By focusing solely on making capital grants that build capacity, the Bothin Foundation takes a refreshingly different—and enormously useful—approach to funding direct service nonprofits that support visual arts programs. While this foundation limits its grants to the Bay Area, foundations and funders immersed elsewhere could serve their community's visual arts organizations in similarly meaningful and impactful ways.
Some background: the Bothin Foundation is a long-standing institution, established back in 1917 by Henry E. Bothin, a San Francisco-based “Philanthropist of Steel.”
These days, the Bothin Foundation (pronounced "bo-THEEN") provides support for social services, education, the arts and environmental programs that substantially engage with low-income families and youth, or individuals with disabilities. When it comes to the arts, this can often be easily categorized as "arts education." But there are other possibilities as well, in the area of audience outreach and beyond, in part because of the foundation's giving niche.
That niche is an important one: Bothin is wholly committed to providing capital investment grants intended to build the capacity of the nonprofit being funded. Examples the foundation gives of this: building improvements, vehicles, equipment, and technology infrastructure (especially if it’s directly used by program participants).
In a 1999 interview, Lyman Casey, the foundation’s media-shy President of the Board of Trustees, noted, “We give some of the least sexy grants probably ever done.” He cited septic tanks as an example, and added, “We're probably the only foundation to ever do that!”
That point of pride for being unsexy is because the Bothin Foundation understands need. Its application doesn't explicitly ask about outputs, outcomes, or measurement/evaluation systems, as so many funders do. Rather, because the Bothin Foundation is looking to fund “durable” investments that “directly impact clients,” and projects that are immediately necessary or time-sensitive, it asks applicants to address its program in that context.
Examples of Bothin grants in visual arts include:
- $40,000 to the Randall Museum (San Francisco) to refurbish a museum classroom
- $40,000 to Youth Art Exchange (San Francisco) to purchase IT equipment to develop a mobile art and design lab that servers high schoolers
- $22,100 to The Cedars of Marin (Ross) to replace windows in its textile arts center
- $20,000 to Root Division (San Francisco) to build out and furnish its classroom
- $7,500 to Youth In Arts (San Rafael) to install "exhibition-quality" lighting and a new back door for its children's art gallery.
The Bothin Foundation might enjoy some luxuries other funders do not. For starters, it is a family foundation, so it is not beholden to as many other entities as corporate foundations/giving programs are. Furthermore, as an established and widely respected philanthropic organization, it doesn't seem to worry about optics, and need not prioritize the quick marketing and press releases opportunities that could accompany newsier grants.
Not every funder has these luxuries, but it would be good if others could find a way to address significant capital improvement needs of visual arts programs.