Paul G. Allen Family Foundation Gives to the Arts for Invitees Only

Is there a growing trend of large foundations awarding grants by invite only? Microsoft billionaire Paul Allen (read Paul Allen's IP profile), recently honored for his arts philanthropy, awarded nearly $100 million in arts and culture grants over two decades to select programs of his foundation's choosing.  

The most well-known invite-only award is arguably the $6 billion bequest by long-time arts philanthropist Margaret Cargill (who passed in 2006) which is reportedly to be divided between the Margaret A. Cargill Foundation and the Anna Ray Charitable Trust. The Paul G. Allen Family Foundation prefers the invite only route as well.

The Paul G. Allen Foundation has awarded $3.6 million year-to-date arts and culture grants in Alaska, Idaho, Montana, Oregon and his home state Washington. The good news is that the foundation has "a particular interest in contemporary works that address current social, political and cultural issues." The bad news is that the foundation does not accept unsolicited grant requests. 

Though the foundation's website explains its grantee application process and requirements, it doesn't explain how grantees are chosen only that the foundation uses a "range of strategies for funding, including letters of inquiry and requests for proposals." Looking over its history of grantmaking, the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation awards its grants to a number of different organizations from music and dance centers, to art museums and colleges. The foundation does not award grants to individual artists at this time.  

In the world of arts philanthropy, award grants by invitation possibly create barriers to entry for lesser-known, economically disadvantaged and underserved artist foundations and communities. For instance, how is a small inner-urban art school in Seattle supposed to get the attention of the Paul G. Allen Foundation when it's competing with the Pratt Fine Arts Center?

Of course, the other side of the argument is that foundations may award grant to any organization they please in any manner the foundation sees fit. It's also understandable that the time and effort it would take to cull through the mountain of grants applications the foundation receives would be cost-prohibitive for the foundation. The more money the foundation spends on these processes, the less it will able to award in grants, which is counterproductive.

The fact that the Paul G. Allen Foundation awards grants by invite only should not downplay its good works and efforts. The foundation is still awarding much-needed funds to organizations promoting, creating and preserving art. It just seems that there is no clear-cut solution to the invite-only issue that benefits both the foundation and the art organization. This is why a dialogue should definitely be started about awarding grants strictly by invite-only. Maybe through this dialogue a compromise can be found in moving toward greater equality in arts funding.