Consider mission and brand when searching for museum grants
I’ve often said that leading a nonprofit is one of the most complex jobs one can have. Among other things, the CEO pieces together a mosaic of funding sources, manages a staff with diverse duties, works with a board of trustees, and is the face of the organization. This is especially true of art museums that typically have a variety of social events, fundraisers, educational programs, art classes, member programs, docent groups, responsibility to care for collections as well as running social media marketing. Plus the CEO likely gets pressure from trustees who want to see the museum “run more like a business” and to take advantage of every funding source.
Grant funding is an important part of the funding mix for most museums. The pressure to balance the budget can cause just about any CEO to rationalize “chasing” grants just to keep the museum afloat: “I know Peruvian textiles don’t fit our definition of ‘American art’, but the extra money it brings in will help us keep the lights on. Plus Peru is in the Americas, right?” Like the media in the age of Trump, a museum CEO may get distracted by “shiny objects” of grant opportunities, falling victim to straying from the museum’s basic mission.
Be practical and stay focused when applying for grants
Applying for grants clearly related to the mission, for example, an NEA grant to underwrite a special exhibition, are easy calls. But applying for grants that aren't related gives chasing grants a bad rep. A CEO, curator, or program director can rationalize just about any grant program, especially if it brings in additional revenue. For instance:
- A grant to fund a summer film series of popular oldies may help underwrite art school scholarships for needy kids.
- A grant from Whole Foods to fund a cooking school that you know several of the museum’s art patrons will enjoy? Will that encourage those same patrons to give more money come annual fundraising time.
- A well-intentioned trustee whose family foundation wants to underwrite an exhibition of art works by children in a local hospital. It may bring in some nice money, but what message would that send to visitors about the type of art the museum exhibits? Not only is a CEO faced with rationalizing a grant marginally related to the mission in order to fund other programs, sometimes she has to have the gumption to decline an offer of a wealthy trustee.
Remember your museum's brand and programming
Another consideration is how a grant program may affect a museum’s brand. Is the museum undertaking so many unrelated grant programs that the public perception of the museum becomes muddled? The museum’s reputation needs to be closely related to its core mission, and it is important for the museum’s marketing and public relations efforts to constantly reinforce that.
Finally, adding new programs may tend to put additional demands on an already overstretched staff who may need to focus on other, more mission-oriented projects. While not measured in dollars and cents, the “true costs” of a new grant project may include its impact on employee productivity as well as morale.
Key points to remember when researching grant funding opportunities
Is it always bad practice for your museum to pursue or chase grants? No, not necessarily, but I suggest considering the following when looking at a grant opportunity:
- Mission-related: Will the program funded by the grant be directly related to and further the museum’s mission?
- Revenue generation: Will the grant generate additional funds that can support other mission-related programs?
- Program sustainability: When the grant period ends, will the program be continued? (If, yes, how will it be funded?)
- True costs: What are the “true costs” of the grant program? Will it require the museum to come up with additional financial resources (i.e., matching)? And will it put additional demands on existing staff leading to low morale?
- Brand identity: Will the grant program reinforce/improve or confuse the public’s perception of what the museum does?
Any CEO worth their salt will carefully analyze the costs and benefits of a grant opportunity before applying. Otherwise chasing every grant may cost the museum more in the long run than the actual funding it receives.
Austin’s Jack Nokes retired in 2016 from a 37-year career working in the nonprofit field. A Texan by birth and lawyer by training, his work focused on museum administration, professional education, and nonprofit management and governance.