Smarter Grantmaking in Action: Native Arts and Cultures Foundation

  • Shantaé François, May 25, 2017

How empowering community members through capacity building and collaboration strengthens engagement to motivate lasting social change.

The problems at the heart of the social sector’s work rarely lend themselves to easy answers. In areas ranging from education and environmental protection to social services reform and civil rights, achieving real and lasting impact often means changing complex and dynamic systems. No single individual or organization can succeed in this work alone. But when people reach across the lines that too often divide us, they tap into new ideas and resources — and create partnerships that can help them achieve their goals.

Inspiring Ideas for Improvement from T. Lulani Arquette

  • As grantmakers and funders we just need to get out of our offices. People need to get out of the offices and get into community. That’s not always easy, no matter what community it is, but we need to make a really strong effort to get out and interact and meet the people in the communities that we are supporting and funding.
  • Be sincere. Learn what the needs are in the community from the community. Make sure what you hear from the community helps inform your movement forward and your grantmaking practices and processes.
  • Collaborate. After listening to your grantees or potential grantees, be clear about something that you can do together rather than just handing them a check. Whether it be administrative or technical support or connecting them to other consultants and referrals, strengthening relationships is critical.

Native Arts and Cultures Foundation’s Community Inspiration Program

Incorporated in 2007 and launched in 2009, The Native Arts and Cultures Foundation is a Native-led, philanthropic organization dedicated exclusively to the perpetuation of American Indian, Alaska Native and Native Hawaiian arts and cultures nationwide.

Through its Community Inspiration Program, the Native Arts and Cultures Foundation assists artists by helping them to build the capacity to make progress on complex problems. Specifically, the Community Inspiration Program provides capacity building support to artists working on projects designed to connect Native and non-Native people in community conversations that address pressing social, cultural, and environmental concerns to create positive change. The foundation offers funding support for community collaborations and assists artists in strategic planning, including developing evaluation and documentation systems, to help their projects engage participants to reach relevant outcomes.

The Community Inspiration Program was launched in 2014 after recognizing the success of the foundation’s National Fellowship Program. “The Community Inspiration Program was a continuation of some of the voices that came out of a gathering of 105 individuals from across the country to engage communities from the ground up in social change. Rooted in an understanding that arts and culture work has an important role to play in motivating community engagement and supporting social change, we wanted to mobilize the community in a more intentional way. The immediate goal for the Community Inspiration Program was to support and learn from the work we do with Native artist driven projects that are connecting diverse people in discussing and addressing social, cultural and environmental concerns,” says T. Lulani Arquette, president and CEO of Native Arts and Cultures Foundation.

Customized Capacity Building Support

NACF selected four multiyear projects for the Community Inspiration Program pilot in 2014 and tailored its capacity building support to each artist’s specific needs. During the selection process NACF considered diversity in every aspect including artistic practice, indigenous nation affiliations and the stage of project development. Each project came from a different artistic discipline or combined multiple disciplines and each of the artists were at different stages of development when they were selected for the program. NACF provided a variety of different capacity building supports including technical assistance, administrative support, communications and marketing support, and project management, to each of the artists depending on their personal needs and the stage of project development they were in.

We need to make a really strong effort to get out and interact and meet the people in the communities that we are supporting and funding.

Since each situation is unique and circumstances are always changing, effective capacity building support is tailored to best suit the needs of grantees. Customized support is more time and resource intensive, but the investment is absolutely worth it because the alternatives — off-the-shelf or one-time capacity-building interventions — can be less effective.

The Power of Community and Collaboration

The Community Inspiration Program assists the artists by helping them to build the capacity to make progress on complex problems, but the artists weren’t supported by NACF alone. It’s been a broader effort that enables these projects to evolve and move through collaboration with other artists, community members, and the media, to provide more recognition and support. “In each of the projects, the artists wanted to build community — whatever they define as community. What’s also important is that they are going beyond their specific geographic communities to engage and facilitate the conversations and discussions that need to happen between communities. Each artist has a social issue that’s important to them and they are passionately covering this issue through their work,” says Arquette. Building trust and relationships are critical components of collaboration and these elements push grantees and grantmakers toward lasting social change.

Learning in Action

Some of the Native Arts and Cultures Foundation’s key learnings about the Community Inspiration project are:

Build evaluation in at the beginning of the project. Arquette shares, “we were a little late getting into the evaluation process, so it didn’t happen from the beginning. One of the things that we learned is that as we continue this program and even provide our learning to other organizations or foundations that want to engage this kind of work, it’s really important to build evaluation in at the very beginning.”

Projects are more successful when partners can collectively articulate a clear social impact goal. The projects that were still formative or in the process of development gave the artists and NACF something to partner on and work together on in greater ways. This may have given NACF more opportunities to augment the project’s impact through funding and staff engagement. Arquette says, “It’s a lot of work but it gets the staff, the board and community members much more engaged and involved before the main launching of the project or performance. We see the issues that the artist is trying to address and it helps inform us as the primary funder on how we can be more impactful and what we need to do to perhaps shift and change how we assist down the road.”

Community engagement and community development correlated with project success Artists with strong community engagement capacities seemed to be able to broaden and deepen the effects on their community. There are a number of artists that have been successfully engaging their communities to create social change and others who may have no experience in that area at all. “One of the things we’re looking at is having training and some facilitation effort from those artists and collectives that do this and have been doing this successfully to help other artists needing support to work in and mobilize their communities,” says Arquette.

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