Not just now, but always. Funders must center equity.

It has been over a year since the pandemic hit the United States, wreaking havoc on the lives of individuals from all walks of life. More than 500,000 lives lost. Billions of dollars in income lost. Millions of jobs and gigs lost. The Kaiser Family Foundation reports that nearly half of Americans believe the pandemic is harming their mental health.

The last year brought forward a spotlight on existing disparities in communities of color—access to health care, financial stability and generational wealth, and the ever-present public health crisis that is racism. In fact, communities of color have been significantly more affected by the pandemic itself and the early tracking data on the vaccines show that this most vulnerable segment of our communities also is not receiving the vaccine equitably.

Reflective of the pandemic itself, artists who are Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) have been more negatively impacted by the pandemic than white artists, including higher rates of unemployment (69% vs. 60%) and the expectation of losing a larger percentage of their 2020 income (61% vs. 56%).

And yet, in this time, it has been the arts—all the arts—that have rallied to support the morale of their community, provided opportunities for artists and creative workers, and maintained a presence with the hope that when this is over, as many as are able will have made it to the other side. We have seen different ways of presenting, producing, and creating that will change the way we experience art for the foreseeable future.

But resources remain finite and access to them inequitable. Early in the pandemic, we saw many funders shift practices quickly. Project support transitioned to general operating support grants, final reporting and dollar-for-dollar matching requirements were reduced or eliminated, and some funders were able to convert single-year grants to multi-year, flexible support. Mechanisms we long were told couldn’t be done were implemented almost overnight, proving that things can change when they want to change.

While the arts community rallied and successfully advocated for federal relief funding, we also saw the NEA direct those dollars largely to the same existing grantees—and many state arts agencies followed suit—leaving organizations that have historically been excluded from this funding excluded yet again, even in the midst of the devastating pandemic. This was further exacerbated by segments of the field that were left out of federal relief programs, such as small volunteer run arts organizations or those who continued to struggle to access programs such as creative workers and individual artists. What also happened was, ultimately, demand exceeded supply.

It is March 2021 … we continue to be deep into the pandemic with no end in sight to the trauma and stress. If we ignore these issues now, we will fall right back into the same inequity that existed before and continues during the pandemic. Hindsight is 20/20. But innovation and creativity live in the future. They live in what is possible and now is the time to consider what is possible to continue, if not expand and enhance, support for arts and culture in local communities.

What can we do better? How can we use this time to do what is right, and not just what is easy?

Funders of all types, especially local and state arts agencies, must center access and equitable distribution of resources to fully support their whole community. While we are seeing some foundations and public funders begin to direct funds to communities of color, knowing that in LAA grantmaking 16% of grant recipients receive 73% of the dollars awarded means it is not enough to simply earmark funds. Now is the time to consider how to restructure programs, build stronger relationships, and include communities of color, LGBTQIA+ communities, and the disability community in crafting solutions.

It is more important now than ever to act with humility and earnest desire. Learn from those around you, from those who are doing the work of supporting the community; offer them your resources and listen to what they want or need from you—do not assume and do not intrude. This is not the time for saviors or superheroes (really, there never is a time for that). It will take the village to get us through this.

I encourage you to review frameworks to assist in navigating your work towards more equitable practice. Take cues from the Cultural New Deal or explore the Dodge Foundation’s Equity Framework. Open conversations with your colleagues about how they are addressing or acting. We will be developing resources to support you as well … there should be no need to feel isolated or adrift in this work.

All that to say, there is no single solution that cures everyone. Acknowledging that some actions will not be appropriate for every organization, it is important in my new role as Vice President of Equity and Local Arts Engagement at Americans for the Arts to use this time to shed light and lend voice to the conversations happening all over the country, but more importantly, to the need for change and ways to make change happen.

In that spirit, I want to share the following actions that I see as necessary to advance equitable practices and policies in grantmaking:

  1. Be bold in prioritizing Black, Indigenous and People of Color by increasing BIPOC representation on your grant review committees, staff, and board to change guidelines and procedures for equitable access to resources.
  2. Shift project-specific funding to unrestricted general operating support. If you already did it, keep doing it.
  3. Award multi-year grants as much as possible. This will help stabilize an organization’s financial future.
  4. Fast-track the application process and minimize reporting and supplemental requirements like financial audits. Keep removing barriers to eligibility and in review criteria.
  5. Open grant applications beyond the nonprofit model to allow individual artists and community-based groups equitable access to resources. Where needed, proactively facilitate groups to partner with fiscal sponsors.
  6. Pool resources with other funders to direct smarter and more cost-efficient funding streams, especially through local arts agencies who are better situated to reach community-based BIPOC organizations and artists.
  7. Document and make transparent how your funding is (and is not) reaching BIPOC organizations and artists and the percentage of your total funding that this represents.

Yes, we know that some of these things are already happening in funding agencies and communities. We need more to lead. We believe it can be better. We can do better. We must do better.

It is never too late to take action. Now is the time to invite change. Open the door.