Futureworks: Reorienting Efforts on Shared Charitable Platforms


(Jessa Agilo) #1

Hello everyone. I established ArtsPond / Étang d’Arts (ArtsPond.com) in 2014 with a mandate to become a national, multidisciplinary “Charitable Venture Platform” (CVP) or “Shared Charitable Platform” (SCP) for the arts. I initially made this effort in response to Jane Marsland’s landmark paper “Shared Platforms and Charitable Venture Organizations” from 2013.

Since completing an unsuccessful provisional charity status application for ArtsPond in 2015 (which received a 10-page letter of rejection from the Canada Revenue Agency), I have been trying to rally a precedent to allow these types of platforms to become established and rooted in the community.

Four years later, the light at the end of the tunnel seems just as far away as it was when I started. The legal, political, and policy concerns are just as murky, if not more so, than they were in 2014 despite ongoing consultations with lawyers and community members. The common economic model being proposed (10% of revenues just for the platform to operate) seems unsustainable for small creators and producers when typical budgets for all administration are preferably 15% or less. I have argued that CVPs will only be economically viable if robust digital information systems (preferably open source and open data) are developed prior to launching any platform. This will allow a platform to serve more artists than it would otherwise, and to appropriate scale, potentially cut economic models down to more reasonable 5% of revenues. At a larger scale, information systems are critical in order to facilitate collaboration, increase efficiency, and track activities and data to demonstrate to the Canada Revenue Agency the high artistic quality, high public impact, and strong direction and control practices necessary to allow these platforms to secure and retain charitable registration. However, after submitting unsuccessful proposals in excess of $1 million over the past two years, finding the resources to develop the specific information systems required has continued to be a difficult challenge indeed.

After all of this time, I have been evaluating whether or not to continue pursuing development of CVPs. The realities of our systems and society are changing fast. I am now of the position that it will not be economically or culturally viable to invest in CVPs until there is evidence to suggest that charitable giving in Canada is not continuing to decline significantly. Older generations of donors are passing away and younger generations are not building habits of donating to charities. They instead seem to be captured by viral, non-charitable crowdfunding campaigns that have high visibility like Humboldt Strong. Would they take the time to learn about donating to a CVP where the relationships between the artist and the platform are not easily understood either artistically and legally?

I am not at all convinced that donors will on mass suddenly start donating to support small creators and producers in the arts should a platform be created. It seems to me that it may take several years of trying to encourage more donors to give and volunteer in the arts before a CVP will ever be viable should the Canada Revenue Agency miraculously permit a platform to publicly operate. To me, a reasonable next step will be to invest in studies of ways to deepen and sustain donor-artist relationships before building a platform.

On another front, CVPs to me now feel like yet another highly inequitable gateway that will only ever advantage a segment of the industry much smaller than what is currently supported by public funding. It doesn’t seem right to be spending large amounts of public (and private) funding to incubate yet another gateway. We are all trying to open the system these days after MeToo, Indigenous Reconciliation, and so much more, not close it right back up again. We need better systemic solutions that empower not dozens or hundreds of artists once in a while, but tens of thousands of artists every year throughout their entire careers. Co-op models and B-Corps seem so much more relevant and appealing from this point of view… whether it is for access to/ownership of digital platforms, shelter/spaces, equipment/supplies or other. But if the donors/patrons/audiences aren’t there in the first place, it really won’t matter whatever ingenious models we come up with. We need to get down to basics, folks. CVPs and other complicated wranglings of the system actually don’t address the root causes of the problem. Our society just doesn’t care (or know enough) about the value of creativity and artistic expression to be engaged with it. And yet when they are engaged, our systems of supporting and giving to artists are too convoluted, opaque, or hidden away inside inefficient systems to be discoverable and desirable tools for sustaining life-long interactions.

I don’t think I am giving up on pursuing CVPs, at least not yet. But I no longer see them as any kind of silver bullet solution worthy of significant investment. The challenges of the industry are so incredibly immense and urgent. We can’t wait a few years, a decade, or more hoping these platforms will one day become a reality at scale to the need. This is the reason for ArtsPond electing to focus on bringing cross-sectoral partners together to address systemic issues like gentrification (via Groundstory.ca) and digital transformation of arts services (via DigitalArtsServices.ca). At least in the shorter term it seems like they will have a much better bang for the buck. Meanwhile, other efforts to change the status quo like building policies for guaranteed income, universal daycare, improved arts education in the schools, and more could benefit from having active representation from a wider segment of the arts community.

(Liz Forsberg) #2

Welcome to the Inspired People Hub on the Knowledge Centre Jessa! Thanks for sharing all this work and thought you have done on Charitable Venture Platforms (or as some know them, shared charitable platforms or SCP). There is so much to respond to in your post!

I know you are aware of this (but many readers may not be) - OTF has been collaborating with a consortium of funders including Metcalf, the Toronto Arts Council, Ontario Arts Council and the Canada Council for the Arts to explore this issue. We’ll have more to say on this before the summer but for now I can offer some of my own thoughts on this from my vantage point!

Many of the issues you raised surfaced in our explorations as well. One of the operating assumptions underlying the CVP/SCP is that if you create this structure you will unlock resources that are currently unavailable to you be they charitable donations or access to foundation funding that is dependent upon charitable or incorporated status. Access to charitable donations is certainly not a sure thing as you point out (if I recall correctly, the arts receives less than 5% of all the charitable donations in Canada). However, we have seen the emergence of SCPs in the community-engaged arts sector as a way of unlocking access to foundation funding for emerging arts organizations. In these cases, the “platforming” also includes a lot of mentorship and network building. It’s interesting to see the distinct needs between the discipline-based professional arts vs community engaged arts practitioners. This work is happening (the arts community is so good at creatively addressing needs!) but it’s very resource intensive. The 10% administrative fee, while it can be a lot for emerging/unincorporated groups on the platform, doesn’t usually cover the costs to the organization doing the platforming, especially when mentorship is involved.

It would be great to hear from groups who are platforming or those that are doing their artistic work within a shared charitable platform. How are these issues being addressed by the sector right now?

(Owais Lightwala) #3

Thank you Jessa for the candid description of your experiences, but more importantly for putting in so many years of labour, energy and vision into tackling this challenge. I cannot agree with you more on your assesment that we have a much bigger picture issue about the value of the arts in our society, and in some ways we are only talking about bandaid solutions for what is chronic underfunding from both private and public sectors. The Canada Council’s new funding is promising, but it will be years before we know if its enough and if its serving all those who deserve it, but at least in Toronto, both province and municipal have a lot of catching up to do.

To respond to Liz’s question about how the sector is responding to these challenges, I can share a little about what the company I work for, Why Not Theatre, has been doing in this regard. Five years ago, Why Not created the RISER project, a collaborative producing model to bring together a community of established companies (those with stable operating funding, infrastructure and salaried staff) to support independent theatre artists (project to project, no fixed base, little producing experience) to produce their shows in a more sustainable and successful way. The model was responding to a whole slew of challenges - the phenomenon many emerging artists were facing of constantly getting “development” opportunities but no actual productions, the high costs of producing on your own, the difficulty building an audience, the loneliness and anxiety of working in silos, the inaccessibility of institutional support - to name a few. We didn’t even know we were making a shared platform, we began with a simple question : how can we, as a company that now has some privilege in the funding and opportunities we get, support the broader community of independent artists?

Responding directly to what the RISER participants told us they needed - we began by building a model to share space, tech and marketing resources to save costs, and bringing on senior partner companies with micro contributions of support in cash or in kind. We responded to the artists’ desire to own their own work, retain independence and autonomy, and we created the structure and schedule tailormade to their needs, rather than asking them to fit a box we had created for them. Later we learnt that this is now fashionably known as a “design thinking process”. Each year the model evolved in response to real time feedback. We added a jury selection process where past participants picked the future participants in a democratic system. We experimented with a shared publicist vs giving companies cash for marketing. We saw a need for more mentorship and training on how to produce, and added a series of coaching sessions walking the companies through each stage of building their show with hands on guidance. We let artists set their own prices, and we tried setting prices for them. With all these experiments we learnt something, tinkered further and each year continue to question if the model is still truly serving the artists.

After the first year of the model, we were fortunate to receive a groundbreaking $100k of support from the Toronto Arts Council that allowed us to truly experiment for 3 years, and this year onwards we are on our own. Instead of that being the end of the model’s potential, we’re setting our sights much higher. We recently (also reluctantly) acquired charitable status, in order to open up new revenue streams for us to expand the impact of RISER. We are now trying to figure out how to support artists beyond just the production of 4 new productions each year and in year round development cycles. Just like RISER, we aren’t starting with the end product, but just the question of how we can support the independent artists in our community better. Through the years of doing RISER (and a helpful report commissioned by the Toronto Arts Foundation and Metcalf Foundation), we’ve got a ton of data, both quantitative and qualitative, of where the pain points lie, where people need more resources, where they need more efficient resources, and where they need to be taught how to use or gain resources on their own. We have already begun fundraising for a pilot project in the coming year that will allow us to beta test several ideas in the real world, and then learn and pivot from there.

One thing we are not going to do (probably) is offer our charitable number as a fiscal sponsor to an unincorporated entity, partially because thats currently illegal under CRA’s present stance, but much more importantly, and this is to Jessa’s point above, there is so much more that we can and need to do. So we are focusing on creating the strategic interventions that we can make, rather than those where there are such massive legal hurdles and unclear actual rewards on the other side. I’m adding this lengthy (sorry I didn’t realize how long it was going to be when I started writing it!) post to explain another way of thinking. I think our work may be an example of being SCP-ish, we are not interested in actually making an SCP. The higher purpose for us is to to reduce the barriers of access and make more and better work from more diverse voices. Our approach is not looking for the scale of an SCP, and not trying to serve the largest group possible, but we are being SCP-ish in leveraging our capacity and charitable status to support a focused community of theatre creators.

(Liz Forsberg) #4

Welcome to the Knowledge Centre Owais! Thanks so much for sharing your experience with the RISER project. It’s a really inspired and community-responsive initiative. Your post is reminding me that the research and discussion paper that was written about your work is on my reading list! For those that would like to read more:

GENERATOR AND THE RISER PROJECT: SECTOR DEVELOPERS FOR INDEPENDENT THEATRE IN TORONTO October 2017 by Helen Yung Culture of Cities Centre A research and discussion paper commissioned by Toronto Arts Foundation with the support of The Metcalf Foundation and Toronto Arts Council