Harmony: Finding Funds to Develop Community Partnerships

Note to readers: This article is part of the WomenArts Harmony Project. The full series of articles is posted in the Harmony section of our website.

Arlene Goldbard has been interviewing women artists who have done successful collaborations with community groups.

All of the artists have emphasized that it takes a lot of time to build the trust and familiarity needed for successful partnerships. This week, WomenArts Executive Director Martha Richards offers some practical advice about finding the resources to do that developmental work.

The Economic Context

In the current economic climate where arts funding is limited, most foundations, government agencies, and corporations are focused on getting the maximum results for their investments.

This means that it is extremely difficult for artists to find funds for planning and development work with community groups – especially the kind of lengthy and open-ended development processes that the Harmony Project artists have discussed in previous newsletters. There are no easy ways to get this kind of funding, but here are a few things to think about.

Think Carefully About Your Time

Realistically, you will probably have to volunteer at least some of your time to get a partnership started. As all of the Harmony artists have pointed out, you need a few meetings just to find out whether you have enough in common with the organization to start a relationship.

But you should think about how much time you are willing to spend on a project without being paid. Some artists are able to volunteer a lot of time; some keep day jobs so that they don’t need to worry about making money from their creative work; and some artists can’t afford to volunteer at all. You need to assess your own situation and decide what feels comfortable for you.

Many women artists have children or other obligations that limit their free time. Your age or your health may affect your decision. If you are able to give a lot of time to a project, that’s great. But don’t feel guilty if you can’t do as much as others. You will be a much more reliable and effective collaborator if you don’t over-commit yourself.

Set Preliminary Goals

It is good to work with your potential partner to establish some preliminary goals. Since many non-profits are short-staffed these days, it is often hard to get them to see the value of adding an arts program to their already heavy workloads.

One way to win them over is to start by proposing a short preliminary project. For instance, if you want to develop a play with a community group, you could suggest that you want to meet with the staff members and constituents over a period of two or three months to see if the constituents are interested and if you can come up with a plan for creating the play. Once you start working with the organization, you will be able to tell whether or not it makes sense to continue. If the staff and constituents like the program, they can help you persuade the managers to let you continue the work.

Break the Project into Phases

Once the community partner has agreed to work with you, you may still need time for more research and planning. One commonly-used fundraising strategy is to describe this part of the work as “phase one” or a “pilot” for a larger project.

For instance, if your goal is to develop a performance with the constituents of your partner’s organization, you could write a proposal for “phase one” of the project that would involve a series of gatherings to establish trust and identify the themes that could be used in the piece.
Phase one of the project might culminate in a gathering/party where people could share stories or short pieces about the themes you have selected. In the following year, you could apply for “phase two” of the project, which might end with a fully-staged performance.

The difficulty with this strategy is that you may not know exactly what the larger project will be until you do the developmental work, but you will usually have a general idea. Arts funders are usually understanding if your plans change as they evolve.

Focus on Individuals

Another strategy is to focus on individual donors for the developmental phase of your work instead of trying for foundation or government grants. Individuals are generally much more flexible in their giving than foundations or government agencies. Fundraising from individuals is all about finding people who are passionate about the same cause as you are.

The traditional ways to raise money from individuals are through mailings, house parties, benefit performances, and one-on-one solicitations. Many artists are also using online platforms like Kickstarter.com or IndieGogo.com to raise funds from individuals. WomenArts has an article on online fundraising in the Build Your Skills section of our website.

If you can find the right people to approach, one-on-one solicitations often yield the largest results in the least amount of time. Look for people who are already in the habit of making charitable gifts to several organizations every year. That way you just need to persuade them to include your project in their gift list.

How do you find these potential donors? A good way to start is to look at the programs and websites of successful non-profits in your community. Many arts organizations and women’s foundations list their supporters in their programs or online – read those lists and see if you recognize any of the names. Also, look at the lists of board members for local non-profits, since board members are often donors as well. Your best prospects are people that you know personally or people who are clearly passionate about the same issues as you are.

Another way to attract donors to your project is to do public speaking about it. Professional organizations and other social groups are often looking for lunchtime or keynote speakers. Offer to do a talk about your project and mention in the talk that you are looking for funding. Always pass out printed information about your work so that people will be able to contact you. It may also be possible for you to publicize phase one of your project through local television shows or newspapers.

Harmony Artists Comment on Community-Building

Pangea World Theater's Hyphe-Nations

Pangea World Theater’s

Pangea World Theater

“We actually did a full year of gatherings—four huge gatherings in the community, based on previous relationships we had formed—before the project started.”

“Based on those conversations, we created the design, and then through further dialogues created a more particular specific design that fit everything: not only what Pangea wanted out of the project, but that the community wanted out of the project. It was an amazing process, but it took us one and a half years to get there. You can’t rush it.”

Meena Natarajan, Executive and Literary Director of Pangea World Theater describing the development work for “Hyphe-NATIONS: Immigrant Matters—América Latina.

Urban Bush Women

“I would say that our process is organic. At some point, there’s a place where it becomes very clear what the timeframe needs to be. If it’s a performance project, it’s when we know that there’s a premiere date, or a series of workshops that leads up to a larger thing. At the outset, we don’t really know what that might be. As we discover that, that will tell us what the timeframe needs to be.”

Jawole Willa Jo Zollar, Artistic Director of Urban Bush Women

At the Foot of the Mountain

“I would say follow your passion. Take a topic that truly interests you for some deep reason. In a sense, you’re putting yourself in the position of a service worker; and you carry that attitude in to the people you’re working with. It’s a respect that comes out of a deep knowledge.”

“Find out about them. Sit in their meetings, get a sense of who they are, how they operate—even maybe before you propose a partnership. If you’re the artist, you go to some of their meetings as a volunteer and see what they’re really up to. You go hang out.”

“The artists have to be careful not to pursue this solely for financial reasons, even though it may be that the marriage of these different groups would bring about some financial help.”

Martha Boesing, Founder and former Artistic Director of At The Foot of The Mountain, a women’s theatre company.

Destiny Arts

“Collaborations are the heart of what we’re doing as social justice people. We have to know how to collaborate with each other, because we can’t make that transformation individually, we have to do it collectively. If we have strong strategic partnerships, those are the things that really change the world.”

Sarah Crowell, Artistic Director of Destiny Arts