Not every grantmaker’s funding priorities fit the programming of every organization. To avoid wasting time (yours and the program officer’s) and money, it is important to have a clear understanding of each grantmaker’s priorities. Even though you are doing fantastic work and you believe that you deserve the support from Foundation A, the foundation’s priorities may not align with your mission. And, a severe mistake that many artistic/executive directors have made is to create a program that veers from their central focus in order to receive funding from a foundation whose priorities are not a clear match with their organization’s programming. This is a disaster waiting to happen.
But by getting to know and understand a grantmaker’s priorities, one may, from time to time, find a project that is appropriate for both the organization and a new funder. A key to success in the area of grantmaker support is to plan organizational programming with enough lead-time to be strategic about funding sources that could be a match for the project. I have been asked many times about the possibility of getting support for a specific project from Foundation A or Foundation B, only to be told that performances are planned two-three months from now. Well, forget about grantmaker support.
When possible, an organization should plan programming 18 – 24 months in advance to allow their fundraising professionals the time to identify/cultivate funding prospects, and to submit a proposal in a timely fashion. Below are some case studies from my personal experience that demonstrate how advanced planning and thoughtful attention to grantmaker priorities can assist an organization in achieving success.
Lincoln Theater Napa Valley
From January 2009 – May 2011, I served as executive director of Lincoln Theater Napa Valley, a non-profit presenting theater in Northern California. There is a large Latino community in the Napa Valley and local surveys showed that none of the
region’s arts organizations were serving this community. Realizing that the large majority of the Latinos in our community were Mexican-Americans or recent Mexican immigrants, I knew that neither a flamenco nor a tango show would speak to this community. As I had a decent working knowledge of Mexican culture, I came up with a two-pronged project that I hoped could also attract grantmaker support.
I investigated the US management for Mariachi Vargas de Tecalitlán, the most renowned ensemble of its type in Mexico. Having some years of experience with the field, I knew that this was a household name, particularly for Mexican immigrants, and that this was an ensemble that would attract more attention than one of the many fine American-based mariachis. Even better, Mariachi Vargas tours the US regularly, so there would be no issues surrounding visas for the artists. I reached a tentative agreement with the US manager for Mariachi Vargas and the proceeded to find a highly regarded regional Ballet Folklórico company that could be brought in for the second component of the project (a project must be multidisciplinary to apply to the Presenting program at the National Endowment for the Arts).
With dates penciled in for about 20 months in the future, I developed a list of funders that would be appropriate for the project. Three immediately came to mind: The National Endowment for the Arts, the James Irvine Foundation, and the California Arts Council. Lincoln Theater had never been funded by any of these grantmakers. A schedule of deadlines was developed, and proposals were written and submitted. The result was: $20,000 from the NEA; $25,000 from the James Irvine Foundation, and $9,500 from the CAC – for a total of $54,500, approximately the total anticipated costs (with technical staffing and marketing) for the entire project.
We had been successful in fully funding the project. It is important to remember, however, that this is not a project that was dreamed-up just to secure grantmaker support. This was a project that was at the heart of the organization’s mission – to serve the ENTIRE community – and had support from a variety of community leaders. So, Lincoln Theater began to work on the marketing/promotion end of the project with the security that this project was fully capitalized.
The Lincoln Theater staff (I had left the organization by this point) subsequently created partnerships with 2-3 non-profit social-service organizations with strong ties to the Latino community. Each organization promoted the Mariachi Vargas concert to their own constituents, receiving a percentage of the revenue for tickets sold through their efforts. The show sold out completely, netting a handsome profit for Lincoln Theater and providing critical support for the partner agencies.
In addition to achieving fiscal success, Lincoln Theater established a relationship with three new grantmakers, gained partnerships within the community, and succeeded in establishing a relationship with a new constituency, the region’s growing Latino population.
Cypress String Quartet
I had worked with the Cypress String Quartet in a variety of capacities over many years. The ensemble had wisely set itself up as a non-profit organization and had
been very successful in securing support from both individuals and grantmakers. There were a handful of grantmakers, however, whose funding priorities were always outside of the range of the ensemble’s programming. Many of these grantmakers supported the arts in a significant way, but classical music (and especially standard repertoire) was not a funding priority.
When I was told that the Cypress was planning a new project in celebration of their 20th Anniversary Season called “Beethoven in the City,” I was intrigued. My mood elevated to excitement when I was told that the project would entail 16 free concerts, each featuring one of Beethoven’s string quartets, throughout San Francisco. I met with the Cypress’ Executive Director and we both agreed that partnering with agencies and non-profit organizations that serve individuals in the community who are generally not inclined to attend classical music concerts would be a fantastic means to reach out to new audience members. Maggee (the ED), subsequently met with and established relationships with a variety of organizations that serve low income and homeless individuals in all 11 districts of the city.
With a growing list of partnerships in hand, I began to contact key foundation program officers and to submit letters of intent and preliminary applications. Based on the fact that the Cypress was going far beyond what most classical music organizations do on a normal basis to reach out to the community, we were successful in securing grants that included: $32,000 from the James Irvine Foundation; $20,000 from the Walter & Elise Haas Fund; and $20,000 from the San Francisco Arts Commission. The Cypress had never received funding from any of these grantmakers. They received support for “Beethoven in the City” because the program officers were very impressed with the effort that the ensemble had made in reaching out to the community.
Again, a sincere desire to move beyond the norm to serve the community resulted in establishing relationships with new funders, as well as with key partner organizations. (The project has not been implemented as of this writing. This case study will be updated once the project has been completed.)
San Francisco Chamber Orchestra
I was chosen in 2002 to be Executive Director of the San Francisco Chamber Orchestra. The organization had a long history, but due to a variety of circumstances had fallen into a deep decline that had eroded its once pristine reputation among Bay Area audiences. My friend, Benjamin Simon, had been named Music Director and, knowing Ben’s musicianship and dedication to quality, I knew that the performance level would soon rise to a highly professional, artistic level.
A major issue facing SFCO was the lack of a funding base. For more than a decade, the organization had survived on contributions from a small set of individuals and had received no institutional support. The year prior to our joining the organizations, SFCO had a budget of less than $15,000! So, there was a lot of work ahead of us.
In scanning possibilities for grantmaker support, I noticed that the Wallace Alexander Gerbode Foundation had just announced that it would be funding composer commissions for the following year. Chosen projects would receive grants of $50,000 (split evenly between the organization and the composer). Knowing the new music community fairly well (I am a composer), I suggested that Ben and I meet with Paul Dresher, a well-known and well-respected Bay area composer/musician. We suggested to Paul that he compose a piece that we could pair with Aaron Copland’s original 13-instrument score for the ballet Appalachian Spring. Paul agreed to work with us and we submitted the proposal.
Needless to say, we were ecstatic when the awards were announced some four months later and our project had been one of six chosen for support. The grant had an instantaneous effect on SFCO: the funding paid for the entire set of concerts that include Paul’s new work and re-established the organization in the eyes of other Bay Area grantmakers. The San Francisco Chamber Orchestra has since grown into a leading ensemble of its type on Northern California and has built a variety of strong relationships with regional and national grantmakers.