AWF Info Session Documentation

An information session was held on June 8, 2016 at PianoForté in Chicago

Arthur Pearson talking at the event

Arthur Pearson, Gaylord and Dorothy Donnelley Foundation
AWF Steering Committee

Ten years ago, a number of funders got together to establish the Arts Work Fund. Why? We love the arts! And what we want is: a richer, healthier and more diverse ecosystem of arts organizations. What we intuited back then, and what we know now from our own experiences and numerous studies that have been published, is that when arts groups have consistent access to resources to build infrastructure, they tend to be stronger. They tend to have fewer crises. They tend to stick around longer to produce more art. It allows them to take more risks and push themselves–and us–in ways that enrich our lives immeasurably. And yes, we know that building boards, instituting better financial systems and developing strategic plans is not why any of us got into the arts. These "business side of show business" things are important. They are important if we want to be strong individually and as a community. None of these things are rocket science. But, they do take time and attention. A little help can go a long way. And that's in part why we're here. So, in addition to the arts funding that all of our funders do individually, together, we pool our resources to provide an expanded array of support to arts and culture groups in Chicago and Cook County. We concentrate our efforts on those who can best put those resources to use.

Frank Baiocchi, Polk Bros. Foundation
AWF Steering Committee

As we near our tenth year of grantmaking, we're striving to be a learning organization. We've spent time looking back at our work to learn what happens when small to mid-sized arts organizations are able to continually access capacity building grants. Not just the "one-and-done" type of grants, but grants that can build over the years and afford some cumulative learning and growth for the organization. We also want to look forward to anticipate and understand the opportunities and challenges that organizations might face–or are predicting to face. So we've listened to arts organizations and asked ourselves: "How can we refine and enhance what we currently do–within our current resources and capacity–and how can we be more helpful to this vibrant and ever evolving community?" We learned that capacity building procures cumulative benefits:

  • Greater efficiencies: Saving organizations time, resources and money, enabling them to spend more time with the arts.
  • Greater visibility: We've seen growth in donors, growth in ticket buyers, growth in the number of students they are working with and growth in the number of collaborators they are able to work with.
  • Stronger leadership: We've seen organizations that have helped their board develop skills in governance and fundraising and helped executive staff match problems they identify to longterm appropriate solutions.
  • Stronger partnerships: We know from a detailed evaluation we did with groups–who received four or more grants from AWF–that these capacity building processes and the work of working with consultants helped arts organizations learn how to learn from outside experts, remain porous and open to new ideas and opportunities, and bring new and meaningful ideas into their organizations.

Also, in another form of creating stronger partnerships, grantees told us–both formally and informally–how valuable sharing of knowledge among arts leaders is to them. How important it is to engage in an ongoing conversation with others who are striving to achieve mutual goals. It's really critical and we all have so much to learn from one another.

Chicago Artists Coalition
Caroline D. Older, Executive Director

We are very fortunate to be the recipient of two recent Arts Work Fund grants since I joined Chicago Artists Coalition, two years ago. Today, I'd like to share one of our recent Aha moments: Corporate philanthropy and sponsorship does matter and is available to arts service based nonprofits with smaller operating budgets.

While foundations still provide the bulk of Chicago Artists Coalition's contributed revenue and individual giving is critically important and growing, Corporate sponsorship can be an important part of our contributed revenue stream. Two Arts Work Fund grants funded a two-phase project with a consultant who helped us understand how to identify and value our assets, bundle our assets so that they delivered more value, and move from Starving Artist support, to year-round relationships. Starving Artist is our annual fundraiser and getting corporate sponsorship for a fundraiser is much easier than getting it for year long programs. Most importantly, we learned how to be a reliable partner for corporate sponsors. Our goal is to diversify our revenue, so that we are not wholly reliant on one source of revenue, but, we need the tools to do so. While the Chicago Artists Coalition team and I felt very comfortable talking to foundations and individuals, we needed to learn for-profit language. We needed to learn the language of corporations who are looking for a "return on investment" for their sponsorship. The attitude of “Whats in it for me?” is very different from foundations who are looking for growth in a particular sector or individuals who have a philanthropic bent.

Though our work is still in process, I can say that we have significantly increased our Starving Artist net revenue–primarily via an increase in corporate sponsorship–and we're working to renew sponsors and engage them year–round with our programs. This is a nascent effort, its just getting underway now. All of us feel that we now have the tools and language to get in front of sponsors and meet their needs in addition to our needs. In terms of getting of getting in front of sponsor, we're still wholly reliant on board and committee members to get us in the door. Its difficult to knock on a corporation's door and not have someone there to smooth the entry for you. But, we're much better prepared now to pitch Chicago Artists Coalition, and what we can do for a sponsor, than we were a year ago. It's a great feeling, to walk into the those meetings and have a better understanding of what a for-profit corporate mindset is, when being approached by a non-profit.

Why this matters: I think a lot of people have given up on the corporate sector and that it's not worth their time. I feel differently, it's not that i feel like we'll suddenly have a huge increase in corporate giving, but, it is helping us diversify our continuing revenue. It expands our family. Every meeting introduces us to more people in Chicagoland and we learn how to better partner with for-profits and how to have those partnerships be mutually beneficial. Thanks to Arts Work Fund for the investment. It's been an incredible learning moment for all of us. We're a small team of five, and every single person has been involved in this effort, because I want the people who are in charge of the programs–whether it's education or exhibitions and residencies–to also be prepared to speak to someone like our new neighbor Google. We have so many corporations moving into our neighborhood. If a new corporate neighbor does attend an opening, just understanding their mindset is helpful.

Sones de México Ensemble
Juan Díes, Executive Director

I'm a musician and I founded Sones de México Ensemble in 1994 with three other musicians and our mission focus is on a specific type of folk music from México called "Sones”, hence the name of the group. The American equivalent would be Appalachian Music or the folk roots of Mariachi Music. It's music that has always existed in the fringes. Our mission is to promote a greater appreciation of this type of music and the people who make this music and the immigrant community that we have here who are heirs to this music from several rural areas of México. We do this by performing, recording and teaching this music.

I want to tell you about a capacity development grant we received from the Arts Work Fund that helped us meet a fork in the road. It may have saved our organization from making a serious mistake. In 2014-2015 we did a feasibility study on the prospect of opening a Mexican music school in Chicago. Our organizaion has achieved many highlights in the past 20 years: We have released 6 albums, performed 1000 concerts in 30 states and we've received 2 Grammy nominations. When we were coming down from that cloud and figuring out our next steps, the music school seemed to be a legacy piece that we wanted to do. Our conventional thinking was: Let's find a good location and develop a curriculum, promote it and then cut the ribbon and start teaching. We actually had enough reserves to rent a storefront for a year and figure it out along the way, but our board was reluctant to sign a lease and move in that direction–with no experience in running a building. So, we applied for an Arts Work Fund grant and we hired a consultant.

To do a feasibility study scientifically is very expensive and much more than we could do on our small budget. But, we're creative in leveraging the different resources that are available to us. We hired an individual as a hub to coordinate with various portions of this and we sectioned the project into little chunks. We went to the Business Volunteers for the Arts at the Arts & Business Council of Chicago, they got us four marketing consultants who worked on series of focus groups that provided great feedback. We also worked with the Illinois Facilities Fund, they went to our prospective building and looked at the cost of renovation, startup costs operations, etc. We also worked with some masters degree students from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and they took little chunks of registration and creative approaches to advertising.

Our consultant met with our board of directors and did a competitive analysis of 30 other different outlets in chicago that teach music, how much they charge, how much they pay their teachers. He wrote a concept statement for our school he did personal interviews with local politicians and influential people in the neighborhood to see what they thought of a music school emerging in the neighborhood. We created a curriculum and a mock catalogue of classes. A year later, we brought all these resources together and had a very sobering report. We would probably need to work over six months out of the year to pay for the cost of operating our school.  Somehow, what has made the Old Town School of Folk Music succeed is no that easy to replicate! There is some magic that keeps it going. I guess I know because I was there for 12 years.

We started thinking outside the box after the grant was over. We had an idea with the SAIC students–similar to popup restaurants–there's so much available space around the city and we're now negotiating the use of those spaces. In order to keep our brand and the unity of the project together, we developed an app. You go online to find out where a class is happening and then you can enroll. We're currently in the pilot stage of the program. We started this year with 12 students. We now have 36 students studying guitar and we're getting a call from Rogers Park to start a branch there so we'll see how this goes.

This grant helped us figure out what could have possibly been a serious mistake. Thank you!

Arthur Pearson

These stories are two excellent examples of why we've established the Arts Work Fund. The information, resources and the wisdom you're gaining and sharing with all of us–this is, in part, what is fueling some of the refinements to our strategies.

After 10 years–which is a good time to stop, refresh and take a look at things–we've refined our grant making strategy in response to what we've learned from our grantees. We're going to continue to offer, as we have for the last ten years, Core Grants: capacity building grants to address specific operational needs. It's our core bread and butter work. These grants are largely related to consulting fees related project costs and the grant levels remain fundamentally the same: generally, up to $ 15,000 plus 10% added to each grant to help offset administrative costs, so that the time spent on these projects includes a little bit of compensation. The second thing, and this is the new thing: Idea Lab Grants. These grants are a little larger and can be for a longer duration of time, because they are to support the development and testing of ideas that would help groups solve chronic challenges or explore promising opportunities. These things can include building new audiences, diversifying income, engaging new communities, and launching new business models.

Sandra Aponte or Melissa Phipps (from the audience during q&a): ”One of the things that came up in many of our meetings is that the outcomes of these grants are bigger than your singular organization. It's something that can move our field our community and more broadly the field forward. You may be engaged in something that may be a piece of information or a model for your peers."


Frank Baiocchi

Through peer knowledge sharing, Arts Work Fund has encouraged leaders of arts organizations and funds to talk and learn from one another and from the Arts Work Fund staff. We believe in the value of peer to peer knowledge sharing. The Peer Skill Share program has been a part of the arts work fund since 2011 when it launched. The program allows an arts leader to request help on a topic or issue that s/he is facing and that arts leader is matched with a non-profit leader who has experience in the issue area to share experience and provide advice. Many grantees have used this program and have found it very beneficial and very efficient and effective and have been able to build new and meaningful relationships out of what seem to be small conversations. The next initiative is new, the Arts Work Fund Connect listserv also known as AWF Connect. We're launching this community listserv–or discussion form–to allow arts leaders to receive or post information, ask question and get relevant feedback from colleagues, other arts leaders and practitioners. We're excited to find new and meaningful ways to have this community help itself and build itself up and work together toward things that are at the core of all of our missions.

Marcia Festen

Core Grants: Important things to remember: You can apply anytime, which was really different for us. We started that a year and a half ago. Instead of making decisions twice a year, we make them every quarter. We're trying to be more responsive and get these grants out faster so you don't have to wait six months to your project. The other thing to know is that there is no limit to the amount of grants you can receive. Though, you do need to finish the grant you have in order to get another one. You can get up four grants in a year, if you work that way. This is because, we don't think capacity  building is a project, we think it's and ongoing process. Capacity needs come up at all different times and in all different ways. Often, what we find is that one project identifies the need for another project. Core Grants are our ongoing very accessible grant program.

Idea Labs are a way to allow people to test ideas. This didn't come from us, it came from applications that we were getting. Idea Lab Grants are two year grants up to $25,000 per year. They are very new to us. We are looking for people to talk about the ideas they have for solving challenges or take advantage of opportunities. It's got to be what you really need. You tell us, we're not giving you categories. Part of what we're going to look at is: How did you identify the problem, what do you think you'll get from the solution and what will change for your organization. We'll be asking more from you about what the big idea is that you're testing and what the big question is that you want to answer. It is an LOI–it's our first LOI process. The LOI was announced on June 1st, they are due July 5 and then we'll be inviting proposals in early August. We share a grant processing system with our fiscal agent and long time partner the Chicago Community Trust. You can find the LOI on their website or on our website. If you have more questions please contact me. I look forward to talking about your ideas with you all.

Peer skill share is bigger than the Arts Work Fund. It was started by the Pierce Foundation and is now administered by Forefront. One of the advantages of it being bigger than us is that if you have a question and need a connection, you are matched with people from the broader non-profit community. There are about 11  foundations across Chicago who's grantees are a part of Peer Skill Share. These are often one-on-one meetings. The invitations are sent on a quarterly basis, so, they take a bit longer. You don't get your questions answered immediately. It takes a few weeks to find your match. We have heard feedback that they are incredibly beneficial. We read the reports that come out of them. But, we also get calls all the time and we aren't always the most equipped to handle them as other grantees are. So, we decided to launch a  community listserv. Its called AWF Connect and it is a place for arts organization leaders, artists, arts funders to ask questions, get information and to share lessons learned. You can post a question and sign up if you are not already on the list. We launched it and thought that we wouldn't get many questions, so, we called people to submit over the first few weeks. If you are on the list, you may have noticed that, actually, there are a lot questions! We were taken by surprise. We're thrilled with the level of conversation. On average, we've had five responses to every question. We hope you use the list as a tool. You may not need it today but you might need it a year from now and you may be able to help people.

AWF Connect isn't the kind of place where you're going to post your season and it's not where you'll make an announcement of your recent award. Some of the types of questions you may find on AWF Connect are: “What type of insurance does my non-profit need to carry?”, “My board chair just quit and I have a meeting in 2 hours. What should I do!?”, “What do I look for in a good database system?”, or it could be like: "I need six gallons of red paint.. Does anyone have any extra?”. It's about sharing what we have.

The other thing you'll see is that we have a fancy new website that Jon Satrom of studiothread designed for us along with much more hip logo than we use to have. The site will be easier to use. There will be a list of all the grants we make. There are resources and stories and there will be an archive for AWF Connect. You'll find it more useful, with an easy interface and more relevant and interesting content.


The Arts Work Fund invests in the financial sustainability, management, governance and growth capacities of small arts and cultural organizations located in the Chicago metropolitan region.

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