Lessons in Equitable Arts Grantmaking from the Free for All Endowment Fund

August 25, 2021

By Eva Rosenberg, former Interim Director of Arts & Culture, Boston Foundation

Since its inception, the mission of the Free for All Endowment Fund has been “to ensure that everyone from the Boston region—children, adults, families—will have regular and permanent access to the rich world of classical, orchestral music and related cultural events.”  In the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic, Senior Program Officer for Arts & Culture Aimée Scorziello and I asked ourselves how we could deploy funds in ways that both supported this mission and responded to the profound challenges classical musicians and organizations were facing. We also sought to prioritize racial equity in our grantmaking and lower barriers to support for the field. 

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Several perspectives informed the process we designed. Consulting firm TDC, a longtime Boston Foundation partner and leader in the field, identified mid-sized organizations as particularly vulnerable in the pandemic given their relatively low access to endowments or significant capital reserves and their relatively high fixed costs. While we also ended up making investments in small organizations doing exemplary work, this finding guided us in thinking strategically about how to disperse limited dollars for meaningful impact.

We also used feedback from nonprofit leaders to design a process that remained simple, timely and targeted, offering general operating support to give nonprofits maximum flexibility. While the Boston Foundation’s commitment to open application and participatory review processes is unchanged, in this case we ultimately chose to run a small, invitation-only process involving a vetted list of prior grantees and other key organizations in the field. 

This process resulted in general operating grants totaling $200,000 to seven organizations:

  • A Far Cry ($25,000)
  • Atlantic Symphony Orchestra ($12,500)
  • Boston Baroque ($50,000)
  • Boston Modern Orchestra Project ($25,000)
  • Cantata Singers ($25,000)
  • Castle of Our Skins ($50,000)
  • Shelter Music Boston ($12,500)

One year later, Aimée and I collaborated with colleagues on the Learning + Engagement team at the Foundation to design a reporting process that would minimize the burden to grantees while yielding actionable insights and continuing to foster relationships between Boston Foundation staff and our grantee partners. Zoom interviews replaced written reports, and it is with gratitude for the leaders who shared their insights and experiences that we share some themes and learnings that emerged from those conversations.

  • Virtual programming is here to stay, but questions about how to support it and/or make it profitable remain. Grantee partners consistently expressed a desire to continue with virtual programming (livestreamed or pre-recorded). However, they noted that the move into digital requires new skill sets, dedicated resources, and tailored marketing and outreach strategies to unlock the potential of digital events to attract new audiences. Virtual and hybrid programs are not a replacement for live events, and the path to profitability for digital content is in many cases not yet clear. One organization is on track to reach a global audience and may see profits in the future through a partnership with a prestigious, global platform, and they noted that support from FFAEF allowed them to position themselves as appealing to that platform.
  • Diversity, equity, and inclusion emerged and persist as focus areas for these organizations. While the groups vary in size, mission, and business model, all expressed a commitment to DEI work and have made meaningful shifts to diversify their organizations/audiences and/or to address racial equity in other ways. This through-line is both encouraging and overdue in the too-white field of classical music, and it is important to note that the seven FFAEF 2020 grantees include six predominantly white organizations and one predominantly Black organization. Strategies identified by the organizations include intentionally lowering ticket prices upon reopening; examining what it means to be “of” a specific community; committing to livestreaming for an extended period based on data suggesting that Black audiences will stick with streaming for the foreseeable future; and planning a multi-year series of works focused on Black history. Diversifying collaborating musicians and composers whose works are performed was a strong theme of these conversations. Several groups noted that their sustained commitment to this work requires dedicated support from funders in the coming years.
  • "The rapid-response nature of the funding gave [these organizations] needed confidence and breathing room as they artistically re-envisioned their 2020-2021 seasons."
    Timely, unrestricted support allowed organizations to use funds in the ways they were most needed, ranging from making up for operating deficits to serving as risk capital that enabled artistic and organizational experimentation. A combination of factors including decreased expenses, government support via the Paycheck Protection Program, and the generosity of individual donors helped organizations avert disaster in 2020. But the FFAEF funding allowed organizations to keep paying musicians, replace revenues lost in the shift from live to virtual programming, and invest in new technologies and technicians needed to produce digital content. Many expressed that the rapid-response nature of the funding gave them needed confidence and breathing room as they artistically re-envisioned their 2020-2021 seasons. A number also said the funding supported the development of new partnerships coming out of the pandemic, a shift from scarcity and siloed mindsets to a more collaborative ecosystem.
  • Questions about the future loom large. Most of the leaders we spoke to are excited for what lies ahead and are also exhausted and nervous about the future. When one-time government supports end, will individual and institutional donors sustain their response? When might earned revenue return to pre-pandemic levels? Will institutional funders be willing to invest in the long-term work needed to move towards racial equity? How can organizations stay connected to new audience members around the world and continue to attract attention for digital content? These questions and many more loom large for these leaders, who are in many cases budgeting conservatively for the short-term and bracing for potential deficits in fiscal years 2021, 2022, and 2023. They are balancing seemingly endless pressures in an ever-shifting context, and their organizations need and want to adapt to a changed reality.

We are grateful to the leaders and organizations we connected with through this responsive cycle of Free for All Endowment Fund grantmaking, as well as to our many donors.