Thursday, January 9, 2014

"to fail and fail big" In Action: the revolution will not be funded?

by Jennifer Wright Cook

In September 2013, I met twice with the superb folks from the Brooklyn Commune to talk about our study, “to fail and fail big”. From this point of view, they interviewed me about the funding landscape and the challenges therein.  In November I attended their opening night event and participated in a rousing, discussion about MFA debt and its huge impact on artists, the onerous structure of the 501c3 model and the lack of transparency about money in the arts.   Stay tuned for their white paper that tells it all.  

One big aha that strikes me hard with the Commune and over the past few years: “can the revolution be funded?”  (Terrible to admit but I’ve only read the reviews and summaries of the 2007 book that pushed this question forward for me, “The Revolution Will Not Be Funded: Beyond the Non-Profit Industrial Complex” – but it’s on my list and I think I get the basic jist.  It scares me.)

The non-profit sector can be a dirty world. You have to work with honed clarity, great governance and nuanced reflection to keep focused on your mission and its delivery in an ever changing and über competitive world. You can easily be pulled off mission and off integrity.  Sometimes, taking charitable dollars can pull you down a rabbit hole where your politics and your work are worlds apart.  

In our regular lives, however, many of us make strategic life and consumer choices based on fair trade processes, green choices, humane labor practices, etc.  We align our politics with our actions and our purchases.  We aim to stay on mission and on integrity. It’s not always easy and it takes more time but we try.

What if we did the same in our non-profit work when offered philanthropic dollars?  Could we, for instance, say no to a grant from (Insert Questionable Company here)?  Some folks did just that back in the day when Philip Morris was one of the biggest NYC arts funders.  Some folks said nope, no thanks. I am not okay with tobacco money.  Other folks said yes, my work is worth it and the money can be put to good purpose now.  And one group right now is having an amazing conversation about funding from Exxon/Mobile and their dilemma about accepting money from sources they find questionable.

Do you know where your money comes from? Are you ok with how it was made?  Can your work remain “clean” if the money to fund it is dirty?

On top of all the “dirty money” that can stall a revolution, the revolution won’t be funded because the non-profit machine grows so fast and mission delivery is often left behind.  Fundraising begets more fundraising begets more fundraising…and which requires more administration of stuff and people and things.: Yyou have to hire more development staff to keep up with all the grants you have to write; you have to pay them competitively because they are expensive; you have to hire more admin staff to fill out even more paperwork for all the oversight and compliance you have to do for all that money.  And there are scandalously few grants to pay for any of these things because they aren’t very sexy. 

So suddenly you are squeezing money from YOUR MISSION WORK to pay for for the administration of it all its management.  

So the revolution you aimed to start is dead. 

Now Now maybe the play you are working on or the dance you are creating is not a revolution per se.  Maybe it’s just a play or a dance.  your art work may not be aimed at starting a revolution. At The Field ours isn’t. But it is aimed at changing an artist’s life and the artist’s landscape for the better. 

And money has changed us over the years. And The Field, our work, is not really a pursuing a revolution either. 

As the crazy smart Diane Ragsdale wrote in her September Jumper blog “…what happens in the psyche of a grantee when a little bit of money comes in and when it, inevitably, goes away. In response to the question, Would it have been better not to have received these grants than to have received them and lost them? I find[ing] myself wanting to shout back at the page, “Yes! You would have been better off never having received the money!” 

I love this idea.  I fear it. I love it.  Taking the money changes you. It forces you to comply with larger systems you might not agree with. It creates dependency. It forces you to compromise to survive. 

But I am not sure I am courageous enough to say no to money.  

Our question to you: Are you funding your revolution? 

P.S.  I am not at all a hater of in full support of hiring amazing development or administrative staff (to write grants and fill out all the paperwork).   I do think we need, ironically enough,But, I think we need more unrestricted grants that FUND the administration of and fundraising for programs and the general operations that undergird all of this non profit machinery.  Lastly, the ongoing frustration: why are artists often paid way less than administrators?  

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