Funders & Advocacy

September 10, 2013 at 9:30 am Leave a comment

Karen Gahl-MillsThis week we welcome guest blogger, Karen Gahl-Mills, executive director, Cuyahoga Arts & Culture

Grantmakers have often been on the leading edge of advocacy work at the national, state and local levels, working with elected officials to bring positive change to our communities.

But let me also suggest that, beyond advocacy for issues large and small, we as grantmakers can make a significant impact in our communities by extending our definition of advocacy to include directly connecting elected officials with the nonprofit organizations that we fund, those organizations who are doing the work of positive change every day. And we should consider making those connections at times when we aren’t advocating for a specific issue or piece of legislation, as a service to our elected officials and our nonprofit partners alike.

Cuyahoga Arts & Culture is primarily a grantmaking organization, but we, like many funders, know that we have talents to share that extend beyond money. And one way that we’ve learned that we can help our cultural partners – our name for those nonprofit organizations that we fund – beyond our grantmaking work is through this sort of targeted advocacy.

Of course, we have a vested interest in telling our own story and building support from elected officials for the continued existence of the dedicated, local public arts and culture funds that we benefit from here in our community. However, we have found that it is most effective to tell our story – how public funds help strengthen our community through our investments in arts and culture organizations – through the work of our cultural partners. And what better way to do that than to bring an elected official on a site visit, so that s/he can see the work of our partner in action, and see how CAC funds make a difference.

So here’s the story of one such site visit, with the hope that you might take away some lessons that you can use to help your partners (grantees) in your communities.

Cuyahoga County is lucky to be represented in Washington by a great group of legislators who really understand how arts and culture helps to drive our regional economy. One of our area’s newest representatives is Marcy Kaptur (D – Ohio), a seasoned legislator who has a new district that now includes a slice of our county.

On a warm summer Friday this past July, we had the privilege of meeting Rep. Kaptur and members of her team at Baldwin Wallace University’s Conservatory of Music. Bryan Bowser, assistant director of the conservatory for external affairs and director of BW’s Arts Management Program, took us on a tour of BW’s Summer Music Program, a program that draws more than 600 middle- and high-school students each year from Northeast Ohio and beyond.

The BW Conservatory has a proud tradition of community outreach programs which serve more than 3,000 participants and more than 35,000 audience members each year. In summer 2013, the Summer Music Program included camp programs focused on strings, piano, band and musical theater, which included student performances and opportunities to attend interactive performances such as a professional theater or orchestral performance in the community and talk back session with the artists.

Choosing a venue for a site visit is always, key, and BW is a visually pleasing, high-quality institution perfectly suited for the task. We had the opportunity to observe a choral group, the high school orchestra, and students in the musical theater program. But as we walked and talked through BWs storied halls, Rep. Kaptur’s inquisitive nature drew out of both of us the stories of what our organizations do – and how CAC’s funds help put a little more wind in BW’s sails.

Showing is always more effective than telling, and by the end of our hour, Rep. Kaptur and her staff better understood one of the key cultural assets in her newly-shaped district – BW – and better understood how the public funding climate in our community helps to keep that asset strong, healthy, and in service to the community at large. I can say that with some confidence, because I had occasion to run into Rep. Kaptur some weeks later, at which time she referenced our visit and reiterated the importance of BW to the cultural landscape in our community – a win for everyone.

So as you consider ways to extend the value you provide to those that you fund, think about ways to put this kind of advocacy to work for you. Why not set the goal of trying to do an advocacy visit like this one just once in the coming year? You will help our elected officials better understand the issues facing our communities, and you will help your partner organizations get some well-deserved attention for their good work.


Entry filed under: Commentaries, Grantmaking.

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