Not Just Money: Where Do We Go from Here?

Helicon Collaborative
Helicon Collaborative
6 min readJul 10, 2017


This is the final of three posts sharing findings from Not Just Money: Equity Issues in Cultural Philanthropy, a research study conducted by Helicon Collaborative with funding from the Surdna Foundation. This post explores how we might move towards a new era for cultural philanthropy that truly reflects and better supports the rich cultural diversity of our country.

(The first post explored patterns of inequality in funding distribution at national and local levels; the second post looked at the lack of diversity among philanthropic decision-makers (arts foundation leadership and individual donors) and distinct challenges faced by organizations of color and those serving low-income communities. Click here for the full report, downloadable graphics, city profiles, email sign up, and more.)

We welcome you to share your ideas for how to move forward here and on Twitter using #notjustmoney.

Where do we go from here?

Growing numbers of leaders in the cultural sector are seriously concerned about issues of equity, diversity and inclusion. In recent years, arts foundations, cultural institutions, arts service organizations and others have launched a wide variety of efforts to address these concerns.

Yet the distribution of cultural funding is getting less equitable. Why is this, and what is the fix?

To understand why the trend line is going in the wrong direction, we must first acknowledge that the causes of our current situation are deeply rooted in the origins and design of our nonprofit arts sector itself, which sprung from Western European cultural values and fine arts traditions, and was deliberately structured to preserve them. Larger social and economic systems, within which the nonprofit cultural system is embedded, are relevant here as well: structural racism, class and geographic bias, and the increasing concentration of wealth in the hands of a very few have made norms in the cultural sector particularly difficult to change.

Achieving greater fairness will take greater understanding of the systemic nature of the problems as well as strategic, persistent effort to unseat these tenaciously rooted forces.

The various foundation initiatives to address equity that we highlighted in the first post are important to both expand and accelerate. This includes foundations’ self-education and training on racism and bias; efforts to diversify foundation boards and staff; new funding for fellowships, presenting programs, exhibitions and other public programs that support a broader array of artists and cultural traditions; and commissioning research that illuminates inequities in the field and their consequences.

In our view, intentional work in at least three other areas is necessary in order to bring about meaningful long-term change:

1. Setting explicit goals for change.

For arts foundations, and cultural organizations as well, change starts by articulating specific goals, and making explicit plans to reach them. This includes goals for change in the areas of organizational values, hiring policies, program guidelines and community engagement strategies, as well as in leadership and board governance. To achieve greater equity, arts funders need to:

  • Address staff and board diversity,
  • Think more broadly about the roles that art and culture play in different communities, and better understand the full spectrum of cultural practice going on today,
  • Include people with diverse viewpoints in shaping policies and programs — especially the people who will be affected, as they know the most about what they need and how funding policies actually hit the ground, and
  • Increase funding allocations to mid-sized and smaller organizations, particularly those whose primary mission is to serve communities of color, lower-income communities and rural places.

The status quo tends to perpetuate itself. Without specific goals for change and timelines to achieve them, current patterns will remain the same or further deteriorate. People tend to resist change but at least in some instances, what might look like resistance to doing things differently may be due to a lack of clarity about how to move forward.

2. Engaging wealthy donors to address equity with their funding.

Many wealthy individuals may be inspired by the opportunity to exert leadership in addressing our widening social divides through demonstrating more inclusive cultural philanthropy themselves. (See recent New York Times, “How to Get the Wealthy to Donate.”) Arts foundations can help individual donors achieve their aspirations for such civic leadership by educating them about the larger cultural ecology, providing connections to smaller groups that the donors may not know, and incentivizing collaborative action — by seeding pooled funds to support under-resourced organizations, for example, or incentivizing other joint actions. The strategy will be different with different donors, but arts foundation leadership on this issue can inspire more individual donors to diversify and democratize their giving.

Leadership in this area is particularly critical because individual contributions in the arts are expected to continue to grow as a proportion of total arts funding. The overall patterns of cultural giving cannot be reversed without meaningful action by individual donors as well as institutional funders.

3. Committing to collaborative action.

National foundations can be important philanthropic pace-setters, and they often draw attention to critical issues facing the cultural sector. But long-term change in the distribution of arts funding requires sustained effort at local levels. By looking at the structural nature of the issue, identifying shared goals for change and mobilizing the resources of multiple entities, including public and private funding sources, local coalitions can shift funding patterns in a systemic and long-term way. (See a relevant recent article by Mark Kramer.) This collective work is important in all dimensions of philanthropy — including research and knowledge-building about the true cultural ecology of a community, confronting local barriers to change, and shifting policies and practices in ways that produce greater equity in funding distributions.

To date, there have been relatively few examples of cooperative action to redress funding imbalances in specific communities and geographies. San Francisco, Chicago and the Twin Cities stand out as exceptions. What could happen to overall trends if dozens — or hundreds — of communities pursued such collaborative strategies in pursuit of greater equity in arts funding? Might some national funders help catalyze this movement in cities, and seed a national fund to achieve greater equity for rural places?

We are in a pivotal moment as a society, when greater recognition and meaningful support for a wider spectrum of creative voices and cultural traditions can stimulate a new burst of artistic energy, strengthen the role of the arts in diverse communities, and help our country address and heal some of its pronounced divisions. Our largest cultural institutions warrant support, without a doubt. But funding for these organizations — even for their efforts to reach out to diverse audiences — cannot and should not substitute for increasing direct support to the growing numbers of cultural groups and artists whose creative work reveals and strengthens the fabric of our diversifying communities.

Money is important, but this isn’t just about money. The inequities reported here will continue to widen unless there is a meaningful adjustment in funders’ thinking about the role of art and culture in our communities, and a values shift that stops privileging the few at the expense of the many. The most important work ahead centers on acts of imagination and organizing. But with creativity, boldness and collective action in many segments of the field, a new era of more equitable and inclusive cultural philanthropy is within reach.

We hope this research contributes to ongoing conversations about these issues and, more importantly, that it sparks new resolution to act. Change will take time, but in the short term you can participate by: