus.

Additional early fund activities included public briefings on cultural policy and planning and funding to commission new research that would advance a citywide equity agenda. These research grants included awards to the University of Pennsylvania’s Social Impact of the Arts Project, which will demonstrate the noneconomic value generated by the arts; and an award to support a new graduate-level cultural policy research fellowship that has been jointly overseen by the City University of New York’s Center for Urban Research and the city’s Department of Cultural Affairs.

Inspired by recent efforts in Seattle to stimulate sector-wide learning and planning to advance racial equity, the fund asked Race Forward to lead a series of racial equity trainings for sixty arts groups citywide. Starting in early 2017, Race Forward will provide coaching and technical assistance to ensure that participants — all of whom will receive generous stipends — create work plans to advance racial equity at their respective organizations. A select number of program participants will be awarded bonus stipends of $10,000 to implement their racial equity work plans.

More recently, the fund has made grants to coalitions working to ensure that a plurality of voices and perspectives influence the development of the city’s upcoming cultural plan, to be completed by July 1, 2017. To ensure greater equity in the cultural planning process, these grants will promote the voices of, among others, Native American arts communities, Staten Island artists and residents, Latine arts communities in Lower Manhattan, and a variety of stakeholders in the city’s public education system (such as students, parents, teachers, and principals). Under the leadership of fund grantees Hester Street Collaborative and Naturally Occurring Cultural Districts New York — also consultants on the cultural plan — grantees are gathering regularly to learn creative and interactive methods of facilitating conversations and organizing communities around the planning process.

Lessons Learned

While our work is still in progress, we have learned and accomplished a great deal in two years, and we have four lessons we would like to share.

First, work and learn together. An African proverb notes: “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” The importance of advancing a spirit and practice of togetherness cannot be understated. Commit to work, learn, collaborate, and be in community with others. Commit to creating the understanding, cohesion, coordination, and people power required to move forward on cultural equity.

In the Cultural Agenda Fund, togetherness functions at multiple levels. As a donor collaborative, the advisory committee of the fund functions as a learning community. It serves as a space in which fund members engage in discussions, share resources, attend events, and read research together. Additionally, members of the fund’s advisory committee are engaged in a variety of funder networks, which enhance our learning and ability to coordinate with our peers’ efforts and initiatives. Through our engagement in Grantmakers in the Arts, we learned what Seattle has been doing to address racial equity throughout the cultural sector and were inspired to create our program in New York City with Race Forward.

We have also maintained good working relationships with city government. This has been crucial for our work as cultural policy ideas have evolved over the past two years. Understanding the priorities of the Department of Cultural Affairs, as well as of key city council members, has helped us strategize about how to advance our goals within the current political climate. As a result, we try to complement the city’s activities by filling in gaps with wraparound services and resources. We engage in regular conversations with Department of Cultural Affairs staff about our vision and what strategies are working or not working to advance an equity agenda both in the public and private philanthropic sectors. Through conversations, we identify an equity-related need that the city is unable to fill and then develop a program or event that will address it (such as community-organizing grants during the cultural planning process).

As funders, we have extended our learning community to our grantees, who serve as partners in thought and practice as we figure out together what a more equitable cultural landscape looks like. Many of our deepest insights have come from grantees with expertise in cultural policy development, community organizing, and equity-based advocacy strategies.

Importantly, we have designed our grantmaking to create grantee cohorts that serve as collaborative work spaces and learning communities. That was a central tenet of the Cultural Advocacy & Equity Program, and many program alumni continue to work together on various policy and advocacy projects around the city. A number of them coalesced earlier this year, under the leadership of One Percent for Culture and the New York City Arts Coalition, to win a $10 million increase in funding for arts and cultural groups from city hall. Currently, several CAEP alumni are working together to organize around the cultural planning process and have received Cultural Agenda Fund grants to do so.

Second, be prepared, nimble, and humble. This is an iterative process. Be in a constant state of readiness and flexibility. Be prepared for unexpected situations. Be nimble enough to deftly navigate those situations. Be humble enough to acknowledge you do not have all the answers and that failure is an inevitable reality in this work.

At the fund, we have learned that when we take initiative in this way, we as funders have to be prepared to serve in multiple roles, even if it means stepping out of our comfort zones. For instance, to meet our goal of building an advocacy infrastructure and strong network of advocates, we have stepped into a larger convening role than usual. From our initial March 2015 forum on cultural policy and planning at BRIC, to our recent convening on cultural and racial equity in practice at El Museo del Barrio, we have had to build and flex event planning and programming muscles that rarely get used in our individual grantmaking activities. Navigating new territory means investing time and resources into developing the capacity to convene at a larger scale. It means adjusting how you plan and do the work. Lesson learned: If programming ultimately is not your forte, hire the right people.

We have had to rapidly respond to urgent needs as they arise, whether by quickly launching a request for proposals when we saw a policy opportunity, or by shifting the course of a program midway through. In the latter case, we adjusted our Cultural Advocacy & Equity Program when we learned we had not adequately considered the access and usage needs of our disabled participants at the outset. Shifting course required taking steps to understand how we failed our disabled colleagues, learning what accessibility and usability means in this work, and investing time and resources to revise our program. We are still learning.

More often than not, we have found ourselves asked to learn and unlearn ways of working in order to deliver more strategic and more equitable resources to the populations we are devoted to supporting.

Third, embrace equity as a practice. There is no “silver bullet” for addressing the inequities that our sector and our nation face. Avoid dogmatic adherence to so-called templates. Embrace the return to square one, and know that each time you return wiser.

A major lesson of our Cultural Advocacy & Equity Program was that advocates came to the program with a wide range of skills in and experiences with cultural and racial equity work that a six-month workshop series could not adequately address. Some advocates had been doing equity-based work their entire lives. Some were new to the work and had little information on where to go for resources. And then there were others who had taken action but were employing diversity tactics to achieve equity.

Building a strong network among a diverse group of advocates takes time. Forging common understanding of the principles and practices of equity requires deliberate and ongoing work in community. This work calls for a community-organizing approach. The CAEP created fertile ground for greater equity-based advocacy and policy collaborations, but we have not yet arrived at our equity “nirvana,” where equity is an ongoing state of mind and practice throughout the sector. The successful grantees are those that excel in community-organizing and movement-building tactics and are applying those tactics to their advocacy and policy work.

Process matters. Equity is a process, and it takes all of us — funders, policymakers, organizers, administrators, and technical assistance providers — to enable the behavioral and mind-set shifts necessary for social change. Context matters. We must be open to investigation and experimentation, and we must know that every prototype may not be relevant in every scenario.

Fourth, follow your vision. In a context filled with hard truths, lingering unknowns, and emergent possibilities, you must be prepared to flexibly enact your vision of the world you want to live in. Have a clear and consistent vision that you can articulate and operationalize. Be accountable to your vision so you maintain the integrity of and provide guidance to your efforts.

A frequent refrain at our advisory committee planning and review meetings is whether the task at hand serves our vision of a stronger advocacy network and a more equitable cultural landscape. Whether we are talking internally or externally, we have to be clear about what concerns us, what motivates us, what excites us, and the questions that remain. We do not always agree, but we always take the time to speak our truths, listen to one another, and figure out together how we move forward in service of our vision.

The path ahead is unclear, and while there is no template, what is clear is the end goal we are trying to achieve. Whenever we craft a new strategy, we assess what we have learned in order to move forward. We remain fiercely committed to seeing our vision through.

The Road Ahead

Elections present opportunities, both local and national, to artistic communities that are prepared to act. Our role as funders is to listen to our constituents, find gaps and opportunities, and make a difference. At a time of political change in New York City, the Cultural Agenda Fund defined an equity agenda, created a program to connect advocates grounded in equity values, revised its approach to building local capacity in racial equity, commissioned research that will provide critical data, and ultimately created a collegial environment that made fertile ground — without dictating what would happen — for grantees to work together.

At The Trust, we believe that community foundations are uniquely positioned to lead as conveners of and catalysts for funder collaboration. We call on our sister community foundations to consider providing this leadership. With our broad mandates and extensive relationships in our towns and cities, we have our ears to the ground with local government, with our peer funders, and with our grantees, which include many local organizers and community groups.

If you are listening well, you will find that especially in times of uncertainty the call to act is clear and we can accomplish good work together.


Special thanks to Michele’s predecessor, Salem Tsegaye, for coordinating the New York City Cultural Agenda Fund and documenting many of these learnings since 2014.


  1. Read The New York Community Trust’s report, Stronger Together: The Power of Funder Collaboration to learn more about The Trust’s forty years of collaborative funds:
  2. I use “Latine,” which is the gender-neutral alternative to “Latino,” “Latina,” and “Latin@.”