Note: This is the third of a multipart series on the arts and philanthropy. I hope these ideas are of interest and welcome suggestions and feedback. To view the rest of this series, click here.

When we left off last time, I was advocating for funding agencies to adopt a spirit of experimentation in their philanthropic strategies for the arts. However, I haven’t yet talked explicitly about an idea that goes hand-in-hand with that strategy: diversifying grants across many different (and often smaller) organizations, instead of concentrating them in a few very large ones.

It’s not that I don’t think large arts organizations do good work, or that they don’t deserve to be supported. What I’m going to argue instead is that there is a tendency among many institutional givers to direct their resources toward organizations that have well-developed support infrastructure, long histories, and vast budgets, and in a lot of ways it’s a tendency that doesn’t make much sense (or at the very least, could use some balance).

For one thing, those well-developed support infrastructures don’t come cheap. Consider the case of Carnegie Hall, which due to union constraints (the subject of a current strike over on Broadway) routinely pays its top stagehands north of $300,000 a year. The astronomical salaries that symphony orchestra conductors make (up to $2.5 million annually; and that’s not counting guest conducting gigs with other ensembles) are being paid for by someone, after all. If those kinds of numbers seem a little insane to you, well, you’re not the only one. This is one of the dirty little secrets of the arts—very few people seem to be aware that their local orchestra conductor might be making bank on par with their favorite NFL players. And yet this information is all publicly available on government forms thanks to the incomparable Guidestar. (pdfs; registration required)

An important thing to note is that the forces driving these compensation figures into the stratosphere cannot be described as “nonprofit” in any meaningful way. The labor unions, for example, are not particularly interested in giving Carnegie Hall some sort of break because of their IRS status. From their perspective, this is the top gig in town and they should be remunerated accordingly. Similarly, the conductors and soloists extracting huge appearance fees from the major orchestras are being represented by for-profit management agencies such as IMG and Columbia Artists. Another large expense for many arts organizations is the rent for their office buildings that ultimately winds up in the hands of property-owning for-profit corporations. Foundations that are truly interested in “effectiveness” should ensure they are aware of the extent to which their charitable dollars may ultimately be making rich people richer.

Those are only perhaps the most egregious examples of money ending up where it may not be doing the most public good. The administrative overhead costs of maintaining such a budget can get quite high as well. The more money that needs to be raised for the organization to maintain a certain level of operation, the more fundraising staff need to be hired to support that activity. And, of course, since fundraising professionals know damn well that their services are in demand, they know to ask for a substantial salary from an organization that clearly has the resources to give them what they want. Which they then have to figure out how to pay for by raising yet more money. Do you see how this can become an upward spiraling process?

In contrast, small arts organizations are extraordinarily frugal with their resources, precisely because they have no resources to speak of. It’s frankly amazing to me what largely unheralded art galleries, musical ensembles, theater companies, dance troupes, and performance art collectives are able accomplish with essentially nothing but passion on their side. A $5,000 contribution that would barely get you into the sixth-highest donor category at Carnegie might radically transform the livelihood of an organization like this. Suddenly, they might be able to buy some time in the recording studio, or hire an accompanist for rehearsals, or redo that floor in the lobby, or even (gasp) PAY their artists! All of which previously had seemed inconceivable because of the poverty that these organizations grapple with. Foundations concerned with “impact” should remember that it’s far easier to have a measurable effect on an organization’s effectiveness when the amount of money provided is not dwarfed by the organization’s budget.

The best part of giving more money to smaller organizations is that it actually reduces the risk for the funding agency by diversifying its portfolio. Think about it like this: if you were investing stock in each of these companies instead of grant dollars, your broker would call you crazy to divide a million dollars among four of them rather than forty, or better yet four hundred. Sure, some of them will fail, but think about the missed opportunities with the ones that succeed. To only fund the largest organizations would be akin to confining one’s endowment investments to the blue chips on the NYSE while completely ignoring emerging markets.

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