An article about how Wyoming relies on Federal dollars to support its arts, brought back memories of a panel of philanthropists I heard speak many years ago.
It was a frustrating experience. At the time, I was Executive Director of a small nonprofit. The panelists represented major, national level foundations. Each foundation funded national nonprofits and national causes. Each also funded their local communities.
Had I lived and worked in one of their communities, I would have been thrilled to hear how much they funded their home towns.
Unfortunately, my nonprofit was in a small state, with few heirs to phenomenally large endowments. To obtain money from these large foundations, I needed to apply to one of the national nonprofits they funded, competing against other small nonprofits for the trickle-down largess.
During Q&A, I asked what recourse we agencies in the hinterlands had when it came to applying for their funds. Would these large foundations consider supporting us, as well as their hometowns?
The answer was no.
They supported their home towns, and they supported the national nonprofits. It was up to us to figure out how to survive without having ‘angels’ in our midst.
A HARD LESSON
It’s a hard lesson for us in the hinterlands to learn. Of course, I use hinterlands figuratively. All you need do is look around, and see where the major corporations and major foundations reside. Everywhere else, nonprofits start with at least one fewer arrow in their quiver, at least one fewer prospective major funder. Small communities in particular are vulnerable, as they have fewer prospective donors in general. The arts and culture sector can be particularly vulnerable; unlike in the social sector, there are few government contracts available for their work.
Maybe that’s why boards of directors keep saying things like, “The Gates Foundation has a lot of money; let’s ask them!” and “Maybe Meryl Streep will come to our gala!” Hopes are high, but the reality is that the local nonprofits are not on their radar.
Yet these nonprofits DO succeed, because the national organizations DO make some funds available. In many cases, the Federal government steps in – at least for now, in the arts and humanities, there is the National Endowment for the Arts and National Endowment for the Humanities, each funding large percentages of the rural arts and humanities programming. Other Federal agencies serve other areas, like Department of Education, Corporation for National and Community Service, Department of Labor.
BOOTSTRAPS ARE HAD TO COME BY
These outlying nonprofits also do a very commendable job of enlisting their communities. Often there is volunteerism providing support in the form of unpaid labor. But the very fact of being in smaller communities makes it harder to get sufficient volunteers, either because the communities are small, or because there are barriers in smaller communities (e.g., lack of transportation, lack of childcare) that make volunteering more difficult.
Is this a plea for consideration by the large, national foundations? Maybe. I think it’s more a reminder that there are no one-size-fits-all solutions. Telling small-town organizations in unconnected communities to pull themselves up by their bootstraps is naïve at best, and cruel at worst. First you need bootstraps.
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