The Irvine Foundation's Three-Point Cheat Sheet for Arts Organizations

"Know your customer."It's a time-tested adage for marketing executives everywhere. It's also a critical reminder for nonprofit organizations seeking to strike the balance between innovation and creating crowd-pleasing program offerings. Marketing executives generally have a bunch of money for focus groups, customer surveys, and product testing. Nonprofit organizations?  Not so much.

This is why it's always helpful when a philanthropic organization like the Irvine Foundation steps in and says, "Now here is something that we think will resonate with your community. And we believe in it enough to support it financially."

That was the dual message embedded in the foundation's recent round of grant offerings. The foundation awarded over $20 million to California organizations spanning the arts, civil society, and education. For our purposes, we'll look at the arts portion and extract some takeaways for nonprofit organizations. What kinds of programs resonated with the foundation's decision-makers, and how can arts organizations apply these lessons moving forward?

First, the facts: The foundation awarded 35 arts-related grants. And to understand the foundation's decision-making you must first understand how they view California's arts landscape from a big-picture perspective. The foundation believes there is a profound disconnect between the the arts "consumer" and the arts provider, which is caused by evolving demographics and rapid technological changes. As a result, Californians are seeking out arts-related experiences that organizations are ill-equipped to provide. (Californians have always been an demanding and forward-leaning bunch.)

The foundation seeks to close this gap through their funding priorities. A review of the recipient organizations surfaces a handful of recurring themes that nonprofits should keep in mind when adapting to an ever-changing arts landscape. These three themes are:

  1. A focus on previously-under-served populations. For example, the foundation awarded funds to Company of Angels, an organization serving low-income Los Angeles residents of Boyle Heights and Skid Row.
  2. Two-way participation. The foundation wants Californians to view the arts as a two-way street. It awarded funds to the Riverside Art Museum for their "participatory art-making" program offerings. 
  3. Bringing the arts to non-traditional venues. The Museum of the African Diaspora was awarded a $100,000 grant for collecting and archiving first-person narratives of African-American men in Oakland. These narratives will then be translated into performance vignettes for presentation at faith-based venues. In other words, the foundation is saying, "Haven't experienced the arts recently? Fine. We'll bring them to you."

In a perfect world, the foundation would have enough money for all qualified organizations. But we live in an imperfect world. That said, the foundation has done the legwork. They know the demographic challenges faced by arts organizations and have created a road map for them to follow, whether or not they actually receive foundation funding. And for an imperfect world, that's not too bad.