Some Strings Attached: What's Behind Knight's Recent Grant to The Miami City Ballet?

This morning, I visited the New York Times online and saw a story exploring the purported ties between the Clinton Foundation and Russia's "growing uranium empire." It's complicated stuff. I'll spare you the gory details, but here's the lede:

"As the Russian atomic energy agency gradually took charge of a company that controls one-fifth of all uranium production capacity in the U.S., a stream of cash made its way to the former president’s charitable organization."


In addition to including the comforting trope of a shadowy Russian oligarch, the story also underscored a reality we often prefer to ignore. Whether overt or subtle, sometimes foundations hand out money with strings attached or (cue menacing Russian accent) expectations.

Fortunately, today's news isn't as stark or demoralizing as the Times story. In fact, sometimes it can be a good thing when foundations attach strings. For starters, they naturally want to see that their money is being well spent, and secondly, as paternalistic as it may sound, these strings can prove beneficial to the recipient organization.

All of which brings me to Miami, where the Miami City Ballet recently received a total of $4 million in grants from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and the Ford Foundation. The ballet also netted another $2.5 million in board donations.

We're particularly intrigued in the Knight's Foundation's gift. The Miami-friendly outfit has pledged $2.5 million to the ballet over three years, $1.5 million of which comes from a fund set up in 2012, when the ballet netted a mammoth $5 million, five-year grant. But it's a newer, $1 million Knight grant that included those notorious strings.

Specifically, the grant, which is designated for new work and "strengthening the organization," was predicated on the ballet securing a "match in debt forgiveness or new or increased donations." The prerequisite was met, according to Executive Director Michael Scolamiero, and the foundation issued the grant.

The latter prerequisite makes sense. It's to argue with the benefits of a diversified revenue stream, especially for dance organizations that are disproportionately reliant on one funder. That said, the grant does reflect the tendency for certain foundations to "get under the hood" of their recipient's organizations. Some would call this micromanaging.

But again, not all the money was conditional. The $1.5 million, three-year Ford Foundation grant, the first ever given to the ballet, is slated for "enhanced education and outreach," and even more importantly, highly valuable general support.

Better yet, our sources tell us no Russian oligarchs were consulted, much less harmed, in the issuing of these grants.