“If I didn’t define myself for myself, I would be crunched into other people’s fantasies for me and eaten alive.” – Audre Lorde

Years ago while I was evaluating the success and impact of performing arts presenters in the Midwest, I observed a distinct barrier when utilizing the funder’s evaluation tools to demonstrate grantee success and impact. I observed grantees scrambling to figure out how they could best document their impact within the confines of a grantmaker’s structure. The arts presenters reported what was requested but rarely were they able to share the richness of their impact through the existing reporting structure. It was not until I was able to conduct site visits with the Midwest arts presenters that I was able to really observe what was happening in the grantee organizations. The projects came to life onsite.

I soon recognized that there was a severe disconnect between the grantmaker’s success measures and the mission and/or approach to the work of many of the grantees. I wrestled with how to provide enough insight toward demonstrating some sense of accountability for the grantmakers while also creating space to use the evaluation findings to support grantee effectiveness (e.g., delivering technical assistance).

I discovered along the way that the root of this disconnect was not a grantee’s ability to be “successful”, but the varied definitions used for success. While struggling to figure out how to effectively address this observation, I recalled the words of Audre Lorde, an author whose writings I fondly admire and reflect on regularly. In other words, many grantees are trying to “crunch” their work into someone else’s definition of success, and in that process, their true efforts and impact go unnoticed.

It takes a certain level of transparency on both the grantee and grantmaker’s part to recognize that the existing evaluation model can be limiting and dismissive. What would happen if we asked grantees to share how often they squeeze their work into a funding program offered by a grantmaker so that they can receive money to operate? And, if they then find themselves at a standstill when it’s time to document impact because their approach to the work isn’t aligned with the parameters set by the grantmakers? This reality demonstrates the need for change.

How does a grantmaker respond when an arts & culture organization’s evaluative language doesn’t match their own definition for success? Will the organization fly under the radar because their work as described in the fund proposal is considered not “fund-worthy” or a “poor investment”? Unfortunately, that’s exactly what happens. This practice traditionally leaves small to mid-sized culturally-specific organizations—particularly ones working in artistic traditions from Africa, Latin America, Asia, and the Pacific—underrepresented in major giving practices. Consequently, the distribution of funds is demonstrably out of balance with our evolving cultural landscape and the changing demographics of our communities. The perception among many of the underrepresented organizations is that their work and art is not valued nor accessible by the major funders. Moreover, there is widespread skepticism about their ability and capacity to effectively operate a grant or run an organization among funders. Embedded in this perception is a notion of inferiority toward the art and operational capacity. This reality demonstrates a need for change. While the practices of the grantmaker community differ, my hope is that the entire funding and evaluative model changes.

How do we beget this change I speak of? To lay the foundation, grantmakers and grant seekers must embrace and affirm that the system is broken. This will allow a better playing field to create understanding around how to achieve better synergy between these two entities. This requires humbly revisiting the existing system, examining the role trust and respect play in funding and implementation, citing the disparities in existing funding and evaluative practices, and creating real understanding about the varying success measures that exist in arts and culture organizations.  This will take a great deal of work and requires that grantmakers and grant seekers actively participate and collaborate in designing a new model. Ultimately, the goal is to create a more equitable and inclusive model that is informed by success measures that reflect the interests of both parties.

This sort of change is not easy but it isn’t impossible. In fact, Grantmakers in the Arts (GIA) – a national association of both public and private arts and culture funders in the US – is taking a look at these difficult questions. GIA launched an effort to increase arts funding for ALAANA (African, Latino(a), Asian, Arab, and Native American) constituencies, including artists and arts organizations. I am pleased that a large organization with the capacity of GIA is as interested as I am in working alongside and on behalf of a diverse set of individuals and organizations all committed to the growth and visibility of arts and culture in communities. When I’m invited to support an artist, funder, or organization’s desire to grow from their existing state of operations, I incorporate a few techniques to create effective change. As you consider your existing models I invite grantmakers and grant seekers to consider these techniques when designing new programs and revisiting current funding and evaluative practices:

  1. Begin with Transparency, Curiosity, and Compassion. Create a non-judgmental zone so that real awareness emerges around the difficulties in current operations. Be completely transparent about areas that you might typically be afraid to admit. Put everything on the table leave nothing for assumption. Be curious – ask questions for understanding and respect and recognize that everyone’s realities are different. Utilize those perspectives to effectively design plans to move to the next phase of operation. Use compassion when listening to others speak openly about their realities – recognize that those same realities contributed to the work done thus far even if there is a desire and room for change.
  1. Be Clear on Your Why. The clearer we are about the work we do, the easier it is to articulate it to stakeholders and to design and appropriately measure success. Ask yourself these questions:
  • Why are you doing this work?
  • Who are you hoping to reach? Who are your stakeholders?
  • Is your work altruistic in nature? Do you possess a “charitable” mentality? Don’t place any judgment on how you respond to this question. The important thing is that you are honest and realistically consider the work done to date and plans made for the future.
  • Have you adjusted your values to fit into someone else’s definition of success? If so, how and why? What impact did this have on your work?
  • What sorts of checks and balances do you use to reexamine if your values and programs are still aligned?
  1. Define Success and Use That Definition to Document Your Wins and Areas for Improvement. To avoid misinterpretation of your objectives and the final results, carefully and clearly define what “success” looks like for you. After you clearly define your why, the performance metrics or indicators will more easily emerge and you can assess your progress against your expected and actual outcomes. Document what works and what doesn’t so you can tweak your efforts as necessary. When thinking about how your work contributes to the cultural landscape, consider the benefits of segmenting your work with organizations with similar reach and resources. That is, do not compare apples to oranges. You will not be able to truly identify areas for growth if you compare your efforts to an organization with a different budget, set of resources, and goals.

Embedded in all efforts for change is the desire toward a better reality.  Keep that goal as your guide as you push through the tough conversations, design more responsive tools and create the change you want to see.



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Alison T. McNeil, Founder and President of McNeil Creative Enterprises, is a change agent committed to the increased visibility and growth of arts & culture through strategy, philanthropy, promotion and advocacy. She’s also a Co-Founder and Partner at Third Eye Cultural Collaborative (Third Eye). Third Eye provides strategy, organizational development, and innovation support services that enrich arts and culture organizations and leaders. For over 15 years, Alison has worked in performing arts and education to strengthen operations and lead cross-functional change efforts. Her strategic approach informs policy, secures grants and forms partnerships that expand equity and access for women, emerging leaders and communities of color. An artist at her core, she believes that the arts are a transformative experience that should be accessible to all.