Foundation Collaborative to Support Artists

Diane Sanchez and John R. Killacky

In 2003, the Ford Foundation launched Leveraging Investments in Creativity (LINC) with the publication of Investing in Creativity: A Study of Support Structure for U.S. Artists. Holly Sidford led the initial research and planning efforts, and then Sam Miller took over the running of LINC, designed as a ten-year nationwide initiative to improve conditions for artists working in all disciplines. Judilee Reed took over the reins in 2008.

LINC awarded The San Francisco Foundation a $10,000 planning grant in 2004 to commission Joan Jeffri to update her previous study of artists’ work-related human and social service needs in the Bay Area. The William and Flora Hewlett and David and Lucile Packard foundations augmented research funds.

Economic Realities

Jeffri had been surveying artists in the Bay Area for fifteen years, and her 2004 research found that artists were earning less from their art:

  • 86 percent in 1988 but 77 percent in 2003 earn money from their art;
  • 43 percent find that their income covers art-related expenses;
  • 63 percent earn less than $7,000 from their art;
  • The median gross income was $35,000; and
  • The average grant was $8,731 (nationally, 50 percent < $2,000; 66 percent < $5,000; 75 percent < $10,000).

Consequently, artists were working multiple jobs and spending less time on their art practice:

  • 78 percent have more than one job;
  • 57 percent spend more than twenty hours a week on supplementary employment (up from 53 percent in 1988); and
  • 47 percent spend more than twenty hours a week on their art (down from 67 percent in 1988).

Despite challenges, the artist population was very stable: 69 percent resided and 59 percent worked in the same county for more than ten years; 65 percent trained in the Bay Area; close to half volunteer their services to the community; and 70 percent feel valued by their community.

Philanthropic Response

To respond to these economic realities, four regional community foundations (East Bay, Peninsula, Marin, and San Francisco) designed a multifaceted initiative to directly support the creation of new work by Bay Area artists and expand the pool of individual donors for artists, and small to midsize arts organizations. A matching commissions program was set up, along with entrepreneurial and fund development training workshops, collaborative marketing efforts, and donor celebration events.

The initiative primarily supported small and midsize grassroots arts groups, often working in culturally specific forms in communities of color. These donors have not been profiled within philanthropy, and we wanted to understand donor motivations and values. We also built further research into the project to see whether these programs improved artists’ earnings in the Bay Area over the course of the initiative.

Why the focus on building individual donor capacity? Reviewing Giving USA’s annual snapshot of philanthropy reminded us that 75 percent of contributions come from individuals annually. Further, analysis of data from San Francisco’s Grants for the Arts/Hotel Tax Fund and Americans for the Arts showed that San Francisco arts groups received more local government and foundation support but lagged far behind their national peers in individual donations:

  Americans for the Arts—National San Francisco Arts Groups (2002/2003)
Earned income 50% 47.2%
Individuals/endowments 35.5% 11.2%
Foundations 5% 13.1%
Local governments 3% 17.3%
Corporations 2.5% 2.3%
Federal government 2% .97%
State governments 2% 2.7%

Arts organizations outside San Francisco do not benefit from the municipal Hotel Tax Fund, and the cities outside San Francisco provided, by comparison, very modest support for the arts. Often the smaller groups in particular were too dependent on the diminishing resources of government and foundation support, and we saw that the only fund development possibility was building and expanding the base of individual donors.

Funding partners came together to support this new initiative: LINC, the William and Flora Hewlett, James Irvine, Surdna, and Phyllis C. Wattis foundations, as well as individual arts donors from each of the four community foundations. Peninsula and Marin Community foundations devised separate artist-support programs, while East Bay and San Francisco collaborated on a matching commissions program.

With the merger of Peninsula Community Foundation with Silicon Community Foundation, and priority changes at Marin Community Foundation, these two partners left the collaborative after two years, but the East Bay and San Francisco Community foundations continued the partnership.

One of our original assumptions was that people who gave through donor-advised vehicles at the community foundations would eagerly support the initiative. They did not have to be convinced of the importance of the arts, since many of them already were quite generous to arts organizations.

This assumption, however, was not borne out. Most of the families who gave through the community foundations already knew what arts groups they wanted to support, and ultimately few donated to the new Fund For Artists collaborative program.

The Matching Commissions Program partnership with East Bay and San Francisco allowed artists and organizations to apply for grants up to $10,000 that had to be matched 1:1 from individual donors. The match also carried a ninety-day period for organizations and four months for individual artists. This program’s success on a variety of levels exceeded our expectations.

Now in its fifth year, the Matching Commissions Program funded 116 new projects involving 181 artists. Individual artists and small to midsize arts organizations raised $729,254 from more than 3,130 individual donors, who gave between $2 and $10,000 to match $658,750 awarded by East Bay Community Foundation and The San Francisco Foundation.

Such success was not easily won by all organizations. This was not “hands off” regranting. Program staff at both foundations helped organizations and individual artists understand that they could be equally successful. This encouragement was especially important for individual artists and artist-led performance companies without development staff. We coached them to understand that their “fans” would be willing to support their work beyond attending performances or buying DVDs and CDs if they were ready to ask. We brought in fund development experts Jerry Yoshitomi, Bob Tobin, and David Bury, who stressed that organizations needed to start where they were and build from their students, audiences, and communities, whether their communities were defined by geography, discipline, race, or ethnicity.

Arts groups taught others as the initiative progressed. We reiterated that groups had to “operationalize the church ask.” While arts only get 4 to 5 percent of annual philanthropy, religious organizations get 35 percent. No believer minds, or even thinks twice about, giving/tithing to his or her synagogue, temple, mosque, or church. The arts offer similar profound and transformational experiences to those who engage in them at almost any level, so we felt certain that securing donations was possible, even in small grassroots and culturally specific communities.

Donor Psychographics

Given the success of the Matching Commissions Program, we wanted to explore the underlying values associated with giving to artistic projects in order to understand what motivates arts and culture donors to give and what key connection points inspire giving. The research was conducted by Alan Brown and Rebecca Ratzkin of WolfBrown in partnership with Marcy Hinand Cady and Holly Sidford from Helicon Collaborative.

Their report, It’s Not About You… It’s About Them: A Research Study on What Motivates Bay Area Donors to Give to the Arts and Artists, summarizes the findings from extensive interviews and surveys of Bay Area arts donors. This report was created for arts executives, development staff, funders, and policy makers who seek insight on donor motivations, or who would consider replicating some aspect of the program in their own community.

The study is based on a survey of 1,900 donors involved with the Matching Commissions Program and, as a control group, 8,500 donors to seventeen midsize and large cultural organizations in the Bay Area. Study results also incorporated information from extensive interviews conducted with more than seventy artists and donors involved in the matching program.

Results showed that donors are motivated by their connection to work, as well as their basic values. Understanding those bridging points and values, and developing the ability to tell the story from a values-based perspective, can help build stronger relationships with donors. The in-depth interviews suggested donors become engaged via four connections:

  • A personal relationship with the artist or someone in the arts;
  • A passion for the art form or the art medium;
  • An emotional or intellectual interest in the subject matter or issue; and
  • An involvement with the culture or community involved in the project.

The report also offered practical tools and tips to individual artists and small arts groups for raising funds for new work. Five values motivated Bay Area arts donors:

  • Localism — a concern for one’s community and for artists living in the community;
  • Progressivism — an interest in being “on the leading edge of art and ideas”;
  • Humanism — a concern for social justice and equal opportunity;
  • Distinction — an interest in “great works that have stood the test of time” and artists with national or international reputations; and
  • Bonding — an interest in civic affairs and community improvement; appetite for expanding social networks and making new friends.

The research determined that donors to the Matching Commissions Program were more likely to be:

  • Artists themselves (professional or amateur);
  • Eighteen to fifty-four years old, without children, and of diverse cultural backgrounds;
  • Interested in social justice and environmentalism;
  • Giving less than $5,000 annually to all charitable causes; and
  • Interested in supporting small projects rather than sustaining institutions.

The study confirmed our hypothesis that donors to the small and midsize arts groups differed significantly from the high net worth donors often profiled. (See The 2008 Study of High Net Worth Philanthropy: Issues Driving Charitable Activities among Affluent Households, researched and written by the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University, for comparative data.) Indeed, for our donors, “operationalizing the church ask” proved effective, even for the smaller donors.

Another residual impact of the program was bringing donors into the creative process from the beginning. They enjoyed seeing new works being developed from concept to realization. Field reports detailed how some of the arts groups went about raising their matching amount. Choreographer Robert Moses of Kin Dance Company got on the phone and made personal appeals to everyone who had ever given his company money. Los Cenzontles invited people into the process of making their music and listed all donors on their CD. AXIS Dance Company invited donors to preview nights, and called all donors onstage to recognize and thank them.

Another outgrowth of our work was the recognition of the large number of artists residing in the East Bay and the real estate trends that allowed artists who at one time saw San Francisco as having the major arts community to find more affordable living and work space in the cities of the East Bay. We brought together arts representatives from the cities of Berkeley, Emeryville, Oakland, and Richmond to see how we might help them address the issue of promoting the arts from a more regional perspective. Our mantra was “What can we do together that we could not do alone?” Out of these explorations came an agreement among the cities, signed by all four mayors, to launch, a website dedicated to promoting the arts in the cultural corridor of the East Bay.

Recession Realities

Our donor reports come on the heels of another survey comparing the predicament of national and Bay Area artists during the economic recession. The survey was commissioned by LINC in partnership with Helicon Collaborative and Princeton Survey Research Associates International and was conducted between July and November 2009; more than 6,500 artists participated nationwide.

The Artists and the Economic Recession Survey: A Report Comparing Main Survey Artists and Artists Who Live or Work in the Bay Area detailed artists reporting a drop in:

  • Sales of artwork (52 percent Bay Area and 48 percent nationally);
  • Grant amounts (43 percent Bay Area and 37 percent nationally); and
  • Teaching opportunities (34 percent Bay Area and 30 percent nationally).

Artists were concerned about being able to fund-raise for future projects (42 percent Bay Area and 34 percent nationally). The survey also showed that most artists continued to earn income primarily from non-arts-related work (66 percent Bay Area and 64 percent nationally).

Bay Area artists were more likely to:

  • Have second jobs in the arts (commercial and nonprofit);
  • Use the Internet more frequently to connect — learning about other artists’ work, networking, reaching audiences, and finding jobs;
  • Say that artists have a special role in strengthening their communities at this time;
  • Engage in volunteer activities (in and outside the arts); and
  • Believe that future success will require a new outlook and approach after the economy stabilizes.

Artists nationwide shared similarities:

  • 70 percent hold at least one job in addition to making art;
  • 60 percent made less than $40,000 in 2008, though most are college graduates;
  • 50 percent saw art-related income decline since 2008; and
  • 40 percent do not have adequate health insurance and over 50 percent who do are worried about losing it.

Even in hard times, artists found hope and opportunity, and gave back to their communities:

  • 89 percent think artists have a special role in strengthening communities;
  • 75 percent believe it is an inspiring time to be an artist;
  • 40 percent report spending more time on their art as a result of the recession;
  • 33 percent are experimenting and collaborating more; and
  • 80 percent volunteer in their communities.

Lessons for Philanthropy

Streamline Funding Collaboratives. The Fund For Artists initiative was a unique partnership among four differently resourced community foundations built on the experience and trust developed by the four program officers, who had worked together over the years. We wanted to work regionally, as that reflects how artists work and how the arts are experienced in the Bay Area. This idea immediately introduced complexity, as operating structures and staffing were quite different. Our funding partners trusted us, and although we had only a general idea of what we were planning to do, they jumped right into this experiment with significant “risk capital,” understanding that we were treating the initiative as a laboratory of ideas and strategies to support artists.

With so many partners, however, each requiring interim and final reports over three rounds of funding with different time frames, reporting became a nightmare of paperwork and consistency. Ideally, one annual report could have served all the funders. As foundations are urged to collaborate and pool resources, evaluative metrics should also be agreed upon to maximize efficiency for all parties.

Flexibility among Funding Partners. As the initiative progressed, we supported aspects that were working and discontinued components that were not. Blessedly, all the funders understood and supported course corrections, treating this like a true partnership and not a paternalistic regranting program.

Matching, Challenge, and Time-Based Grantmaking. Of the donors surveyed, 90 percent reported that the match requirement was influential in their motivation to give, and 43 percent said it stimulated them to contribute more than they normally would have. Raising matching dollars within a limited time frame gave grantees a concrete goal, forcing many grassroots organizations to prioritize donor development. Not all groups were comfortable asking people for money, especially in economically stressed communities, and the matching and time constraints helped normalize the asking process.

Listening to Artists. LINC’s study had artists identify what would be most helpful to them, and their requests provided helpful directions for philanthropic colleagues to consider:

  • Direct financial assistance (70 percent);
  • Opportunities to showcase their artwork (60 percent);
  • Marketing assistance, networking opportunities, supplies/equipment, and health services (50 percent).

During all aspects of our work we continued to ask artists what was working and included them and their feedback in the way we adapted the work. This was essential!


The premise was simple: provide more money to artists and build out the capacity for individual donor development. Did we make a difference, despite the economy? Since beginning the initiative in 2004, the partnership raised over $2.5 million and supported more than three hundred artists through commissions, workshops, and donor events. As significant are the 3,130 donors who contributed $729,254 in increments ranging from $2 to $10,000. Many of the groups had never asked for money from their audiences, and many artists did not consider their audiences to be potential supporters. Now each had a donor base to build upon for future needs.

Another offshoot of the project was that one of the initial investors in the collaborative, the James Irvine Foundation, took the idea statewide with its Communities Advancing the Arts program, and has given $9 million to thirteen community foundations to “build capacity of local arts organizations and connect new donors to arts opportunities.” That investment leveraged $23 million in new funds, $5 million in new grants, and 121 new philanthropists supporting the arts.

We believe community foundations can play a unique role in the arts as they are well positioned to work with small and medium-size groups that many times reflect and share the same community understandings and goals and that are aligned with the grantees of their broader initiatives. Our Fund For Artists collaborative is testament to this belief.