“You Have to Actually Change.” A Major Theater Funder's Quest to Diversify Its Decision-Making

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It’s hard to overstate the challenges facing performing arts organizations. Audience levels haven’t returned to pre-pandemic levels, production costs are through the roof and fundraisers are grappling with a shrinking donor pool. Funders are doing all they can to keep organizations afloat in this tenuous environment.

But grantmakers also remain committed to following through on a host of post-2020 equity-oriented goals, such as strengthening ties with historically undercapitalized organizations led by and/or serving communities of color and democratizing the grantmaking process. This can be complicated work, so whenever an influential performing arts grantmaker assesses its efforts to become more equitable, it’s worth taking a closer look.

The funder in question here is technically a regrantor — the New England Foundation for the Arts (NEFA), which has disbursed over $11 million to theater ensembles since 2010 through its National Theater Project, thanks to support from the Andrew W. Mellon and Doris Duke foundations.

In mid-August, NEFA published its “National Theater Project Evaluation Report,” which examines the National Theater Project’s impact over the last 10 years. Conducted by McNeil Creative Enterprises, the findings, which came less than two months after the project received renewed three-year commitments from Mellon ($4.4 million) and Doris Duke ($1.7 million), include some compelling takeaways for funders looking to embed equity across their grantmaking.

NEFA Program Director Quita Sullivan’s “favorite finding” in the report is how it captures “an overall analysis of systems and change” around equity issues, citing leaders’ efforts to broaden the National Theater Project’s pool of decision-makers. “By creating a more diverse group of advisors we have been able to organically support more artists of color, more rural artists, more artists that are expanding the definition of theater,” Sullivan said via email. “This approach — so many of these answers are closely interconnected! — has been a linchpin of programmatic impact.”

“Changing starts with who is making decisions”

Post-2020, many funders pledged to revisit or fundamentally alter their grantmaking practices with an eye toward equity — arts funders certainly included. This work naturally varies based on factors like financial resources, mission and the risk tolerance of funders’ boards.

According to Sullivan, the National Theater Project was created to support a distinct segment of the broader theater ecosystem — devised ensemble theater. Its goal “was never to support ‘the usual suspects,’” Sullivan said. “But just wanting to make change doesn’t work; you need to actually change.”

“Changing starts with who is making decisions,” Sullivan said, and for the National Theater Project, the decision-makers are the project’s advisors. “From advising finalists to selecting grantees to fostering relationships within the field, they are at the core of this work.”

Originally, the project’s leaders recruited advisors who had worked professionally as presenters. But over time, they began to seek out people with what the report called “varied professional and personal (including ethnic, ability/disability, and minoritized) backgrounds who lived and worked across the United States.” Leaders also tapped previous Creation and Touring grantees and/or finalists in an advisory role. (To date, the project’s Creation and Touring grants have supported 96 new theater works, enabling ensembles to present those works in in 43 states.)

“Diversifying is expansive because when you diversify decision makers, you expand the number, range and diversity of artists that are receiving support and you expand the interactions with audience, community, presenters, other artists within and beyond the field itself,” Sullivan said. “By changing who makes decisions, we were able to change how things are done — the results of which [show] in the report’s findings on field impact.”

A focus on “social cohesion”

The report illustrates how a more diverse pool of advisors drove an increase in the racial and ethnic makeup of Creation and Touring Grantees between 2015 and 2021. In addition, it notes that “[the project’s] program design proves that collaborative planning and support creates benefits for everyone involved and develops a sense of social cohesion.”

Sullivan said this was the “other big finding” because “that is what funders are being asked to do — to be more human-centric, more supportive of artists. When funders succeed in doing that, it contributes to a whole instead of narrow segments — to that sense of social cohesion. For us, we get there by not just funding ensembles, but operating as an ensemble.”

Performing arts funders have always acknowledged the benefits of bringing people together through performance. It obviously comes with the territory. But in this case, funders are broadening their ambitions not just to gather folks in a room for a few hours, but to generate a sense of belonging, bridge social divides and give voice to historically under-recognized people who may be disengaged from civic life

But if NEFA’s support for devised ensemble theater aims to cultivate a sense of “social cohesion,” how exactly does one measure that?

Sullivan emphasized a specific qualitative type of impact — how the project’s model cultivated “meaningful partnerships” across the project’s stakeholder groups, which include grantees/artists, presenters and advisors. “The idea is important to us, because it indicates a sense of sustainable impact and a strengthening of the ecosystem as a whole,” she said. “It’s particularly important when paired with the finding that many [project] presenters are, as a result of interacting with [the project], presenting work they would not have presented otherwise — and are building meaningful relationships at the same time.”

“Beyond the anecdotal”

This all underscores the need for funders to think more creatively about impact. They can always rely on predictable and static quantitative metrics — e.g., changes in audience numbers — but staging a performance isn’t like producing widgets. It’s a deeply personal and intuitive experience that can’t be easily transcribed in a spreadsheet — even more so when the funder’s goal is to boost social cohesion and durable connections among artists, advisors and ensembles.

“We as a field, including funders, have models for quantitative measurements but no significant models for qualitative measurement beyond the anecdotal,” Sullivan said. “When doing equity-centric work, the story is in the qualitative not merely the quantitative, and we need better tools for capturing that.”

The report offers the National Theater Project a roadmap along those lines, encouraging its staff and grantees to monitor, track and report the program’s intellectual, social and financial capital. For example, “social capital” may be evidenced by “tracking new relationships built, new lines of communication generated, collaborations that emerged, new opportunities created, leveraging personal connections, trust, and cooperation.”

Toward a holistic working model

The report also stresses the need to “diversify and expand fundraising sources to align with the program’s evolution and needs.” Consider the National Theater Project’s evolution. “In the beginning, [the project] was intended to be a grant program,” Sullivan said. “It has turned into a grant service program, in that the money is, of course, important, but it is the connecting, convening and services that [it] provides that are often the most impactful for the field.”

Yet the project’s current funding structure is not fully aligned with this more holistic approach. “Currently, we are facing having to choose between getting dollars directly in artists’ hands and providing the range of connectivity, services, gatherings and opportunities our artists deserve,” Sullivan said. So it’s important, she said, to bring more funders into the fold.

Again, I suspect this dynamic resonates with other funders. Unrestricted support helps organizations and artists pay for supplies, rent or groceries. But as the ecosystem becomes increasingly interconnected and “human-centric,” artists also need opportunities to network with their peers, engage with other funders and build their financial acumen. Unfortunately, there isn’t enough money to do it all.

When I asked Sullivan if there were any other lessons performing arts funders could glean from the report, she alluded to this idea of carefully weighing trade-offs. “A key question for funders to ask is whether focusing on one portion of the ecosystem at the expense of others serves their goals,” she said. “Really interrogating your working model, your focus and your goals, and whether they are in sync, can help prevent a pendulum swing on priorities.”