(Welcome to Createquity’s summer rerun programming! Over the next few months, we’re reaching into the archives to pull out some of the best articles and most underrated gems we’ve published since 2007. This week, we’re continuing the “Thoughts on Effective Philanthropy” series, which was my first extended think piece for Createquity back in 2007-08. In this installment, I argue that artists need general operating support. -IDM)

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.

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  • Hello Ian – thank you for this important series, which, as a program director for a small arts organization, I can say is still quite relevant. Interestingly, Gifts of the Muse was a central resource in my thesis focused on the social impact of the arts; how it has been theorized, measured, and looking ahead to what I believe to be the relationship of the arts to the surrounding community-relationships. More and more, people are longing for and turning to locality, community, and connection. Supporting and leveraging more artists and arts orgs, which tend to be connectors within the community, can help to bridge the disconnect between funders and beneficiaries and allow funders to create more substantial impact in whatever area.

    A recent SSIR article (“The Re-imerging Art of Funding Innovation”) more broadly references the idea you mention re: supporting systems of artistic activity; supporting innovation and taking risks. I hope this will continue to be the trend. Beginning to use what we do know about the arts to inform their relationship to community; i.e. using the needs of the community to inform funding, rather than trying to conform programmatic/artistic endeavors to specific funding criteria, can hopefully help us to stop asking the wrong questions when trying to define the “impact” of the arts (in order to secure support and funding). It can also help to address, as you mention, the ongoing lack of a middle ground of support and compensation for artists; also an issue for artists working within social change organizations, who are often expected to volunteer their services. Thanks again, and would love to speak further!