Seeing the Light: Another Arts Foundation Embraces General Operation Support

Every now and then, as we here at IP sit at our desks and ponder the big issues of arts philanthropy, we can't help but turn to the wisdom of one Janet Jackson, who in her 1986 hit "Control," states, "Cause it's all about control."

What's it have to do with arts philanthropy? Glad you asked.

The idea of control — most commonly manifested through grants earmarked for specific purposes by foundations — is one of the most fundamentally important issues in arts philanthropy. It's a topic we've discussed quite a bit here at IP, particularly terms of how funder micromanagement can lead to ineffective philanthropy, as well as the reasons why foundations are generally reluctant to accede control in the first place. (Spoiler alert: they like control.)

Proving our point, according to a November 2014 Grantmakers for Effective Organizations study, only 25 percent of total funds allotted fell under the "no strings attached" rubric of general operating support. That said, according to the study, that figure was rising. More foundations are warming up to the idea of sweet surrender. And anecdotal evidence here in the arts space seems to corroborate this theory.

Earlier this year we noted that James F. and Marion L. Miller Foundation awarded four-year, unrestricted operating support grants to over 35 arts organizations with the hope of kickstart a funding paradigm shift across the state of Oregon. They're converts to the cause. Then there's Bloomberg Philanthropies, whose Arts Innovation and Management program allocates $30 million of unrestricted general operating support.

And now comes word that another foundation has seen the "general operation support" light. 

That would be the Chicago-based Reva and David Logan Foundation, who awarded a $30,000 challenge grant to Washington, D.C.' Welders, the city's only playwrights' collective devoted exclusively to developing and producing new plays. The grant supports general operating at $10,000 for each of three years.

Needless to say, arts organizations like the Welders understand that added value of general operating support. "General operating funding is the lifeblood of new arts organizations," said Jojo Ruf, The Welders' Executive and Creative Director. "Having three years of support" from the Logan Foundation — recently profiled in IP here — means that "we can boldly move forward in presenting our final production before passing a financially solid organization on to the next generation of Welders."

We admit that three examples of foundations embracing general operating support doesn't constitute a particularly compelling trend. What's more, we don't expect every foundation to have a profound "Road to Damascus" moment in which they suddenly surrender any controlling impulses and fully embrace general operating support grants. Grantmaker psychoanalysis aside, many of earmarked grants can serve a noble purposes like stabilizing a program that while not wildly popular with the general public, honors donor intent. 

So who knows? Despite the anecdotal evidence, including the intriguing nugget that living donors are more willing to give up control over how grant dollars are spent than philanthropoids, perhaps not much will change in the grand scheme of things.

Perhaps some foundations have seen the light, but decided to ignore it.