A New Model for Supporting Black, Artist-Led Organizations

In late-August, Red Olive began a pilot program with the South Carolina Arts Commission and three South Carolina-based Black art organizations: Gullah Traveling Theater, Speaking Down Barriers, and The Watering Hole. In addition to receiving a one-time general operating support grant, these Black artist-led arts organizations will work with Red Olive to develop fundraising best-practices and to increase their organizational capacity and stability. We’re thrilled about this innovative partnership and the opportunity to test ways to better support small, Black artist-led organizations in the compounding challenges they face. 

An Urban Institute study has found that “there’s an inadequate set of support structures to help artists, especially younger, more marginal or controversial ones, to realize their best work.” When Black artists take it upon themselves to address this disparity and build support structures in the form of non-profit arts organizations, they find themselves facing additional barriers in an already tough funding climate for arts & culture organizations.

As leaders of small nonprofits, they find their organizations have additional burdens as compared to larger non-profits with annual budgets in the millions. Small non-profits have limited staff, often relying on a single (sometimes voluntary) executive director to wear many hats. Because small, artist-led organizations cannot afford full-time financial staff, the artist-leaders that helm them must work without the financial infrastructure and expertise that larger organizations have via their access to specialized, paid staff.  According to the Non-Profit Finance Fund, additional challenges for small nonprofits include an increased likelihood to run lean and have less budget dedicated to things like financial reporting systems, development staff, and technology; boards with limited training or fundraising capacity; a lack of budgetary surplus; and an overreliance on a single source of funding. These realities lead to decreased organizational capacity and a limited ability to withstand financial changes or crises.

For Black leaders of culturally-specific non-profits, the challenges of running a small non-profit are compounded by an inequitable professional landscape. Cultural organizations often face less visibility outside of their constituent communities, and their leaders face fewer opportunities for learning and mentorship. According to “Race to Lead: Women of Color in the Nonprofit sector,” a report released in March 2019 by Building Movement Project, Black women in the nonprofit sector face a “social landscape… that does not support or nurture their leadership;” have a limited or non-existent mentor pool for further professional development; and find themselves passed over in favor of white men or women for more senior roles or formal opportunities. “‘Repeatedly I get my brain picked for consulting around plans and strategies,’ one Black woman focus group participant said, ‘but when it’s time to actually make the ask, they don’t take me in the room.’”

In many ways, the odds are stacked against the Black women artists leading Gullah Travelling Theater, Speaking Down Barriers, and The Watering Hole. Despite the potentially grim external forces that could unsteady their organizational ships, these niche organizations are a boon to their core constituency, the communities that hold them, and the cities where they are located. Specifically, they provide to their core constituencies and those employed or deeply embedded through volunteer work:

  • Peer support and artistic career development
  •  Access to resources through an organization created and managed by artists
  •  New artistic experiences and exposure
  • Personal and professional development

How, in this stifling landscape, can we support, protect, and elevate the essential work of small, Black artist-led non-profits? How can we honor and bolster their unique assets, ranging from deep, localized knowledge, trust, and care, to nimble and responsive programmatic structures? As an institutional funder, the South Carolina Arts Commission recognizes that the challenges these three Black artist-led organizations face are not solely financial, and thus cannot be tackled with money alone. As a Black woman-led consulting firm with more than 12 years non-profit expertise, Red Olive is uniquely poised to partner with these organizations in navigating structural barriers to ensure organizational stability and thrivability.

Initial planning conversations complete, we’re excited to dive in and stretch the potential of this giving model, learning and growing along the way. We look forward to sharing our successes and our findings down the road.

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