Accountability Through Experimentation

What if funders viewed experimentation as mandatory, and organizations were held accountable for being actively engaged in exploratory practices?

Image: Paul Foreman.
The impact of multifaceted innovation processes should be recognized and supported by arts funders. Image: Paul Foreman.

Accountability: A matter of semantics?

The rise in high-impact philanthropy – a corollary of the economic downturn and a trend gaining momentum within the emerging generation of philanthropy – leaves many arts organizations tentative about experimentation. Donors, wanting to make sure their limited resources are being maximized, are holding organizations more accountable for producing measurable outcomes. While high-impact philanthropy isn’t an inherently negative trend – indeed, it grew out of donors’ desire to affect real, positive change – it does raise concerns about the possible perpetuation of “safe” business-as-usual practices that veer away from recognizing experimentation.

With arts foundations also beginning to measure money in versus impact out, these concerns grow considerably. For a field predicated on the championing of innovative thought and expression, it’s surprising that foundations have become leery of outside-the-box experimentation in organizational practices. But what if we turned the matter on its head? What if funders were to view experimentation as a mandatory component of operations, and organizations were held accountable for being actively engaged in exploratory practices?

Experimenting with business as usual

It’s important to clarify that there are many exemplary foundations and grant programs which support experimentation. Generally, these fall into one of two camps:

  • Artistic innovation – Project based grants that make experimentation within the artistic process a key component of funding criteria. Examples include the MAP Fund.
  • Operational innovation – Project based grants focused on providing risk capital for organizations to develop and implement experimental operational initiatives. These might be geared toward internal structures, community engagement processes, or new technology strategies. Examples include the James Irvine Foundation’s Arts Innovation Fund (concluding in 2015), and EmcArts’ Innovation Labs for the Performing Arts and Innovation Lab for Museums.

These funding opportunities embrace the unknown; there are no past stats, figures, and measures of successes to compare against. While there is no guarantee of success, there is a guarantee that the artists or the organization will dig deep to assess current practices and challenge assumptions. It is this kind of thinking – tempering the predictability of business-as-usual with a regular dose of evaluative experimentation – I’d like to see adopted into every foundation’s grantmaking approach.

To be clear, I’m not suggesting sweeping innovation simply for the sake of innovation – there’s no need for a bunch of babies to be thrown out with the proverbial bath water – but rather, a cultural shift within the arts funding sector that would view experimentation as a healthy component of regular business practices. For most organizations, innovation is an acquired habit. By the time the need for change becomes apparent, the system in place is often so creaky and worn that there’s much more ground to cover than there would be if adaptive strategies had been regularly exercised. In this way, foundations open to experimentation would ultimately be providing for longer-term accountability by setting up organizations to be more nimble and adaptive.

Where – and how – does small-scale experimentation fit in?

Currently, foundations are either funding what is proven to be successful (by sticking to the four tenets of high-impact philanthropy: measurability, cost-effectiveness, sustainability, and ability to be replicated and/or scaled), or,are creating standalone, project-specific grant programs that don’t focus on a prolonged, process-focused initiative.

The middle ground, and what would ultimately serve each side of the spectrum, is regular, small-scale experimentation. Unlike the types of initiatives supported by grant programs such as those highlighted above, regular experimentation will not be on the same grand, whiz-bang scale. The intention is not to replace the targeted, large-scale grant programs, but rather, to serve a complementary effort. As well, organizations would still be responsible for orienting their work toward greater impact and accountability, but would be supported in their experimental efforts (again, not just innovation for its own sake).

To make this work, foundations and organizations need to be open with one another. I’ve read through many grant applications, and while I’ve seen plenty of questions seeking success-sharing or a straightforward relay of current practices, it’s rare to see direct, probing questions about the stickier matters. For example, instead of asking, What are your strategies for sustaining the organization’s activities and services?, foundations need to go a step further and ask, Should these activities and services be sustained? Why or why not? By the same token, organizations need to give real answers, not just the positive-spin version of the real answer. With honest dialogue and mutual trust, foundations might less worried about the as-yet-to-be-measured, and organizations might be in a better position to take up the difficult work of keeping pace with the demands of a rapidly shifting cultural frontier.

Alison Konecki graduated with a B.A. in Art History and English from Canisius College and received an M.A. in Art and Museum Studies from Georgetown University. While living in Washington, D.C., she was the Development & Community Outreach Coordinator for Transformer. After transplanting to San Francisco in 2012, she became the Development Associate for the FOR-SITE Foundation, a non-profit dedicated to art about place, and held Fellowships with Emerging Arts Professionals/SFBA, and California Association of Museums (CAM). An arts and travel writer, she is interested in cultural policy and funding, and is intent on exploring as much of the world’s cultural wealth as possible.