Arts Forward Fund
With a severe financial crisis bedeviling the New York arts world in the early 1990s, a consortium of 36 grantmakers pooled resources in a new and innovative way. In 1991, they established the Arts Forward Fund, an experimental approach to grant-making that invited the field — rather than funders — to take the lead in proposing projects and activities that would build organizational capacity and stability. The funder consortium's hope was that such an unusual approach might generate bold, new ideas that would assist the city's arts organizations in gaining an edge in their struggle for long-term survival as well as create models that could be adapted by others. Over a three-year period, consultants from WolfBrown sought to determine how well the experiment had worked.

Launching the initiative, the consortium had invited organizations of all sizes to town meetings. There they were encouraged to take risks with creativity of ideas prevailing over mere institutional size and capability in the selection process. About 340 organizations got involved, applying for planning grants. Thirty-six such grants, totaling $681,000, were made. Half — or 17 — of the organizations received another million dollars to implement their plans. In conducting the evaluation, the consultants surveyed all the applicant organizations and planning grant recipients, then visited those who'd gone on to transform their ideas into action.

The consultants determined that while the Arts Forward Fund program did not produce the hoped-for bold, new ideas or models, it did have an impact, particularly in offering smaller organizations, so often overlooked, a critical boost in morale. And there was much grantmakers could learn from their experiment: organizations that were successful in strengthening themselves through change had a distinctive number of common characteristics that became important criteria in assessing organizational capacity. Among their recommendations, the consultants suggested that any grantmaking process cannot rely entirely on good intentions, openness, and flexibility, but must offer clear guidelines and procedures if it is to yield good results. Grantmakers must also develop criteria to judge success up front, even if they wish not to dictate how such success should be achieved.