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73 posts categorized "Arts and Culture"

‘Under Construction’: Healing With a Groove

October 29, 2014

Under_construction_logoUnder Construction is a multimedia online exhibit showcasing some of the best and brightest organizations working with males of color. The UC team of filmmakers, photographers, writers, and nonprofit experts worked directly with each of these organizations for several weeks. The collaborations yielded comprehensive portraits of the services men of color receive. Each profile features a short video, a photography exhibit, a visual program model, and a narrative essay detailing the efforts of these organizations.

Under Construction is a project of Frontline Solutions and was made possible through the support of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. For more profiles, click here.

Where there is joy, there is music. Frustration, music. Hope, music. Love found, love lost, music and more music. It expresses emotion when words alone are inadequate and provides a soundtrack for our lives.

In the Mississippi Delta, the cradle of the blues, the black experience has been chronicled by enduring and endearing songs that lament racism, relationship problems, social inequity, and the aggravation of being broke. The blues are a gift to the world, one that the Delta is best known for. The music spills out of unassuming juke joints that come alive after dark and that have produced more GRAMMY Award winners per capita than any other region of the country.

The blues is not necessarily the preferred language of the young men coming up now, though. They speak hip-hop and make personal heroes out of Southern-born rappers like Lil' Boosie and Yo Gotti, artists celebrated for their lyrical realness and rags-to-riches success. The issues that both genres address are the same, but the stories born out of them are set to a different beat.

It’s fertile ground for Healing With a Groove.

Launched in 2013 at Delta State University and funded with a $150,000 grant from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, the program introduces 12- to 19-year-olds to both the cathartic art and technical science of creating their own music. It gives young black men a constructive platform for self-expression — no previous musical ability required — and a chance to hear, see, and feel the entire song-making process.

Tricia Walker_Director_Delta Music Institute"Healing with a Groove grew out of a discussion program that I was a part of when I was a professional singer and songwriter in Nashville," says Tricia Walker, director of the Delta Music Institute (DMI) and entertainment industry studies program at Delta State.

"The Country Music Hall of Fame developed a curriculum on lyric writing for elementary school students. Volunteer songwriters would then put music to the lyrics and the singers, songwriters, and children would come to the museum on a field trip to hear their songs recorded. That was one part of it," she explains. "The other part was a dialogue group that would facilitate a discussion about issues of race and diversity. They created a safe environment to talk about the questions that sometimes make people uncomfortable."

Walker used the model to mold Healing with a Groove as a response to some of the specific concerns in Bolivar and Sunflower counties, two of the eighteen counties that comprise the Mississippi Delta, where the population is more than 65 percent black and 34 percent of residents live in poverty. The program gives boys instruction in songwriting, audio engineering, and music technology, which is the fun part, and outfits them with the additional support of college student mentors who look like them, which is an essential part.

Breaking Down the Black Boy Bravado

In the center of a relatively empty auditorium inside the Delta Music Institute, a cluster of teenage boys sit in a circle of hardback chairs. They're quiet, slouched in the way that teenage boys slouch to demonstrate their resolute kind of cool. It's the first day of Healing with a Groove and they are, for the time being, a band of same-age strangers sizing each other up.

Travis Calvin_Project Coordinator_Healing with a GrooveThe atmosphere is subdued but without tension until Travis Calvin, the project coordinator and a Delta State alumnus with a fresh degree in music industry studies, cuts into the silent posturing with an ice breaker. He asks each of the young men to introduce themselves — name, school, what they like to do in their spare time — and then to strike a pose at the end of their spiel. The next person up has to repeat the information of the boy beside him, he explains, with the onus on the last man standing to rattle off all the names and the distinguishing details of those who went before him.

The first boy stands. "My name is Shawn. I like to play ball and pull girls." He whips out his cell phone and places a pretend call as his pose. The ring of new compadres nods in agreement and everybody laughs, including Calvin and his staff. They know this guy because they essentially are this guy, and the room comes alive with easy familiarity. They're warmed up now as another boy stands. He says his name and adds offhandedly, "I like to trap."

"We gonna change that," someone shoots back. "Trap" is slang for hustling, more often than not drugs, and it's claimed the lives of far, far too many black boys seduced by instant financial return. Still, no one in the group judges, no one lectures, no one delivers fire-and-brimstone damnation upon him. The certainty that he will be positively influenced and perhaps reach a whole new level of decision-making is enough for now.

Everyone having been given a chance to learn a little bit about the others, the boys sit quietly for a moment. Then someone starts to beatbox, and instinctively every head in the circle starts bobbing. The music — even more organic than the harmonicas and cigar box guitars that produced the music of their blues-singing grandfathers — is one of the shared loves that knit black men together. This group is no different. The brotherhood is the beat, the camaraderie is the bass line.

Although the program is designed around racial reconciliation, the initial self-discovery has to begin here in this ring of brown boys, before integration is even introduced into the conversation, Calvin explains. "Right now, to deal with race relations, we talk with the guys based on perception and identity because I believe that in order for us to come to the table and communicate, we have to address issues with ourselves first. We have to build confidence in ourselves and learn who we are."

In its first year, the program served seventy-five young men. This year, it has enrolled twenty students in its first month. Each participant has been referred by an educator, not necessarily because of their stellar academic performance or model behavior in school. "Every teacher says their child needs it," says Calvin. "So far, the struggle has been to get them to recommend students who are not as well-groomed, not your 'A' students." Those aren't the kids the program is primarily trying to reach. Instead, they boys are chosen because the folks who refer them see their promise and believe they'll benefit from the unique mix of candor and hands-on learning that is the hallmark of Healing With a Groove.

For the next three weeks, this particular group will meet to discuss what it's like to be them, to be young and black and male in Mississippi, in the South, in post-Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown America, and the challenges they experience — within themselves, their households, and their communities. Based on those conversations, they'll write lyrics and create music. In the closing phase of the program, they'll lay down tracks in a DMI Mobile Music Lab, a recording studio and production room housed in the high-tech splendor of a customized bus that travels from partner site to partner site

The Healing Place Is the Place That Needs to Be Healed

There are no actual signs barring anyone from being or going anywhere they please in Cleveland or its neighboring Delta communities. Those relics of the Jim Crow era have long since been removed. But their social imprint lingers, and the area remains largely segregated, mostly out of antiquated convention. It's not difficult to imagine that black boys coming of age on the margins of their own community would feel unheard.

"There were areas that certain people were restricted to and over time, even though those boundaries were no longer there physically, they remain mentally. We want to eliminate that. If a person feels like certain parts of the county are not available to them, that's a problem," says Will Hooker, the administrator for Bolivar County. He is a homeboy by definition, born and raised in the area, and knows firsthand the conditions that exist because, before he was an elected official with a title and an office in City Hall, he experienced them like most other young, black men in the Delta. His involvement with Healing With a Groove dates to its inception; he now serves on its board of advisors.

"When this program came about, we found that we still have some mental barriers that we need to identify. There are those who sometimes feel like they don't have a voice. We want their feedback. If you take time to hear what they're saying, there are still areas that we have to tackle because young men growing up in this community will never reach their potential if they place limitations on themselves. We want to free them up," Hooker says. "This program is that bridge, that common ground where we can communicate, hear each other, and then move forward."

As it stands, the area is partitioned, like many working-class towns, by a set of railroad tracks, dividing the black side from the white. Two high schools — East Side High, with its nearly all-black student population, and Cleveland High, integrated but seemingly more privileged than East Side — exist just barely a mile from each other, still symbols of the bad old days of segregation.

The district has been under pressure to be more intentional about blending the two populations. Its proposed solution is to turn East into a magnet school to attract whites. Until then, two high schools means two different homecoming parades, two different athletic programs, two different everything. That duality is symbolic of the area itself, one side silently tolerant of the other but real community eluding it because talking race, really talking race, can get messy and hurtful and ugly.

Mic Hargrove_Mentor_Healing with a GrooveHealing With a Groove fortifies the students growing up in this atmosphere with programming that breeds honest dialogue accompanied by personal revelation. So while the racial dynamics may not change in Bolivar County any time soon, the young black men who live here hopefully will. Mic Hargrove, a junior at Delta State and a mentor with the program, has seen it happen. "We did a workshop in Meridian, and one guy we were working with asked, 'Do you know what it's like to be invisible?' That's how he felt. But by the end, he was one of our main participants. He was the one who recorded the 'Rise' verse," Hargrove says, referring to a song the group recorded together.

"We give people a chance. We choose which person is going to actually put their voice on the song. Everybody collectively helps write it, but then we choose one person to actually record. The invisible guy was the person that ended up recording the song. It was cool."

Activities like the one Calvin led with the young men in the circle help to lower defenses and machismo. Maintaining that forgiving attitude throughout allows them to feel at ease enough to share their stories, experiences, concerns, and realities.

"When we tell about ourselves and are open with them, when they see that we are real and that we are there for their benefit, then they kind of open up. Once we open up, they open up," says Hargrove, an artist in his own right who describes the message in his music as "hope and faith and progressive thinking." That, whether in song or in spirit, is exactly what the young brothers under his tutelage need.

Taking the Music on the Road

A state-of-the-art production studio inside a 26-foot-long bus would intrigue the average adult. It downright thrills the Healing With a Groove guys. The DMI Mobile Music Lab is indeed impressive: it's dark, cool, an environment conducive for creating. A shiny wood-grained doorway in the back leads to the booth where the boys will record the songs they've written. The production workspace featuring four big-screen Apple monitors mounted flush to the walls and lighted equipment tucked under the desks looks like the control panel for something really great. For the boys, it is.

Vickie Jackson_Project Coordinator_Delta Music Mobile LabWhen Calvin's latest group climbs into the bus for the first time, they are all visibly and audibly wowed, transformed for a moment into wide-eyed kids. Vickie Jackson, the lab's project coordinator, never tires of that reaction. Then she puts them to work. She admits that she loves a self-aware a-ha moment, but her strategy is to engage the group with the nuts and bolts of music production, then covertly slide in as many teachable moments — about race, women, themselves — as their time together allows.

"The whole process, from songwriting to recording, is important. I want to provide them with a platform to speak honestly about themselves and race relations. Once you develop self-esteem, you're saying, 'I know who I am. Now I can figure out who I am with you'," she explains. "But I also want to teach them about the science, the art behind creating music."

Jackson isn't necessarily trying to churn out the next generation of great American artists and music producers. She does hope that navigating the music-making process will expose the boys to the college experience and encourage them to continue their learning. "I tell them, if this is something you really like, you can come to a university and study more about this. There are other opportunities out there for you." Sometimes they become interested in the production side of things and consider, maybe even seriously, a career behind the scenes. It does happen, Jackson says, but she's happy just to broaden their perspectives in general.

There's a line in a song titled "Trying to Make It" on the seventeen-track CD produced by the young artists at work that is profound:

"The more I learn, the more I understand where I'm coming from" — which, as grown folks who have lived a little bit of life know, is just as important as being clear about where you are going. There's tremendous power in storytelling for both the person weaving the tale and the people who have the pleasure of hearing that tale. For their part, the architects and organizers of Healing With a Groove have done a beautiful thing simply by introducing dozens of young men to themselves and their community's greatest legacy, music.

— Janelle Harris

Knight Cities Challenge: We Want Your Best Idea to Make Gary More Successful

October 17, 2014

Knight_cities_challlengeThe City of Gary, Indiana, is ushering in a new era. The days when the city was synonymous with urban blight and crime are fading into the distance.  Once a symbol of disinvestment standing next to City Hall, the Sheraton Hotel is being demolished and will be replaced with community green space.  Marquette Park has undergone an extensive renovation, making it a hub for community and family-focused events, including Gary's first marathon. Thanks to hundreds of volunteers, a newly renovated Boys and Girls Club sits in the once vacant Tolleston School. Gary's hometown brewery is producing critically acclaimed beer and continues to grow. And, IUN and Ivy Tech have partnered to build a new Arts and Sciences building on the corner of 35th and Broadway to serve as a cornerstone for future redevelopment projects.

The city is on the upswing, and everyone from teachers to business owners is feeling it.  But what's behind Gary's revival, and what can we do to maintain, support, and build on the transformation? How do we ensure that Gary continues to become a more vibrant place to live and work?

Over the next three years, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, a private, independent foundation based in Miami, will invest $15 million to answer these questions in Gary and twenty-five other communities across the United States. The foundation believes it is the city's own activists, designers, artists, planning professionals, hackers, architects, officials, educators, nonprofits, entrepreneurs, and social workers who have the answers, and it wants them to take hold of their city's future. To that end, all are welcome to submit ideas to the Knight Cities Challenge in one of three areas that the foundation believes are the drivers of future success for Gary: attracting talented people, expanding economic opportunity, and creating a culture of civic engagement.

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Arts Education and Human Development: Creating Space for Transformation

October 15, 2014

Selvon_waldron_PhilanTopicArt can change lives.

For over eighteen years, we have lived that reality at Life Pieces To Masterpieces, a comprehensive arts-based youth development nonprofit serving African-American males from the most underserved communities in Washington, D.C. We have seen — over and over, with more than a thousand young men — the transformation that happens when youth connect to and embrace their creative potential. We have learned that individual brilliance is a universal trait. It only needs the space to grow.

The research is clear: the arts play a crucial role in positive youth development. They stimulate imagination; build problem-solving and critical thinking; develop perception, vision, and self-confidence; teach delayed gratification and the ability to complete long-term tasks; stimulate memory; and motivate children to learn[1]. These benefits are particularly pronounced among youth from low socioeconomic backgrounds. Across all measures of academic achievement and civic engagement, youth from low-income backgrounds with high exposure to arts outperform their peers from similar backgrounds, and they reach outcomes “closer to, and in some cases exceeding, the levels shown by the general population studied.”[2] For funders seeking to assist in closing gaps in opportunity and achievement, arts education has proven to be among the most efficient and impactful investments available.

Of course, not all arts education is created equal. As an organization committed to holistic human development, we know that process and approach matter. All that we do with our Apprentices (program participants) is rooted in our award-winning Human Development System, a concrete set of beliefs, values, and strategies to help individuals connect to their sense of purpose. Our unique, collective process is structured not only to make art fun and creative (though it certainly is) but also to serve as a vehicle for processing experiences, healing wounds, and navigating challenges. For youth facing violence and trauma, it becomes a therapeutic outlet, a chance to reconnect with a sense of control and personal power in an often chaotic world. For youth too frequently told, shown, and exposed to ideas of their own inadequacy, it becomes a powerful tool to rebuild a sense of self-worth and reconnect to the reality of their brilliance.

The philanthropic community tends to operate in perpetual pursuit of silver bullets, hunting out promising outcomes and attempting to copy-and-paste the programs that create them into new environments and communities. We are very proud of our outcomes. In a city where the graduation rate for African-American males is well under 50 percent, for eight years in a row 100 percent of our Apprentices have graduated high school. And an external evaluation of our program found that 100 percent of program participants’ parents and guardians reported improved attitudes toward the future in their children. Still, we don’t claim the specifics of our programs or our artistic process to be any type of panacea. We have grown, developed, and innovated based on the specific needs and experiences of the community of which we are a part. That is why, rather than attempting to franchise or spread nationally, we are focused on reaching more of our target population in Washington, D.C.

We do, however, believe that one of the key factors to our success can and should be applied universally. And we believe that funders seeking to create a truly meaningful and sustainable impact should put this factor at the center of their funding priorities: the intentional commitment to building an environment of love, security, and expression. In an increasingly data-driven world, that can sound soft and unscientific. But it is the truth, as we have experienced it for more than eighteen years. The type of creative expression that produces real, transformative change is only possible when youth are able to immerse themselves in a loving, safe space. What matters is not handing a young man a paintbrush; what matters is allowing that young man to experience an environment that honors and respects his potential greatness.

So before asking an organization about its outcomes, ask about the kind of space they create. How do they make space for unique identities and means of expression? How do they ensure that each individual’s specific talents, abilities, and interests are engaged? How do they provide opportunities for participants to connect with themselves, their peers, and program staff? How do they make sure, every day and in every interaction, that youth in their programs feel loved, safe, and able to express their true selves? When those questions are answered honestly, with thought, care, and intentionality, you can trust that positive outcomes will follow.

Art can change lives. Creating an environment in which it does so is the real art of arts education.

Selvon Waldron, executive director of Life Pieces To Masterpieces, is a youth development leader and human rights activist.


[1] “Fact Sheet About the Benefits of Arts Education for Children,” Americans for the Arts. Washington, DC. 24 September 2013

[2] James S. Catterall, Susan A. Dumais, and Gillian Hampden-Thompson. “Arts and Achievement in At-Risk Youth: Findings from Four Longitudinal Studies.” Arts.gov, National Endowment for the Arts. Washington, DC. March 2012

Weekend Link Roundup (August 2-3, 2014)

August 03, 2014

Gekko_on_vacationOur weekly roundup of noteworthy items from and about the nonprofit sector....

Advocacy

Michelle Baker, a San Francisco-based attorney, has a very good post on Gene Takagi's Nonprofit Law Blog about the do's and don'ts of issue advocacy from a regulatory perspective. It's the first of a two-part series, so be sure to bookmark it and check back later this week for part two.

Arts and Culture

Still not sure what "creative placemaking" is or why you should care? Not to worry. On the National Arts Strategies' Filed Notes blog Taylor Craig explains it all, with the help of a few friends.

Impact/Investing

In the Stanford Social Innovation Review, Manuel Lewin, head of responsible investment at Zurich Insurance Group, and Brian Smith, chief strategy officer at Population Services International, share highlights of a report jointly produced by their organizations that provides a framework designed "to help investors and nonprofits speak a common language, and better understand various financial models through which they can engage with each other."

International Affairs/Development

In Forbes, Andrew Cave looks at Bill and Melinda Gates' efforts to help bring financial services -- bank accounts, loans, insurance, etc. -- to the 2.5 billion people in the world who are "unbanked."

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Artists as Social Entrepreneurs – 3 Exemplary Leaders

July 17, 2014

As defined by Ashoka, social entrepreneurs are individuals with an innovative solution to a pressing social problem. They are ambitious and persistent in tackling the issues they target and in offering new ideas for wide-scale social change.

I gave a keynote at the SoCap13 conference titled "The Surprise Social Entrepreneur." My talk explores the five defining characteristics of the social entrepreneur as set out by the late Greg Dees, who helped define the field of social entrepreneurship as a professor at Duke University:

  • Socially driven – Social entrepreneurs are committed to advancing a mission that creates and sustains social value (not just private wealth).
  • Growth oriented – They recognize and relentlessly pursue new opportunities to serve that mission.
  • Innovative – They engage in a process of continuous innovation, adaptation, and learning.
  • Resourceful – They act boldly despite the often-limited resources they have in hand.
  • Accountable – They exhibit heightened accountability to the constituencies served and for the outcomes created.

I then look at the case of a single entrepreneur, ticking off, point by point, how this person and the organization he started fully meet the five criteria. While some details are given – "prioritizes access for all; sets price point for services to be affordable" (socially driven) and "negotiated ten-year, $10 million bridge loan to finance new production facility" (resourceful) — it is not until the second half of the presentation that the name of the person I am talking about is revealed.

He is James Houghton, the founder of the 22-year-old Signature Theatre Company in New York City. The talk finishes with a quick look at four other artist-social entrepreneurs to prove there is a critical mass of folks linking creative expression with pressing social problems. The larger point: It shouldn't be a surprise that artists also often are social entrepreneurs.

Over the past ten years, the social sector has been spotlighting, celebrating, rewarding, and investing in new leaders. But our role models have come from fields like education, health, and microfinance. Funders, the media, and other "kingmakers" are preoccupied with change agents who can improve math scores, lower the rate of Type-2 diabetes, raise the incomes of the poor, or catalyze a civil movement. All good things to be sure. But even though the arts can contribute to those types of objectives, they are largely ignored. I question why, and at what cost.

Artists in the U.S. are addressing topics like the sustainability of the food supply, the criminal justice system, and obesity. Artists in India are addressing issues as different as caste and recycling. Mexican artists are exploring topics of migration and gun violence. These are the same kinds of critical issues that other social entrepreneurs are tackling.

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PND Talk: Why Give to the Arts When People Are Starving?

January 31, 2014

Long-time readers of Philanthropy News Digest may remember PND Talk, the message board we launched back in 2004 and maintained for the better part of a decade (until the launch of our new site in November).

During its heyday, PND Talk was a lively community frequented by a regular cast of generous, knowledgeable nonprofit professionals — people like Susan Lynn, Sheryl Kaplan, Rick Kosinski, Julie Rodda, Tony Poderis, and the late (and much missed) Carl Richardson and Linda Procopio.

Recently, some of us were reminiscing about PND Talk and the friends who made it such a valuable resource for so many years. And that got us thinking: Wouldn't it be great if we could share some of their advice and wisdom with our readers here at PhilanTopic?

Well, we can and we're going to — starting with the post below by author and fundraising consultant Tony Poderis, who for twenty years served as director of development for the world-famous Cleveland Orchestra. In it, Poderis addresses the longstanding dilemma faced by all development professionals in the nonprofit arts world: How do you justify philanthropic support for the arts and culture when so many people, here and around the world, struggle to secure the basic necessities of life? It's an interesting and provocative post, and we think many of you will want to add your thoughts in the comments section below....

_____

Arts_jobs_buttonFor those of you laboring — with love — in the nonprofit "field" of arts and culture, I can guess, with reasonable certainty (I come from that background, too), that you are challenged at times to justify your organization's existence, particularly at a time like this, when so many other, "more worthy" societal needs are crying to be met. How do you respond?

I've had to address that difficult question many times over many years. And for many arts and culture organizations, it continues to be a pressing one. I hope what follows is of some help the next time you are so challenged.

Why give to the arts when people are starving?

I actually saw that question scrawled among the marginal notes in a funding proposal for an orchestra. The notes were penned by a trustee of a grantmaking foundation during a meeting to review the proposal. Another trustee of the foundation, the one who presented the proposal on behalf of the orchestra, later shared the notes with me and asked what I could do to help counter his colleague's questioning remark.

Arts and cultural institutions are often forced into such defensive postures. They're accused of benefiting only the elite. The needs of the hungry, the homeless, the physically, mentally, and emotionally challenged are cited as being so overwhelming that something as frivolous as the arts should not be allowed or encouraged to draw from the limited pool of private funding available to support the work of nonprofit organizations. Those of us who work with and passionately support the arts are asked how we can justify "diverting" funds to the arts when such need exists.

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Most Popular PhilanTopic Posts (November 2013)

December 01, 2013

Hope you all had a fun and relaxing Thanksgiving holiday. With 2013 rapidly coming to a close, it's time to look back at the most popular posts on PhilanTopic during the month of November:

What have you been reading/watching/listening to? Share your favorites in the comments section below....

5 Questions for...Rise Wilson, Director of Philanthropy, Robert Rauschenberg Foundation

November 05, 2013

Like all great artists, Robert Rauschenberg had an uncanny ability to see and shape the future. In a world that was growing smaller and in which creative technologies were more widely disseminated than ever before, he realized that the line between art and life, meaning and interpretation, high and low were increasingly arbitrary and personal.

Rauschenberg also viewed his art as a vehicle for social change and, as he grew older, actively supported people and issues that moved him. In 1990, he established the foundation that bears his name to benefit and promote awareness of the causes and groups close to his heart, which included arts education, environmental causes, and artistic collaborations of various kinds.

Rauschenberg died in 2008 at the age of 82, and today his foundation, led by its board and staff, is in the process of redefining the scope of its activities and transitioning from "a model that was artist-led toward one that serves the public good."

Recently, PND chatted by e-mail with Rise Wilson, who joined RRF as its first director of philanthropy in August, about the foundation's SEED program, which provides unrestricted operating capital to "boundary-pushing" arts organizations in their earliest stages, allowing them to build the capacity and programming.

Headshot_RiseWilsonPhilanthropy News Digest: You and your colleagues have just announced a second round of SEED grants -- $30,000 in unrestricted operating capital to start-up arts organizations around the country. Why start-up organizations?

Rise Wilson: Before I speak to the choice to focus on start-ups, I should clarify that these particular early stage organizations were selected because they were choosing different operating models, pushing the boundaries of their medium, working in an interdisciplinary way, or in some other fashion "nurturing the new." Nominators were encouraged to identify organizations who were exemplary in their efforts to experiment, take risks, and support emerging artists. So the program is not just about start-ups for start-ups' sake but the importance of investing in new and untested models.

What we know from the legacy of our founder, Robert Rauschenberg, who invested in artists at the earliest stages of their careers, is how catalyzing this kind of support can be. Early investment validates that artists -- and, in the case of the SEED program, organizations -- are on the right path. It shores up their financial and logistical capacity to pursue their vision, and it can provide more space to test out ideas -- rather than choosing the safest, most "fund-able" projects to develop.

There is a marked absence of risk capital in arts and culture. Traditional philanthropy still seems to be operating with the tacit expectation that organizations should have at least three years of bootstrapping before receiving institutional support. Though there is wisdom in assessing a potential grantee's capacity to carry out its vision, there are a great many flaws in this metric of grant-worthiness. The ability to bootstrap is often tied to access to wealth, which is not evenly distributed -- geographically, demographically, or culturally. So there is a justice component that is available in the decision to invest in early stage work. To be clear, this justice element was not a core feature in the design of the SEED program, but it's available -- and in my new post at the foundation, it's one I plan to underline.

So there is a justice component, and on a really basic and fundamental level, there is the the fact that we need to figure out how to fund good ideas. Our sector is literally filled with creative thinkers. We are in the business of creativity and creative problem-solving, yet early stage funding is so tenuous it can kill great ideas, through neglect, before they've had a chance to take root. How do you prototype and pilot when funds are only available to proven, tested programs? We have an opportunity to apply lessons and strategies from the social-enterprise sector and impact philanthropy -- to encourage innovation, which by its nature often involves untested ideas, uncertain models, and starting from scratch.

As a foundation, risk-taking is one of our core values, so it is not only the kind of work we support but the way we approach our own. We want to remove barriers for creative thinkers to do good work, even when that means they are new, working with a fiscal sponsor, or have selected a for-profit structure as a way to advance their creative endeavors.

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[Review] 'The Cycle: A Practical Approach to Managing Arts Organizations'

October 28, 2013

Book-cover_The_CycleA spate of negative developments, including the decision of a bankrupt New York City Opera to shut its doors, the ongoing lockout of musicians at the Minnesota Orchestra, and surveys showing a decline in theatre attendance, would seem to spell trouble for nonprofit performing arts organizations.

Don't cue the fat lady just yet, suggests Michael M. Kaiser, president of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, in his new book, The Cycle: A Practical Approach to Managing Arts Organizations (Waltham, MA: Brandeis University Press, 2013). Yes, nonprofit arts organizations face significant challenges — including the aging of their traditional audiences, the impact of disruptive technologies, and the lingering effects of the Great Recession — but by following the principles laid out in his book, any arts organization, regardless of size, target audience, or location, can set in motion "an internal engine that powers consistent success."

Known in some circles as the "turnaround king" for his successful efforts to save or revive financially troubled organizations such as the Kansas City Ballet, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, American Ballet Theatre, and the Royal Opera House in London, Kaiser draws on his extensive experience to illustrate in The Cycle how "good art, well marketed" attracts loyal audiences, volunteers, board members, and donors whose support can be reinvested in developing even bolder, more exciting programming, eventually creating a positive feedback loop with a circular momentum of its own.

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Weekend Link Roundup (October 4-5, 2013)

October 06, 2013

Shutdown_buttonOur weekly roundup of new and noteworthy posts from and about the nonprofit sector....

Arts and Culture

In recent years, school districts across the country have had to restructure their arts curriculums to meet the growing emphasis on standards and the Common Core, while trying to manage with shrinking resources and support for arts education. To celebrate Funding for Arts Month here at the Foundation Center, our colleagues at IssueLab have pulled together a unique collection of reports, case studies, evaluations and white papers focused on the potential benefits of arts education for students and communities alike, complete with examples of the creative ways school districts are dealing with their funding constraints and challenges.

Communications/Marketing

Guest blogging from the Communications Network 2013 Annual Conference in New Orleans earlier this week, Liz Wainger, president of the Wainger Group, reminds readers of Kris Putnam-Walkerly's Philanthropy411 blog that while "data is an essential part of storytelling,...without a narrative you simply have data -- no passion, no call to action, no inspiration. And without data, you have raw emotion hanging in the wind."

For more great coverage of the Commnetwork conference, check out these guest posts by Liz Banse, vice president at Resource Media; Norris West, director of strategic communications at the Annie E. Casey Foundation; Elizabeth Miller, communications associate at the Knight Foundation; and Avalee Weir, communications manager at the Ian Potter Foundation in Australia.

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Weekend Link Roundup (February 16-17, 2013)

February 17, 2013

Presidents-Day2013Our weekly roundup of new and noteworthy posts from and about the nonprofit sector....

Arts and Culture

On the Foundation Center's Transparency Talk blog, James Irvine Foundation president and CEO Jim Canales discusses the foundation's new arts strategy, which has received both positive and negative feedback from the nonprofit community. "I admire those who have stepped forward to criticize aspects of our strategy, whether they believe it is wrong on its merits or they view it as yet another example of 'strategic philanthropy' gone awry, where we are dictating and imposing our solutions upon the field," writes Canales. "That is certainly not out intention.

What is different for us in our new Arts strategy is that rather than continuing with a broad-based approach that funded projects across multiple objectives, we made the strategic decision to direct our finite resources in a way that, in our view, will best position the arts field for future viability and success. In doing so, we are openly expressing a point of view about how we think the field must evolve to ensure its dynamism and relevance. Yet, we are very clear about our willingness to learn with our partners in this effort, to refine our approach accordingly, and to help to advance the field's understanding of the many ways to engage a broader cross-section of Californians (in our case) in the arts....

So, please keep the ideas, observations and critiques coming. It's the best way to ensure we can achieve the end we all agree upon: a vibrant, relevant and successful arts field....

Fundraising

The Mertz Gilmore Foundation and NYU Wagner's Research Center for Leadership in Action have issued a new report, Beyond Foundation Funding: Revenue-Generating Strategies for Sustainable Social Change (84 pages, PDF), that's designed to aid social change organizations, funders, and technical assistance providers in discussing and implementing different fundraising and revenue-generating practices.

Future Fundraising Now blogger Jeff Brooks has a few choice words for fundraising consultants who show up at sector conferences with slick PowerPoint presentations designed to shame attendees into contracting their services, but who never, ever reveal whether the campaigns they are so proud of creating actually worked or not.

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Weekend Link Roundup (December 8-9, 2012)

December 09, 2012

Imagine_strawberryOur weekly roundup of new and noteworthy posts from and about the nonprofit sector....

Arts and Culture

On its Web site, the James Irvine Foundation unveils a snazzy new infographic format to share what it has learned about arts and arts organizations in California through the work of its Arts Innovation Fund.

Climate Change

In an impassioned post on the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy's Keeping A Close Eye blog, Lisa Ranghelli urges foundation leaders to get involved in the fight against a warming planet.

Fundraising

On his Future Fundraising Now blog, Jeff Brooks, author of the Fundraiser's Guide to Irresistible Communications, provides a timely reminder to fundraisers to "keep calm."

Impact/Effectiveness

On the Philanthropy Potluck blog, Minnesota Council on Foundations research manager Anne Bauers shares findings from NTEN's The State of Nonprofit Data report, which found that a lack of expertise, issues of time and prioritization, and challenges with technology, among other things, are holding many organizations back from tracking and using data more effectively.

To help organizations looking to close their data skills gap, Beth Kanter, co-author (with KD Paine) of Measuring the Networked Nonprofit, shares some data visualization resources that she's come across recently.

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'Funding for the Arts' Month: Arts and Community Engagement

October 20, 2012

(Kyoko Uchida is features editor at Philanthropy News Digest. In her last post, she provided some background on the deteriorating situation in Syria through the lens of half a dozen foundation-sponsored publications.)

Irrigate_artshappenIn a commentary piece on Philanthropy News Digest earlier this month, Sharon DeMark, a program officer for the arts at Minnesota Philanthropy Partners, argued for expanding the definition of arts engagement in grantmaking. While citing examples of arts institutions that are experimenting with new ways to attract younger and more diverse audiences, DeMark also noted that the lion's share of grant dollars goes to a handful of large, established organizations, and that there is ample opportunity for funders to identify and support smaller, lesser-known groups and individual artists.

One example mentioned by DeMark that elicited comment was the Walker Arts Center's recent Internet Cat Video Festival, which showcased short videos curated by an online community from among more than ten thousand submissions. "Think expansively, yes," one comment on DeMark's piece read. "Pander to the lowest common denominators and call it the arts, no." Fair enough, but if the subject hadn't been cat videos, would this kind of crowdsourcing be considered "pandering"? Whatever your view of cat videos, there are any number of contests in which the public are invited to vote for their favorite arts organization to receive funding; for example, five South Florida nonprofit arts groups currently are competing for votes via text message to win $20,000 in the first Knight Arts Challenge People's Choice Awards. While it goes without saying that online popularity contests are in many ways a flawed mechanism for awarding philanthropic support, they have been shown to engage more diverse audiences in the arts by giving them a say in directing support to less established groups and artists.

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Libraries and Latinos: Return to Adams County

August 14, 2012

(Kathryn Pyle recently marked her fourth anniversary as a PhilanTopic contributor. In her last post, she wrote about the Justice Matters series at Filmfest DC.)

Children_with_booksFour years ago, in my first post for PhilanTopic, I described how the Adams County Library system in a rural part of south central Pennsylvania used a modest donation to try out some new ideas and improve its services for the growing Latino population in the area, mainly families and seasonal workers from Mexico.

Since then, thanks to PhilanTopic's broad and inclusive vision of civic life, I've written about a presidential inauguration, a "City of Trees," the first moon landing, transitional justice, a memorial park in Argentina, and -- most frequently -- social issue documentaries and the organizations that support them. Over that time, I've really enjoyed the opportunity the PND team has given me to refine my vision of the nexus of philanthropy and social justice. But today, because this is my thirtieth (!) post for PhilanTopic, I thought it would be interesting to revisit Adams County to see what, if anything, has changed.

I caught up with library director Rob Lesher on his way to the annual library book sale, which was organized by the Friends of the Library at the main branch in Gettysburg; Lesher told me they hoped to raise at least $25,000. That's a lot of used books and a big shot in the arm for any library in an era of government cuts.

"It's been a challenge financially," says Lesher. "But the big news is that this summer we've seen the highest circulation months in our history. Seventy-five thousand items circulated in July, part of a fifteen-year pattern of growth. And 2011 was a record year, with seven hundred and fifty thousand items circulated; we'll equal that this year. Despite the cutbacks, we've managed to expand our services to Latinos. The key has been experimenting with new programs and partnering with community organizations."

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Eye On: Bill and Karen Ackman

July 31, 2012

(This is the first in a series of short profiles of individuals, couples, and families that have signed the Giving Pledge, the well-publicized effort spearheaded by Warren Buffett and Bill and Melinda Gates to encourage the wealthiest Americans to commit the majority of their assets to philanthropic causes. For more about the Ackmans and the other eighty Giving Pledgers, visit the Foundation Center's brand-new Web portal, Eye on the Giving Pledge.)

Ackmans-lgSome of Bill Ackman's earliest memories "include my father's exhortations about how important it is to give back." That disclosure is included in the "pledge" letter Ackman wrote on joining the Giving Pledge campaign earlier this year. 'These early teachings were ingrained in me," the letter continues, "and a portion of the first dollars I earned, I gave away. Over the years, the emotional and psychological returns I have earned from charitable giving have been enormous. The more I do for others, the happier I am."

A happy man, indeed. An "activist" investor whose Pershing Square Capital Management (PSCM) has made strategic investments in some of North America's best-known companies, Ackman, 46, has amassed a considerable fortune in his two decades as a hedge fund manager -- and is already busy giving it away, even as he continues to be a force on Wall Street.

But then, Ackman was marked for success from a young age. The son of a successful real estate executive in New York City, Ackman was raised in the wealthy Westchester County suburb of Chappaqua and earned a B.A. (graduating magna cum laude) in 1988 from Harvard College and an MBA from Harvard Business School in 1992. (Cambridge is also where he met his wife, Karen, nee Herskovitz, who received a master's in landscape architecture from Harvard and subsequently worked for the Central Park Conservancy.)

That same year, Ackman and David Berkowitz, a friend from Harvard, co-founded the hedge fund Gotham Partners and, using a wide-ranging investment approach, grew it into a half-billion-dollar concern. The two split when Gotham closed in 2003, and Ackman wasted no time launching New York City-based PSCM in 2004.

From the beginning, PSCM's activist approach to making money was straightforward: identify an undervalued and/or underperforming company using proprietary research, build a large equity position in the company, and use that position to pressure management to make changes -- typically by liquidating assets, closing down non-core businesses, or eliminating inefficiencies -- that improve the company's profitability and boost its share price. Over the years, Pershing Square "targets" have included the likes of Wendy's International, McDonald's Corp., Fortune Brands, Borders, Target Corp., JC Penney, Canadian Pacific Railway, and Procter & Gamble. And while not all of Pershing's campaigns have succeeded in the way Ackman and his partners had hoped, enough have to make Ackman a wealthy and -- in some quarters -- feared man.

Which is all the more surprising given Ackman's low-key demeanor and penchant for progressive causes. Already philanthropically active in their thirties, Ackman and his wife began to think about ramping up their philanthropy as they neared forty and created the Pershing Square Foundation in 2006 as a vehicle to that end. Since then, the foundation has announced more than $145 million in grants and social investments in the areas of economic development, education, health care, human rights, the arts, and urban development. In 2010, for example, the foundation pledged $25 million to support K-12 education reforms in Newark, New Jersey, helping to match Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg's $100 million gift to the city's schools.

Other significant grants announced by the foundation include commitments of more than $6 million each to the One Acre Fund and Root Capital, innovative organizations working to transform the lives of smallholder farmers in parts of Africa and Latin America; $10 million over five years to Human Rights Watch, the highly respected watchdog and advocacy organization; and $25 million to the Signature Theatre in New York City to help ensure that affordable tickets are available for every Signature production over the next twenty years.

And of course, with a little friendly encouragement from Warren Buffett, they were among the twelve new families or individuals to sign the Giving Pledge in April. As Ackman told Fortune at the time:

"While my motivations for giving are not driven by a profit motive, I am quite sure that I have earned financial returns from giving money away. Not directly by any means, but rather as a result of giving money away. A number of my closest friends, partners, and advisors I met through charitable giving. Their advice, judgment, and partnership have been invaluable in my business and in my life. Life becomes richer, the more one gives away."

-- Mitch Nauffts

Last updated: August 6, 2012

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