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Disrupting Arts Philanthropy: Five Lessons Learned

July 10, 2018

Memphis_music_initiative_1The work of Memphis Music Initiative (MMI), which was featured in the recent study Toward the Future of Arts Philanthropy, is centered on  community empowerment through arts funding. The study explores MMI's funding and programmatic practices in the context of promoting equity and inclusive practices in arts funding, access to arts education, and youth development and offers a potential strategic framework for other capacity builders committed to equity in the arts.

The effects of race and place on access to funding and other resources are evident in what we call "philanthropic redlining" — patterns of exclusionary funding practices that all too regularly frustrate arts organizations led by people of color and hamper their efforts to serve marginalized communities. As noted in our study, public funding for the arts at the state and federal levels is down as much as 30 percent over the last decade, and the situation for black- and brown-led organizations, which are often dependent on such funding, is even more precarious. At MMI, a crucial aspect of our work is our commitment to address this issue through a proactive, and corrective, approach we call "disruptive philanthropy."

In addition to operating direct programs that provide music engagement opportunities for black and brown youth, we work to nurture and expand the arts ecosystem in Memphis by supporting community organizations working on the frontlines to increase access to music programs for youth of color. We believe that investments in black-led organizations are an investment in long-term community sustainability. We invest to build strong and efficient organizations — with a focus on communities of color — through general operating support grants as well as supports aimed at fostering sustainability and improving the quality of their programs. Our goal is to enhance the capacity of nonprofit organizations to deliver programs and secure sustainable funding and other resources beyond those provided by MMI. We are working to build a pipeline of community-based leaders dedicated to improving conditions for black and brown youth and to give black and brown leaders the space and time to fulfill their potential and achieve their goals.

In our direct programs, we take our people-centered investment to an even higher level. Our summer program, MMI Works, provides paid opportunities for high school students to work in arts nonprofits and businesses. Participating black and brown youth gain access to career training as well as professional and personal development, building the skills and the networks needed for long-term success. We also invest in the region's creative economy through our In-Schools Fellowship program, which pairs local musicians with Memphis schools and reaches more than four thousand students through instruction and mentorship.

We are a learning organization and constantly evaluate what is working well and what we can improve on. Here are five takeaways from our work that continue to inform our disruptive approach:

1. It's not about you, Philanthropy. Philanthropic work isn't about showing how smart you are; it's about empowering and liberating people. Those who seek to help must respect the community as experts in order to drive solutions that work for the world that they know best. Our work doesn't exist in a vacuum. Whether it's musicians, neighborhood leaders, youth, or teachers, we need as many voices in the room as possible if we are to represent the true needs and interests of those we aim to serve.

2. Brace yourself for difficult conversations. Be prepared to take a lot of heat when you start to talk about moving money and shifting power. It's a zero-sum game. For an organization like ours based in the racialized South, the realities of the region's past play out on a daily basis. In order to move through and past those dynamics, there has to be frank and honest recognition of the institutional practices and structures that have led to the historical neglect of black- and brown-led organizations and communities. And that requires deep thinking about the equitable practices you employ, at every level of your work.

3. "Relationships are the new grant application." This idea was inspired by a colleague and friend in equity and community-based work, Takema Robinson, principal at New Orleans-based consulting firm Converge. Thanks to Takema, MMI will be grantee report- and application-free by 2019. In an effort to rethink the kind and amount of information we need from our partners, we are transitioning from an already short application form to verbal site visit-based reporting. We have always funded, engaged, and partnered with organizations no matter where they are on the organizational development continuum. But by meeting organizations where they are and dispensing with the trappings of traditional grantmaking, we hope to make it easier for our partners to focus on their missions and efforts to engage youth of color.

4. Impatience and comfort zones are enemies of impact. Disrupting established patterns of philanthropy requires focusing on long-term results and reexamining one's relationship with the words "data" and "evaluation." The kinds of metrics funders have traditionally used to capture "impact" does not have to be the only way we measure success in this work. Just as it has taken many years for the practices that perpetuate disparities and unequal distribution of resources to become ingrained in the sector, it will take time and new tactics to change the system for the better.

5. Stop centering whiteness in diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) efforts. This means shifting away from prioritizing the perspective of any group — including gender, sexual orientation, or class —that traditionally has had the upper hand in philanthropic power dynamics. MMI is led mostly by people of color, and in our work we intentionally empower other leaders of color in arts organizations to have voice. As we recognize organizations for their individual programs, we also push leaders of color to build relationships and foster partnerships that support and encourage their peers.

By no means is this an exhaustive list of what it takes to disrupt philanthropy. The elements may vary based on the community context and operating ethos of each organization. The common thread to a disruptive approach is taking whatever step it takes to "do philanthropy differently." We do not take the journey of this work for granted; we approach it with humility on a daily basis. We believe that our youth, families, and neighborhoods deserve not only different types of support, but exponentially more of our time, talent, and treasure, and our experiences continue to shape and refine our work as we endeavor to be timely and responsive in addressing the needs of the community. We hope that our work will offer some insights that can be replicated in other philanthropic initiatives aimed at spurring transformative change in communities of color.

Kiesha_davis_for_PhilanTopicKiesha Davis is director of grantmaking and capacity building at Memphis Music Initiative, where she leads a team responsible for investments to build strong and efficient organizations serving communities of color.

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