What's Behind the San Diego Foundation's Controversial Restructuring of Arts Funding?

In the world of computer networking, the term "single point of failure" describes "a part of a system that, if it fails, will stop the entire system from working."

A single point of failure can be a disproportionately generous funder who, like the William Penn Foundation, suddenly tightens their purse strings.

On the other hand, a single point of failure can be an individual person. For example, what if Debby in accounting is sick on payday? Who'll cut the checks? Only Debby knows how to cut the checks. It's calamitous!

Ok, maybe that's an extreme example, but it underscores a reality facing nonprofits and their organizational structure. Without proper planning or a diversified funding model, the absence of one individual or giver can collapse the entire house of cards (to use an unfortunate analogy).

Which brings us to recent news out of San Diego, where stakeholders within the city's arts community have expressed concern regarding the departure of Felicia Shaw, longtime Director of Arts and Creative Economy at the San Diego Foundation.

Shaw, in a way, represents a single point of failure due to her extensive experience and Rolodex. To paraphrase baseball legend Reggie Jackson, she's the "straw that stirs" the San Diego arts scene drink. Further complicating matters is the fact that she left because her aforementioned position was eliminated.

Shaw's departure was the result of restructuring that involved eliminating 13 positions and creating 15 new ones. Now the foundation's work falls under an initiative called WELL (Work Enjoy Learn Live), which, according to the San Diego City Beat, "allows potential donors to easily understand the various categories to which they can contribute." Arts and culture, for example, falls under "Enjoy," alongside recreation and physical activity.


You know how Republican candidates sometimes argue for abolishing the Department of Education, and Democrats respond by saying, "Well, then who's going to be the voice for children in the White House?" We're looking at a similar situation here.

Victoria Plettner-Saunders, a local arts consultant, was blunt, saying, "They eliminated the arts and culture strategy position. That says it all.” Specifically, she doesn’t agree with the foundation’s decision to lump arts and culture under a category with outdoor recreation. "It’s like putting the city’s arts commission into parks and rec. I think the message they’re sending is, 'We’re not going to have someone whose staff time is dedicated to arts and culture.'"

So what can we make of this Southern Californian tempest?

First, we admit, the restructuring comes across as a bit strange, and we're not alone. Shaw was given the opportunity to stay onboard, albeit under this new rubric. She declined, and that's telling. (Fortunately, she'll remain a player/stirrer in the city's arts scene, having taken a job as the interim executive director at Young Audiences of San Diego.)

Secondly, and most importantly, what about the money? Shaw's replacement, Kathryn Mead, notes that the foundation's arts and culture budget of $6.6 million shouldn't change. That said, donors drive the budget. If they respond well to the new restructuring, the budget should be fine.

Hopefully donors will respond, because even though we're not entirely sure of the exact reason for the restructuring, we can infer that it was made with donors in mind. As previously noted, the foundation rolled out the new WELL rubic so "potential donors" could "easily understand" funding categories. It sounds slightly patronizing, but hey, if donors keep the spigot open, we'll look back on this episode in six months and chuckle.

Then again, money may not be able to cover up the loss of the "a single point of failure" in the person of Felicia Shaw.