One Year Later, the Irvine Foundation Sizes Up Its Exploring Engagement Fund

It's common practice for foundations to check in on the status of grantees a year or so after the funding is released. It makes perfect sense, of course. The foundation wants to be sure the grantee is making the most of the funding, and it also makes for great PR to show the funding in action. What's interesting about these recent findings from The James Irvine Foundation is the breadth and complexity of its check-in, which is a must-read for any nonprofit.

Just to set things up: In late 2012, The James Irvine Foundation's board approved 19 new grants as part of its statewide Exploring Engagement Fund and another five grants for its Exploring Engagement Fund for "Priority Regions." In all, the foundation has 52 grantee partners promoting film, dance, and the arts throughout California. Not bad. (See The James Irvine Foundation: Bay Area Grants.)

Yet, rather than check in with each grantee and analyze progress on a case-by-case basis, the foundation went a step further and was able to extract some illuminating macro-level trends — something other nonprofits should heed. They include the following:

  • Arts organizations are broadening their exposure by using non-arts-specific venues. The logic here is as simple as it is brilliant. The idea is to look beyond traditional museums, art spaces, and galleries to include "outside-the-box" venues. In doing so, organizations are reaching new audiences. One example cited by the foundation is Cantare con Vivo, an Oakland-based nonprofit that is collaborating with local choirs and organizations serving Latinos in the San Joaquin Valley.
  • Organizations are transitioning from an observational model toward a participatory model. Now don't get us wrong. There's nothing bad about sitting back and relaxing to a string quartet. But successful arts organizations have found that certain demographics — particularly the young — are more inclined to remain interested in the arts if they're first exposed to them in a participatory capacity. An example here is the San Francisco-based CounterPULSE, which received a $155,000 grant for performing, visual, and media arts workshops and performances facilitated by professional artists for affordable housing residents in San Francisco and Salinas.
  • Organizations are “expanding and deepening ties” within their community. The foundation didn't immediately provide evidence to show how its nonprofits accomplished this result in a quantifiable way, but you could theorize that this perennial goal is invariably linked to the two aforementioned trends. That is, if you branch out into new venues and actively seek to boost audience participation, ties to the community will inevitably be strengthened.

There's an old saying, "As California goes, so goes the nation." While this idea may not always be true, The James Irvine Foundations certainly did some invaluable legwork by checking in with grantees and synthesizing these key take-aways. And in doing so, it likely pointed toward the future of non-profit arts promotion. (Read The Irvine Arts Program Director Josephine Ramirez's IP profile.)