Bad Relationships Have a Way of Spreading

Bad relationships have a way of spreading, and no matter what the cause, having a bad relationship with funders is killing.

You could say that a single grant – say $10,000 dollars – doesn’t make a difference in a career. But I’ve seen how good business people turn that 10 into 30 and that 30 into 300. And without that ten, that thirty, it’s impossible to get off the ground.

Sitting here this evening working on the brochure for our FY 12 advocacy day I’m trying to revisit some key turning points for my own business. In the last administration I submitted 14 grants and got none. I know I make strong well crafted art. I work hard, and I’m a nice person. And I’m also a good writer. How did I not get any of those grants???? Not one? Many reasons, sure, but here’s one turning point I’m aware of:

The position of Executive Director at any government agency or foundation is one of tremendous influence. The Executive Director is like a Council-member; they may not have direct budget spending authority, but they carry massive influence on decision-making at all levels.

One way to influence granting is through the stacking of granting panels. Hypothetically, judging done by these independent expert panels is just that. In reality, DC is a very small community, and commission staff are directed to ask/pick the folks to be on the panels. And, being on a panel is a lot like jury duty: you don’t get paid for it, and you have to take off work, so it’s a self-selecting self-interested group that is even willing to serve. In a small city, then, these independent panels put together to judge grants are highly insular, and can either represent a thoughtfully independent cross-section of the arts community, or an insular cross-section of the arts community. It’s important not to be on the outs.

That the judges consider projects and programs in the same panels from organizations with annual budgets from $5,000 to $50,000 to $5,000,000 dollars annually is in some ways lovely, but in other ways terribly dumb. In the quality and attention given by full time staff not only to the projects but to the grant applications themselves it’s clear that panels return predictable results, and the volume of “repeat winners” is neither random nor efficient.

During the last several years of economic downturn, with decreasing budget the agency might reasonably have reduced programming and focused on preserving granting pools for artists and arts organizations threatened by the downturn. Agencies in many states and municipalities did that. But the DC commission began a proud, loud, and costly marketing campaign and expansion of assorted non-core programs (some quickly abandoned.) Let’s be clear specifically about what a marketing campaign (taking out paid ads) did and did not do for grantees. Anyone in marketing knows that to work, ads take more than one impression. If you have 500 grantees, when you’re “marketing them” you’re actually just marketing the agency.

The way the commission chose to accommodate the downturn was by directing panels to spread the money further. They increased the actual number of grants given, but gave fewer grantees the full award. This might have been a real efficiency were it not for the volume of repeat winners panel to panel to panel to panel.

Growing the local advocacy organization – as I did – in that kind of environment was obviously a challenge. I’m watching this happen, and I’m dialoguing with politicians fighting for arts agency budget, and they’re talking about demanding greater efficiency, and I’m making these suggestions to the agency but have no control, and I’m being perceived as a bitter pill, and I’m aware that the agency is spending money on ‘innovative’ marketing programs and pop-up arts shops rather than sustaining arts organizations experiencing the worst recession in fifty years or investing efficiently in small new ones… And I dissented vocally and I’ve paid a price for that bad relationship. And bad relationships really do have a way of spreading. Understanding it doesn’t make the denial of opportunity, or the stamp of failure from all those rejections, easier to bear.

Sitting documenting the importance of grants to all these artists and arts organizations it’s hard not to be just the tiniest bit hardened by my story not being among them. I’ve dedicated my heart and soul to this path, and I know I’m a worthy investment. It’s four years later. How do I heal those relationships and how do I lose my own bitterness over the experience? I’d appreciate any reader input.

Author: Robert Bettmann

Founder of Day Eight, and the DC Arts Writing Fellowship.