(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. For the sixth and final post in this series, I write about grantmakers having their ear to the ground not just for current grantees but also for arts organizations that haven’t even applied yet. -IDM)

I’m going to wax philosophical for a bit here and talk about values. Everybody knows that philanthropy in the nonprofit sector, and the arts in particular, is a big deal. Leaders of most nonprofit organizations spend the bulk of their professional lives worrying about where (figuratively or literally) the next paycheck will come from. Development operations are sucking up more and more of organizations’ budgets, along with a greater fraction of executive directors’ and CEOs’ core responsibilities. New nonprofits are forming at a rate outstripping foundation growth, increasing competition for the opportunities that do exist. All of this leads to financial uncertainty and heightened stress levels for existing organizations, inhibiting long-term planning, depressing real wage rates and contributing to rapid employee turnover in the sector.

In this kind of environment, it’s important to remember that grantmaking organizations enjoy an incredible privilege—and also shoulder an immense responsibility to the field and to the public. It is all too easy to underestimate the amount of influence that our current funding system concentrates in the hands of a few individuals. A discussion over lunch or a meeting in a conference room can effectively change the fate of an organization forever, along with all of its employees and all of its artistic partners. As such, I believe it’s dangerous for grantmakers to make decisions based solely on narrow interpretations of donor priorities. To be sure, for small family foundations and individual donors, such an approach is perfectly defensible (though I strongly encourage all donors to take the time to educate themselves about the field in which they are giving). But given the scarcity of resources available, I do believe larger foundations and government agencies that hire professional staff have an obligation to consider the overall needs of the field when making funding decisions.

With that in mind, I would be heartened to see a more proactive approach toward outreach and community presence from grantmaking organizations, particularly foundations. From my perspective as someone representing two small, newish performing ensembles in New York, it seemed like staff members of funding entities attended only events presented by current grantees, if they even attended those. A few, such as NYSCA, had formal “artistic audit” processes by which a potential applicant could request attendance by program staff at a particular performance, but this process had to be initiated by the applicant organization. I knew and still know of no funding organization that makes significant, formalized outreach efforts to more fully understand the arts community that it serves. By “outreach,” I specifically mean measures to amass institutional knowledge, intelligence if you will, about the widest possible range of players in the arena, including organizations that are neither current grantees nor current applicants. To my mind, that’s the only way an organization tasked with supporting an arts community can truly have its “ear to the ground,” so to speak.

I can already see the sweating brows of arts program directors who wonder how something like this could be accomplished with their staff of four, or two, or even one. Well, the first thing that I would say is that I consider this a legitimate justification for foundations and government agencies to spend more of their budgets on overhead (i.e., staff). On the whole, I think it preferable for large foundations to amass knowledge about the arts internally rather than outsourcing that knowledge, as is commonly done, to panelists or regranting organizations. After all, such solutions involve overhead too, and at least the internal route offers a better chance of consistent standards and practices. Secondly, foundations are nonprofits too, which means that when capacity is tight people need to multitask. Surely the comptroller or executive assistant is qualified simply to show up at a performance, make a note of the size of the venue and how many people are attending, describe the audience reaction, and record other observational characteristics of the event (such as any obvious technical glitches). The goal here is not to create a document that will make or break a grant application, but rather to amass a record over time that could bring to light clear patterns, for example of consistently excellent stage management or a lack of programmatic variety from event to event. I would also suggest that staffers attend events unannounced and pay for their tickets (with their employer’s money, of course)—partly to maintain the integrity of the intelligence-gathering, and partly so as not to deprive the presenters of much-needed earned revenue by forcing them to provide comp tickets. This way, when a new applicant comes in and claims that their festival the previous year was “presented to much acclaim” to “more than 5,000 audience members,” the funding institution will already have an idea of whether the proposal underplays or overstates its case.

Journalists, no less than funders, have privileged access to a limited number of levers of influence over the artistic community. Going back to my time in New York again, when I was trying to get journalists to come see the shows I was putting on, I always respected the ones who acknowledged my existence, even if never actually resulted in a mention in their magazines or blogs. It showed me that they were serious enough about their jobs to take a chance on someone who wasn’t already well known. It showed me that they valued the excitement of finding a diamond in the rough more than they feared sitting through a mediocre performance. That is the kind of person I want covering my local arts scene, and that’s the kind of institution I would want funding it too.

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