My first post from the AFTA Convention a couple of weeks ago provoked several comments about microphilanthropy, based on Craig Dreeszen’s observation that “support for individual entrepreneurs” is a growing trend in creative economy efforts internationally. I’ve been interested in microphilanthropy for some time, but I recently came to the realization that I’ve never posted extensively about it here. Well, it’s time to fix that!

Microphilanthropy is not a new idea, though its application has been spotty up until now, with programs such as NYFA’s Strategic Opportunity Stipend, ASCAP’s Leonard Bernstein Fund, or Fractured Atlas’s microgrants generally limited in scope. One of the programs I like the best is Subito, from the American Composers Forum. The guidelines differ a bit in different cities, but perhaps the most generous version is in Philadelphia (where, incidentally, I worked as Chapter Assistant way back in 2002-03). Clicking on the “Subito Philadelphia” link on that page will download a Word document with three exceptionally varied scenarios for funding on the third page – there is functionally almost no restriction on what the funds can be spent on, as long as they are somehow in service of the proposed project. Now, platforms for aggregating small-dollar donations from individuals are starting to pop up as well, drawing inspiration from the likes of DonorsChoose and Kiva. Kickstarter is a model that looks promising—Jay Corless is using it for his Cities x Design tour with Sali Sasaki—and another Createquity reader, Kristine Maltrud, has written in to alert me to an in-development microfunding + social networking project called ArtSpark. It’s likely that such platforms will make it easier for small-scale art projects to reach new audiences and lower the costs of their fundraising, helping to equalize the playing field.

Nevertheless, I still think there’s some value to be found in setting up a microphilanthropy program at an institutional level. Online donation aggregation platforms are well and good, but by their nature will tend towards popularity contests that do little to help artists whose talents do not lend themselves to self-promotion. A diligently run, centralized microphilanthropy program, on the other hand, can potentially identify artists and projects with promising features but that lack the kind of social or technological capital necessary to mount an effective online fundraising campaign.

While a detailed exploration of what an ideal microphilanthropy program might look like will have to wait for another post, if it were up to me, such a program would take into account the following principles and assumptions:

Small amounts make a big difference.
This value meshes not only with my own experience but with those of countless other artists I know. It never ceases to amaze me what artists are able to accomplish on absolute shoestring budgets, sometimes even losing money on the work they present to the public. But just because they make it happen on such lean terms this time doesn’t mean that they will be able to next year, or that they couldn’t benefit enormously from an influx of capital. To an artist trying to scrape together a living from dozens of sources, a few extra hundred or a thousand here or there means a lot. Sometimes it’s the difference between art happening or not.

Fewer restrictions promote innovation.
Startup, temporary, and very small-scale projects are already at a disadvantage in that they are ineligible for most mainstream grant programs that require a minimum operating history, paid performers, or a minimum budget. Even grant programs that ostensibly serve “community groups” will often have eligibility requirements that prevent organizations with budgets of less than $100,000 from applying. In that kind of environment, then, it’s counterproductive to set excessive limits on who can apply or what kinds of things the money can be spent on. The whole point of supporting small, under-the-radar groups is to support innovation, and no one sitting in an office writing up guidelines can adequately anticipate the kinds of uses a burgeoning community of experimental artists will want to put money to. Moreover, the widespread adoption of eligibility criteria (especially if it’s the same eligibility criteria) can often lead to massive gaps in the institutional funding framework—like, for example, the horrible dearth of opportunities available to independent jazz musicians.

Better to help lots of people when possible.
We haven’t yet talked about the fact that many of the artists applying to a program like this (and even some who will be funded) simply won’t be very good. That’s okay. In my view, a microphilanthropy model should adopt a venture-capital-like approach – spreading the risk across a number and variety of investments, in the hopes that a few will break out and be so successful that they cover the failures or mediocre performance of the others. In this case we’re talking about artistic success rather than financial success, but the principle is the same. That argues not only for spreading grants across a fairly wide proportion of applicants, but also for selecting applicants in part on how much their project helps other artists besides the people applying for the grant. So a musical ensemble that selects scores via an open-call process and performs an eclectic mix of repertoire, for example, provides more value to the artistic community than one that exclusively performs the music of the founder. I’m not saying the latter kind of project should never be funded, but in my mind the bar for evidence of artistic potential has to be raised considerably in order to justify it.

There’s a difference between growth and institutionalization.
Helping a project to happen in the first place or increase stipends to performers is one thing. That’s growth of an artistic variety. Helping to fund the hiring of full-time administrative staff or rent office space is something else entirely. That points to a more institutionalized, professional—and potentially less nimble—future. While certainly appropriate in some instances, a lot of small-budget organizations don’t really need to get drastically bigger. Many artists just want to be able to make enough to live on and do their thing (or, failing that, at least pay their colleagues), and have the flexibility to shut it all down later if they want to. I believe in microphilanthropy that is as supportive of organizational death as it is of organizational growth.

Quick to give a chance, slow to give second chances.
In keeping with the “risk pooling” concept, I support keeping eligibility requirements as open as possible and applications as simple as possible. But once that money is granted and a commitment is made, the gloves need to come off. Flakiness, dishonesty, and sloppy reporting should not be tolerated. Since this may well be one of the artist’s first grants, it might have to be a learning experience for them. Teach them how to keep accurate books and manage a budget. Teach them responsiveness and task management tools if they don’t already have them. Reporting requirements should be as strict (not burdensome, just strict) as eligibility requirements are loose. And hey, if people don’t want to put the few hours it takes into telling you how they spent your money, you don’t have to give them any more of it in the future.

Overnight success doesn’t happen in a year.
On the other hand, if grantees are respectful and wise with the handling of the funds, the default approach probably shouldn’t be one-and-out. Sourcing stable, renewable sources of capital is one of the biggest challenges for fledgling arts organizations, which is yet another reason why people with access to independent wealth have a leg up. Now, presumably after three or four years the organization will either be on the rocks or will have found other (bigger) supporters, so there should definitely be some turnover around then, but a one-time injection risks leaving the beneficiaries on no more stable footing than before.

  • Doug

    I'm a teacher and when I first heard about Donors Choose I immediately said "we NEED this in the arts." I tried searching for a similar system but came up empty. I'm glad you located some of these.