Grants’ Tomb

knightThe Knight Foundation has compiled a self-congratulatory report they’d like the entire philanthropic community to embrace.

For professional reasons, I reviewed the report carefully.  A self-praising screed with which they’re apparently enamored, they’re sure the rest of the world will be similarly smitten.  IMHO, it boils down to a very few findings, all of which appear in the Captain Obvious playbook that large, hidebound, stuffy, self-directed organizations tend to overlook.  E.g.,:

  1. If Foundations offer more grant opportunities, they’ll receive more grant applications and broaden the range of applicants.
  2. Promoting grant opportunities aggressively, using the network of established outlets with large constituencies, encourages new participants.
  3. The fewer restrictions on fundable activities, the more activities will be proposed.
  4. Facilitating the application process encourages non-traditional applicants to participate.

Can I hear a collective, “Duh”?  But they’re very proud of themselves, and now they’ve launched a webinar on August 8th for other grant-makers to share their wisdom.

If you haven’t already, click here to register today (**limited spaces available) and get instructions on how to join the webinar…..The webinar is being done in conjunction with a new report from the Knight Foundation, “Why Contests Improve Philanthropy: Six Lessons on Designing Public Prizes for Impact,” and builds on Case’s work in contests and challenges over the past six years, including the Make It Your Own Awards, America’s Giving Challenge, White House Summit on Prizes and Challenges and Finding Fearless.

(I can’t promise that these links will work: they don’t for me, even though as a grantee organization, Knight sent them to me directly.  Given my lifelong history, I hesitate to blame Knight or anybody else for sloppy technology, but at the same time, I can state that over the years, my experience with their on-line programs and reporting system has been dismal, and their staff loath to acknowledge user difficulties.)

In fact, anybody in the grant-seeking business could have told them (and probably did — but they never listen) that their grant-award process was ineffective save for its capacity to direct huge funding to precisely the recipients they pre-select for awards.  It is a deliberately-closed system barely masquerading as a granting mechanism, heavily reliant on a Who Knows Whom basis, and not at all meant to uncover the sorts of new projects/artists/grantees that would energize the creative community they claim they wish to nurture.

Their strange use of the word “Contest” throughout the study — which, by the way, is presented in a very difficult-to-read on-line format (see link) — threw me at first, until I realized it merely describes a commonplace grant opportunity — the only distinction consisting of its wide promotion to an extended pool of prospective applicants, a departure from the established MO to ensure tight control.  In fact, this represents progress, and better late than never, but it’s a tiny overdue step, and there are a myriad of approaches they might have implemented that would have demonstrated more leadership, acuity, and commitment to the community.

If they’d like to hear what these approaches are, I’d be delighted to work with them.  For a price, of course.

All this aside, I doubt you’d hear too many discouraging words about Knight’s work in the community to infuse the arts with significant, desperately needed funding.  In fact, they’ve done yeoman’s work to encourage creativity and launch innovative projects.  Their classless self-congratulatory stance needs to be set aside in the “ends justifies the means” spirit.  They could have done much more, much sooner, and much better.

But we can’t let the perfect become the enemy of the good.   In my view, it’s worth one blog post.  Thanks for stopping by.

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12 Responses to Grants’ Tomb

  1. Beardsley says:

    I agree — there’s nothing especially enlightening in that report, and they do seem very proud of themselves but that’s been the public stance since the launch of the Arts Challenge. At some stage they calculated that a dose of shameless self-promotion was well worth the impact it would cause. Observers less invested in the industry than you are won’t have the same reaction. As you note, the resources they invested and the excitement they generated are both valuable and precedent-setting. So, two cheers.

  2. Barbara Ganousch says:

    Their “Random Acts of Culture” were awesome, and the way they went viral was brilliant promotion.

  3. Potatohead says:

    Boy, does this stink. Look at that list of four things. They’re obvious? Maybe so, but the Knight Foundation is the only significant funder that’s actually DOING ANYTHING about these principles. State and Federal cultural grant arms put infuriatingly byzantine procedures in place to force public-serving non-profits to jump through flaming hoops for ever-diminishing sums, and the established private foundations are not far behind. (You know what I’m talking about, but for the uninitiated it’s just about the midway point between Orwellian and Kafkaesque.)

    So here comes the Knight Foundation, by far the biggest player that’s dared to put a straightforward grant application process in place (“tell us in plain English how much you need and what you plan to do”) — and you’re criticizing them for a report that taunts the success of that approach? Has it occurred to you that a report from these people might actually be read by the bureaucratic sadists who put the grant procedures at those other organizations in place and make an actual difference?

    Maybe you ARE one of those bureaucratic sadists. Or maybe you’re a “fundraising professional” — someone who extracts exorbitant fees from non-profits in exchange for helping them jump through said flaming hoops — and you’re feeling your livelihood threatened by anything that might help move us forward.

    So, this is all pretty off-base. But special recognition to the paragraph with “It is a deliberately-closed system … heavily reliant on a Who Knows Whom basis, and not at all meant to uncover the sorts of new projects/artists/grantees that would energize the creative community they claim they wish to nurture.”

    BULL-shit. Look at the list of Knight Challenge grant recipients and you’ll find a higher proportion of people and organizations who have never received a grant from anyone than on any list from any funder. I challenge you to find an organization that does a better job of encouraging worthy people of applying for these grants — and actually giving them money. They’re expanding the ecosystem, making the process easier, funding awesome stuff, and now they’re spreading the word about it. You’re just pissing in everyone’s lemonade.

    • Squathole says:

      Potatohead:

      First, thanks for your thoughtful comments, exactly the sort of dialog I was hoping this would inspire, although not with a lot of faith that it would. (After all, who reads blogs these days, let alone mine?)

      I’m glad you agree with me that these 4 points were obvious. I agree with your assessment of state and Federal grant processes. I’ve been ragging those people for years (to no avail, of course). I also agree that the Knight Foundation — almost uniquely — stepped up and changed the game. They implemented a program based on an RFP that was transparent and user-friendly, precisely the sort of template fundraising professionals like myself have pleaded for over the years. No, it doesn’t threaten my livelihood — it makes matters better all around. Win-Win and all that.

      And as I pointed out — insufficiently clearly, I guess, because you missed it while singling out the paragraph for “special recognition” — this unique program stands in contrast to their usual procedures; “a departure from the established MO to ensure tight control” shared by the majority of private funders, which I described as the “closed system” based on “Who knows Whom.” The Arts Challenge was NOT what I was referencing by that remark. Quite the opposite, although I think you’ll see that a considerable proportion of the grant money awarded, especially in Year One, went to established agencies, including the Opera and M-D Public Schools.

      Take another look if you have the time. I praised the process and their leadership. My criticism is that it was a long time coming; that had they (and others) taken the trouble to listen more closely to the artists and administrators in the field over the years it would have happened long ago. In some respects, I found their initial announcement somewhat redeeming: Finally, somebody LISTENED and GOT IT! And while I think their report is classless and condescending, I also concede that it’s probably an effective communications piece for the general public at which it is aimed.

      Again, thanks for spending the time and sharing good thoughts. Stay away from the lemonade, though.

      • Potatohead says:

        Huh? What??

        Can I hear a collective, “Duh”? But they’re very proud of themselves, and now they’ve launched a webinar on August 8th for other grant-makers to share their wisdom.

        In fact, anybody in the grant-seeking business could have told them (and probably did — but they never listen) that their grant-award process was ineffective save for its capacity to direct huge funding to precisely the recipients they pre-select for awards.

        You’re telling me that the “they” in the first graf refers to Knight, and the “them” in the second graf refers to not-Knight? Perhaps it’s you that should re-read?

      • Squathole says:

        PH: Sorry you’re still having trouble with this. As I tried to clarify, the reference to the flawed system in the second paragraph you cite is not the Arts Challenge process, but every other grant award process Knight (and about everybody else in the business) manages. The they and them have identical referents — Knight.

      • Potatohead says:

        In fact, anybody in the grant-seeking business could have told them (and probably did — but they never listen) that their grant-award process was ineffective save for its capacity to direct huge funding to precisely the recipients they pre-select for awards.

        Yeah, your think isn’t clear at all. But so if that graff DOES point at Knight, isn’t the existence of this here Knight Challenge program proof of the fact that they not only DID listen, but actually acted, and in a big way??

      • Squathole says:

        Maybe they finally listened and got it, or a blind squirrel found a nut in the snowbank after all. Or maybe they backed into it — determined that they wanted lots of hype and excitement, and the way to generate that would be to inspire lots of aspirants, and to encourage lots of aspirants they simplified the process, etc. I wasn’t part of the brain trust that cooked this up, so I don’t know how it came about.

        Keep in mind this outfit has been around for half a century. It took them all this time to reach a point that any sensible non-profit executive achieves after a decade in the thick of it. That’s what the silo effect, insulation, and the echo chamber can do to keep you clueless about serving constituents.

        But as I said, I’m glad it did, and I hope other funders take at least that particular lesson away from the webinar. And I hope Knight learns lessons, too, and revises procedures opens that up its other grant programs. I’ve seen no evidence of that whatsoever.

  4. julesagray says:

    I just applied for a Knight Challenge Grant. We shall see, but I’m not hopeful.

  5. Flaming Yon says:

    Settle down Potatohead — you and Obalesque — and I — are on the same side. You’re being picky, and he’s being crabby (as usual). The Challenge Grant program is a success, and Knight’s methodology was sound. I don’t have the same problem with the report that Squathole does, but I agree that the takeaways are pretty damn obvious and if the world of foundations like Knight and other donors really wanted clarity and openness, they would have put these obvious axioms in play decades ago. Squathole is just sulking because nobody listened to him when he said all this years ago. I’m in the field and I feel the same way — but I’m glad the maybe the day has come, and if this webinar and report bring it on, it all good.

  6. Joe Balls says:

    Great discussion, dudes. Can we get back to national tequila day now?

  7. MadamI says:

    Don’t you find it ironic that challenge and grant are used together as if they were symbiotic? Don’t hold your breath jules….

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