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One of the memes that’s been coming out of the “best practices” camp for philanthropists the last few years is that organizations need more general operating support, rather than the project support that many funding entities are accustomed to providing. The advantage of general operating support (or GOS) is that it can be shifted around to different parts of the organization depending on needs, rather than being tied up in one program that may turn out to be overfunded relative to other priorities or encounter unforeseen problems. A funding base that is heavy in GOS thus gives a grantee much greater flexibility with which to design its offerings, which is appropriate because organizations on the ground are likely to understand their constituencies better than their funders (and certainly better than a haphazard aggregate of funders that may have different priorities and agendas at stake, which is pretty common in this field).

One of the dangers of project support, when pursued too zealously, is that it can take the funded organizations away from their core mission—and often, then, their core competencies. Grantmakers need to remember that any money they have to offer, no matter how small it may seem to them, acts as a powerful incentive to those on the other side scrounging for every penny they can. Attaching program-related restrictions or conditions to the use of funders’ money may direct attention to the causes or ideas in which they are interested, but the long-term effect on the field can sometimes be deleterious if organizations are jockeying among themselves for opportunities that take resources away from what they are actually good at.

I think the same principle can be applied to artists, either when they are funded directly or when their activity is supported through a grant to an organization. A composer or a playwright is not like a graphic design shop or an IT consulting firm that will create something to a customer’s specifications, no questions asked. The whole point of supporting the arts, to my mind, is to encourage innovation, expectation-challenging, and all what goes along with leading a creative life. Laying out the path ahead of time with too-great specificity potentially squashes the very thing that makes the arts special. What’s more, the non-alignment of incentives that I talked about in the previous paragraph is even more severe for individual artists trying to make a living from their creative work. I’ve seen projects in the music world greenlighted for little reason other than the possibility of getting a grant for them. Were those always the best projects to undertake, either for the organizations/artists themselves or for the field as a whole (e.g., audiences)? For example, if the most talented artists are unwilling to create works to specification, does that mean that less talented artists receive those opportunities instead and ultimately become better-known to the public as a result? Or if a high-dollar-value grant also includes an educational workshop component, will the panel end up selecting a fine composer who is terrible in the classroom?

Furthermore, I can tell you from my own experience and that of my friends that it is somewhat demoralizing for an artist if the only realistic path to receiving anything resembling professional compensation is to create a work that has nothing to do with what you’re about. Artists are very invested in creating public identities that reflect their personal aesthetic goals and ideas—not to mention devoting their limited creative time and resources to projects that similarly reflect those things. If you’re a creator-for-hire, it’s much harder to maintain that kind of integrity and voice in your own work. It’s a choice that many artists trying to make a living must grapple with.

I would like to think that most philanthropists who truly believe in the arts can trust creators enough not to try to do their work for them. Of course there could be occasions when highly directed creative activity is entirely warranted. This is not a black-and-white issue. But in general, I think it’s worth considering the potential unintended consequences of a “top-down” strategy of arts giving, especially if that strategy becomes the norm.

  • Julia

    Ian – your posts on this topic are very thoughtful. The organization I work for, The Reinvestment Fund, recently teamed up with the Social Impact of the Arts Project at the University of PA. The collaboration resulted in a monograph called “Creativity and Neighborhood Development: Strategies for Community Investment” and several related pieces. Thought it might interest you: http://www.trfund.com/resource/creativity.html

    We’re always trying to expand the conversation – feel free to email me with any questions or feedback at julia.serbulov@trfund.com

  • Ian David Moss

    Thanks – this seems straight up my alley! I look forward to reading through it. By the way, one of the cases I did for class was on The Reinvestment Fund, and I lived in Philly for a year after college in 2002-03. Thank you for stopping by.