Tuesday, March 18, 2014

"to fail and fail big" In Action: Let's Get Married!

by Jennifer Wright Cook

Our recent blog posts talked about the Funders’ Edition of “to fail and fail big” that we hosted last fall 2013.  There’s a lot to share about that event; so here’s Part Three.

One of the topics we unpacked at the Funders’ Edition was Project Funding (i.e., money that supports a specific artistic project).

Page 24 of “to fail and fail big” suggests that artists can risk more artistically if funders give them multi-year grants that are artist-specific and not project-specific.  What does that mean?  It means that funders should give gen op grants to specific artists/companies for several committed years. What does “gen op” mean? Gen op grants are ones that can be used to pay for your general operations – essentially everything from artists’ fees to rent to health insurance to design fees to your accountant.  Project grants, typically, can only be used for direct project expenses (artists’ fees, space rental, props, costumes, etc).

Gen op grants are kinda like being in a committed stable relationship.

Project specific grants are kinda like dating.  (Ok, stick with me here.)

In dating there can be these big moments of dinner and dancing and moonlit walks. You are wooing and being wooed! It’s huge and thrilling (or sucky and ego-killing).

But in dating there’s nobody at home to help clean up the cat vomit; no one to hold the chair when you change a light bulb in the ceiling lamp; no one to lie in bed with you and talk about your hopes and fears and kids and dying and politics!

Project grants tend to support the BIG SEXY STUFF (the premiere! the original score! the uber talented actors!).

Gen op grants help support the whole shebang of YOU and your art-making world.   They are an investment in you.

Project grants tend to support the artistic product.

Gen op grants support the artistic process. Like a committed partner, a gen op grant invests in you and your vision, your being.  They are there for you when the going gets rough.

Now, why can multi-year gen op grants help artists risk more, be more resilient, feel more supported and ultimately, maybe, produce “better” work?

You can risk more when you know that someone is in it with you.   
You can risk more when you feel stable. 
You can risk more when you know the rent and health insurance bills can be paid. 
You can grow more when you know that someone trusts you and your process.

So what did the funders at our Funders’ Edition table say about when we asked them if they could get married (i.e., give multi-year gen op grants to artists)?  Not so much.

“We can’t really do that… We can only do one type of grant…..our bylaws, our mission, our Trustees, our processes, etc are strict…..We just can’t.”

Aha?  Change is hard.  The status quo is easy to maintain. Getting married is scary.  Don’t rock the boat.  Just do what you’ve always done.  Then you don’t have to go out on any limb.  You don’t have to risk critique or judgment.  

Aha again!  Funders are people too!  They are just as afraid of failing (or risking) as the rest of us. They have bosses and Boards etc who can fire them or make their lives difficult.  

But some funders push against this fear and push for change in the grant-making system.  At our Funders’ Edition the perspicacious Ben Cameron of Doris Duke Charitable Foundation reminded funders that they can go HYBRID!  They can offer project grants with some gen op money attached!  MAP Fund does this already!  Duke does it too of course.  The Pew in Philly is doing it now it seems!  http://www.pewtrusts.org/our_work_detail.aspx?id=22

Can more funders do it?  Yes, they can!  Or at least they can assert in their applications and budgets that 15-20% expenses should/can be gen op-related.

Now, of course, sometimes dating is key.  You need to test things out, meet lots of people, see who you are in different scenarios.  You need to learn who you are and what you want and feel confident.

And sometimes getting hitched is key.  But when the world is only dates and no committed relationships it seems really hard to move yourself forward.

So dear reader, our question to you is this: where do you feel like you can grow most? In dating or in a committed relationship?  What’s working for you?
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