Sarah Solotaroff, Senior Fellow, and Kassie Davis, Senior Program Officer for the Arts, Chicago Community Trust: Funding Chicago's Nonprofit Arts Community

November 8, 2005
Sarah Solotaroff, Senior Fellow, and Kassie Davis, Senior Program Officer for the Arts, Chicago Community Trust: Funding Chicago's Nonprofit Arts Co...

Now celebrating its ninetieth anniversary, the has supported Chicago's arts and cultural community since its creation. To that end, the foundation's arts and culture program works to build and maintain vibrant cultural activities that enrich the lives of individuals and strengthen the communities of metropolitan Chicago. The program includes support for organizations specializing in arts education, dance, literature, media arts, music, theater, visual arts, and arts service, as well as community art centers and music schools, presenters, museums, botanic gardens, and zoos.

Throughout its history, the trust has recognized that the needs of — and funding opportunities available to — arts and cultural organizations change as organizations evolve. With that in mind, in the fall of 2004 the Trust undertook a strategic planning process to inform its funding priorities for fiscal years 2006 through 2008 that included an assessment of changes in the arts and cultural community. In order to broaden the opportunities for arts and cultural organizations to receive funding from the Trust, the arts and culture program's new focus areas are structured to ensure a fair and competitive environment among like-sized organizations and to offer more choices for arts and cultural organizations of all sizes.

In the 2004 survey, large and mid-size organizations identified audience development as the most important issue facing the arts community over the next three years. In response, the Trust announced that it will fund initiatives that attract individuals who constitute a natural audience for an organization but are not currently participants; that intensify current participants' level of involvement; and that attract different kinds of people than the organization already attracts.

Other priorities identified in the survey include organizational development — including board and fundraising development — as well as a strategic focus on arts education, with an eye to promoting strong leadership and systemic change within the Chicago Public Schools by demonstrating the value of quality arts education in dance, music, theater, and visual arts for all children in grades K through 8.

In October, Philanthropy News Digest spoke with trust senior fellow Sarah Solotaroff and senior program officer for the arts Kassie Davis about the changing priorities of the program and how they were arrived at.

Philanthropy News Digest: Tell us about your backgrounds and how you became interested in the arts.

Sarah Solotaroff: This has been my only job in philanthropy. I was originally a college English teacher. Then I did a lot of work in arts administration, before joining the Trust in 1990. So I've been here fifteen years. Now I'm in a senior status working in arts education.

Kassie Davis: I've been in philanthropy since 1990 and ran the corporate giving program at Marshall Fields from 1990 to 1996, after the company was acquired by Target. During the last two years of Governor Jim Edgar's administration, I was director of the , the state agency that makes grants to arts organizations in Illinois. And from 1999 through June of last year, I was a consultant to a number of foundations locally as well as some national nonprofits. I started at the Trust in July 2004 as the full-time senior program officer for the Arts & Culture program.

SS: Since Kassie set the new priorities for the program, I thought it might be interesting to give you an idea of the transition from one set of priorities to another, and then let her describe what she's doing, because the priorities that have emerged are a lot different than the ones we had.

PND: That would be great.

SS: I worked in the arts program for a number of years under a very long-term executive director — Bruce Newman — before that position changed over in 2000 and Donald Stewart became president and CEO. At that time we conducted a strategic plan with the help of McKinsey & Co., did a lot of internal work, and a lot of work with the community to determine the priorities for all our programs.

As a result, we decided to keep our five program areas, which encompass a wide range of charitable areas, one of them being Arts & Culture. After conducting interviews, surveys, and other outreach to the not-for-profit community, we chose three priorities: leadership succession, a dance initiative, and arts education.

It was clear that within the next five to eight years we were going to have a large turnover in leadership positions in area arts organizations....

It was also clear that within the next five to eight years we were going to have a large turnover in leadership positions in Chicago-area arts organizations. Our leadership succession priority lasted about three years, and over that period of time we did research and released four publications describing the situation, developed a toolkit for arts management, and created a publication on how to be an interim director. That was the first priority.

The second priority was a dance initiative, recognizing that — of the major art forms — dance was the least recognized, the least supported, and the least understood. But there were really good things already happening in the dance community, and with some foundation backing, we figured we could do something for the dance community. That, along with the leadership succession, also ended in September of 2004. Those two initiatives were given a time span of about three to four years.

The third priority was our Arts Education Initiative, which resulted from a survey of arts offerings in the Chicago Public Schools.

Don Stewart retired in 2004, which is when I became a senior fellow and Kassie became the new senior program officer in Arts & Culture. And under our new CEO, Terry Mazany, we began to look at the arts community in Chicago in a strategic way and came up with a new set of priorities.

Over the last few years, the discretionary funds available for grantmaking has fallen, for a variety of reasons, including the fact that donor-advised giving has become a larger and larger share of the Trust's overall grantmaking. So Kassie has a smaller budget overall to work with than I had when I was running the arts program, and I think she's tipped the balance somewhat from funding the larger and mid-size organizations to programs that look at smaller organizations. Also, rather than having priorities that are discipline-specific or project-focused, she has projects that are focused on capacity building — organizational capacity, audience capacity. I wanted you and your readers to understand that there has been an interesting shift here in priorities. My sense is that a couple of the priorities — the leadership succession and the dance initiative — were fairly short-lived. I think they would probably have been more successful had they been allowed to run longer. But changing priorities are sometimes part of a leadership transition, and the Trust is no different than most organizations in that respect.

Changing priorities are sometimes part of a leadership transition, and the Trust is no different than most organizations in that respect....

There were some really good results from those initiatives. They addressed the situation that existed in 1999, and I think there were critical things that have happened in society between then and now, like 9/11, like the collapse of the tech industry, and the imposition of a lot of regulations that are making it harder for people to give things away.

The one priority that has been carried over is the Arts Education Initiative, which I continue to run, but the priorities that Kassie set are really the results of her efforts. She can talk to you about the Trust's arts grantmaking and the size of allocations to various-sized organizations.

KD: Right, I took over on July 1, 2004.

PND: Could you tell us a little about Chicago's nonprofit arts community?

KD: Certainly. We spent the period from July 2004 through January 2005 in research and development mode for strategic planning — a huge project. And as part of our strategic planning process, we looked at all the cultural organizations in Cook County by discipline and budget size, using Illinois Arts Council data. Just looking at that one county alone — the largest in our six-county metropolitan area — there are three hundred and twenty nonprofit arts organizations. Of those, there are twenty-six that we would consider large, meaning they have annual operating revenues of more than $5 million. Then there are another forty-four that we would consider mid-size, meaning they have annual operating revenues of between $1 million and $5 million. There are another seventy that we would consider small, which means their annual operating revenues are between $250,000 and $1 million. And below that amount there are another one hundred and eighty organizations that we would consider to be very small.

We also looked at all organizations by discipline. The largest in Cook County, in terms of number of organizations, is theater — of the three hundred and twenty arts organizations in the county, eight-seven were theater companies. Music was the second largest, with fifty organizations. We also have quite a few dance companies — thirty-three, to be exact — as well as twenty-six museums, botanic gardens, and zoos. And we can't forget the community arts centers and music schools — we have twenty-four of those. We also have twenty-eight organizations that just do arts education in the public schools. All from Cook County!

PND: In dollar terms, how much grantmaking in the arts does the Trust do?

KD: For the fiscal year that ended September 30, 2005, it was about $4.3 million. Our budget for next year will be approximately the same.

PND: What is the breakdown of the Trust's arts grantmaking in terms of organizational size? And has the way your arts dollars are allocated changed over the past five years?

KD: We never used to allocate funds by budget size — that's a new part of our strategic plan. Up until 2000, the Trust did only responsive grantmaking. Whatever proposals came in were analyzed, and then recommendations were made to the board based on the needs organizations proposed.

But then our board and our CEO at the time, Don Stewart, decided to let each of the Trust's program areas create a list of priorities that they wanted to fund — three different priorities to balance the responsive grantmaking. That was a major change. Sarah did some strategic planning back in 2001 and identified priorities for the arts departments — leadership succession, the excellence in dance initiative, and the arts education initiative. Two of those, as Sarah said, came to an end at the end of the last fiscal year — a year ago September. Then we spent some time doing some new strategic planning and coming up with our new focus areas.

This year, we budgeted dollar amounts and number of grants by organizational size, but we have several categories — arts education being a key focus area — where we have a significant dollar amount budgeted to all organizations, regardless of size. Then there's the Chicago Arts Fund for Organizational Development, which is a collaborative fund we're going to launch after the first of the year that's open to both small and very small organizations.

The Smart Growth program provides general operating support, renewable over three years, to address the needs of small arts and cultural organizations....

We've also just launched the new Smart Growth program, which provides general operating support, renewable over three years, to address the needs of small arts and cultural organizations. We selected forty groups from a field of one hundred and fifty to help them grow to the "next level" and achieve their creative visions. The process begins with each organization completing smARTscope, an online survey created by the to assess organizational development in key areas. A&BC consultants provide a comprehensive analysis of the data, which helps organizations mobilize and plan for their future. The Trust will support participation in smARTscope and provide grants to assist organizations in developing and executing these plans.

PND: In addition to organization size, what are some of the other considerations that drive the Trust's grantmaking in the arts?

KD: We have some very specific issues and strategies that our board asked us to deal with in this strategic plan. For example, even though we no longer have a responsive grantmaking category, we are trying to respond to the needs of the arts and cultural community as identified by the community itself. The second is that they want us to have measurable outcomes. That's one thing our board is very interested in. We wanted to make sure that all of our focus areas were open to organizations of all disciplines. So rather than having a focus on, say, dance or another specific discipline, our focus areas are open to all disciplines. Finally, this being the Trust's ninetieth anniversary year, we want to partner with our grant recipients to increase the Trust's visibility with audiences and be responsive to our donors' interests.

PND: Last year the Trust surveyed arts organizations and funders about issues and opportunities facing the Chicago-area arts community over the next three years. Can you describe the methodology of the survey and what you learned from it?

KD: We did online surveys of arts and culture organizations and a companion online survey of other arts funders — foundations and corporate-giving programs. Then we hosted a series of four community outreach meetings where we went back to the arts and cultural community, and arts and culture funders, and presented the results of those surveys. We then asked a set of directed questions similar to a focus group that came out of the results of the online survey. So we really collected a lot of information from the arts community and the funders, as well as doing some quantitative analysis to help shape our priorities.

PND: And what was the most important finding?

KD: First, large and mid-size organizations, when asked the open-ended question, "What is the most important issue or opportunity facing the arts community as a whole over the next three years," said "audience development" and "audience development-related issues" — it actually was a tie between those two responses.

Number two was arts education. We have two generations of individuals who haven't received good arts education in the schools, and audiences are suffering as a result. Arts organizations taking a strong stance on arts education was a high priority.

For small and very small organizations, general operating support, as you might guess, was also very highly ranked. After that, we saw a whole range of organizational development issues — board development, fundraising development, marketing, attracting new individual donors, diversifying funding sources — things that had nothing to do with the actual making of art.

PND: Was there anything in the survey responses that surprised you?

KD: The importance that organizations put on arts education was something of a surprise. Sometimes funders hear that arts organizations are only doing arts education as a way to get grants, not because it's important to their mission. The survey results seem to disprove that.

PND: What about arts funders in the Chicago area? What do they say are the most crucial issues they face over the next three years?

The general sense among funders is that...competition for funding has become intense....

KD: Audience development was tied for first, along with competition for funding. The general sense among funders is that because there are so many arts organizations out there, and because philanthropic resources are limited, the competition for funding has become intense. After that was leadership succession.

PND: Given those findings, should organized philanthropy be working to encourage the creation of more arts organizations, to reduce the number of arts organizations, or should it be agnostic on this question?

KD: I do not think we should be working to encourage the creation of more arts organizations. I think we have more than we can fund already. I don't think we should be proactively working to reduce the number of organizations, either, but I do not think we should encourage the creation of any more.

PND: With the explosion of entertainment choices available to most Americans and the rising costs associated with live performance, do you think there'll be a large enough audience for ballet, dance, opera, and live classical music to support them as viable businesses ten years down the road?

KD: I think it's going to depend on the amount and level of sophistication of the audience-development efforts that are put in place over the next ten years. One of the focus areas with respect to the large and mid-size organizations we're going to be funding for the next three years is audience development. We've got some terrific letters of inquiry, and we're receiving full proposals now for our January grant cycle. The good news is that I think there are some really innovative and outside-of-the-box ideas coming in. That's important, because traditional marketing tactics and techniques just aren't going to be enough from here on out.

Kevin Kinsella, PND's deputy editor, spoke with Sarah Solotaroff and Kassie Davis in October. For more information on the Newsmakers series, contact Mitch Nauffts at [email protected].