Collaboration, Not Competition: Can Donors Incentivize Large and Small Arts Organizations to Join Forces?

The Brooklyn academy of music

The Brooklyn academy of music

Back in September of 2015, the DeVos Institute of Arts Management published a detailed study examining the challenges facing African American and Latino arts organizations, kickstarting an ongoing conversation about how to bridge the gap between the "haves" and "have-nots" in the arts philanthropy world.

It has been a provocative dialogue. 

A few months later, the National Center for Arts Research (NCAR) published a separate piece providing useful context to DeVos's conclusions. For example, while smaller organizations may have less capital than their larger peers, they needn't be worse off. "We recognize that culturally specific organizations have particular characteristics that should be understood for what they are, neither good nor bad nor a sign of ineffectiveness but simply a different starting point," said Zannie Voss, director at NCAR.

Yet the relative idea of "effectiveness" aside, funding—I'm talking real dollars and cents here—remains finite. Most people can agree on that. And many small organizations feel as if they exist in a Hobbesian world where their larger peers not only receive a larger share of the funding pie, but also poach top-tier talent and cannibalise their audiences. Market dynamics, whether we'd like to admit it or not, position large and small arts organizations as natural competitors, not partners. 

Karen Brooks Hopkins, NCAR Nasher Haemisegger Fellow and president of the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM), fleshes out this point from a programming standpoint, noting:

Ideologically, the two sides have also grown farther apart, as small groups have seen the bulk of philanthropic dollars go to large, more classically-oriented, less diverse institutions whose programming, they believe, enhances the status quo, while their own approach forges newer, more relevant ground.

Fortunately, Hopkins also believes these two worlds can be bridged. Her thinking is predicated on the idea that, like any arrangement, each entity has something to offer the other. Small organizations need "greater visibility, more powerful board members, higher levels of donations, access to well-equipped facilities, and larger audiences."

Larger organizations, meanwhile, "desperately need to be more diverse ethnically and programmatically and could be so much more dynamic and interesting if they had more flexibility and were able to respond to opportunities with greater spontaneity."

These sentiments sound promising on paper, but change, of course, can be disruptive and just plain messy. As much as a small organization may dream of better-equipped facilities, they may ultimately conclude that the status quo is preferable to a risky capital project. And I can't blame them: One of DeVos's recommendations for smaller arts organizations looking to close the funding gap is to "prioritize investment in great art—not buildings."  

So how does this dream of collaboration play out in the practical sense? First off, Hopkins envisions a funding consortium to provide significant resources to undertake a three to five-year partnership initiative. Such initiatives—informally dubbed "mutual enhancement programs"—would incentivize small and large organizations to join hands. Hopkins points to a couple of programs that have thus far delivered the goods. 

One such program is the RadioLoveFest, an annual festival held in partnership with WNYC, New York Public Radio. "While not vastly different in size," she notes, "these two organizations are completely different in nature (i.e. a presenter and a radio station), yet together, they have created something amazing—bringing beloved radio programs to thousands of people that are promoted consistently on the station."

Hopkins also suggests a simple idea whereby a board member from a large organization participates as both a contributor and active member of a smaller partner organization. These board members would also bring their Rolodex of donors to the table—a concept, not coincidentally, also floated by the authors of the DeVos paper, who encourage smaller, more diverse organizations to build "stronger boards whose members are committed to fundraising" and broaden the donor base and focus on individual donors.

Ultimately, the pivotal players in this entire thought exercise are donors themselves. Small and large organizations may unite at any time to create collaborative programs out of enlightened self-interest, but then again, maybe they won't. They need donor dollars to fund ideas like Hopkins' proposed consortium and other low-risk financial incentives to bridge the gap.

Everyone agrees there are disparities between large and small arts organizations—a gap that, at least according to some research, is only growing. Will donors step up?