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Our New Way of Grant-making

Categories: TACA Blog

Jane Murchison Haber handing Dallas Theater Center Artistic Director TACA's first grant in 1967
Jane Murchison Haber and Paul Baker (1967)

Grant-making is TACA’s cornerstone – and at the core of our mission since our founding in 1967. Our Arts General Operating Grant Program (formerly known as General Operating & Project Grants) has grown from funding one organization to over 40 in 2018. In our 51 years of existence, we’ve invested over $28 million into our arts community through this program.

We at TACA – board, members, donors and staff – are proud to be able to provide unrestricted, general-operating support back to our arts community because we know the importance of flexible support  — and how difficult it is to find. TACA supporters recognize that supporting the entire arts community is critically important, in addition to supporting other favorite organizations. Each TACA grant dollar distributed represents every person who made a gift to TACA – large or small.

In 2016, we decided to review and revise our General Operating and Project Grants Program. We made this decision for several reasons:

  • Dallas Arts District
    Dallas Arts District (photo by Dana Driensky)

    The arts landscape in Dallas (and TACA) had dramatically changed since the process was last reviewed in 2000, when TACA distributed only $285,000 in grants. Our community built the largest contiguous arts district in the country, weathered a severe economic recession, and the list goes on.

  • There were priorities that began to emerge in our grant-making that we needed to formalize – like recognizing the importance of utilizing the local artistic resources in our community and encouraging innovation.
  • And generally, it’s not the best idea to develop something and not check-in on it in for over 15 years.

Over 9 months in 2016, we convened a 15-person task force of local arts leaders, philanthropic leaders, TACA volunteers and Board Members to engage in a multifaceted review our process and to propose revisions. Throughout this process, we:

  • engaged in benchmarking research to understand what other grant-makers did across the country;
  • hashed out what we believed our new criteria categories should be based on what we value as an organization;
  • and labored over what overall shape the process should take while trying to balance the capacity constraints of our applicant organizations with our responsibility to be the best stewards possible of our supporters’ dollars.

The result of this process is our new Arts General Operating Grant Program. So, what is different about it? Here it is in a nutshell:

Expansion of Criteria
In the past, TACA had 3 evaluative criteria: Artistic Excellence (weighted at 55%), Administrative & Fiscal Responsibility (weighted at 25%) and Community Engagement (weighted at 20%). Through our task force, we determined that these criteria needed some fine-tuning because they didn’t fully align with our values as a grant-maker.  In the end, after much hashing, we decided to break out our criteria like this:

Artistic Excellence – 35 points
Innovation & Originality – 20 points
Local Creation & Local Artists – 20 points
Access & Inclusion – 15 points
Fiscal & Administrative Stewardship – 10 points

We also made a specific decision to move away from “weighted” criteria (percentages) and to a points-based system. By doing so, we are able to ensure that applicant performance in each criteria area is directly connected to the grant received.

Restructure of Evaluative Panels
In the past, TACA’s grant applicants were organized into three (3) panels based on the annual operating budget size of applicants. We recognized that although comparing organizations of similar budget sizes had some value when evaluating financial health, it did little to help us evaluate other more important criteria. Beginning in 2017, we organized applicants into artistic genre-based panels (e.g. theater, music ensembles, dance). This allowed us to better evaluate applicants based on criteria such as Artistic Excellence and Innovation.

Adoption of a Merit-Based Scoring System
In the past, TACA’s funding decisions were largely based on historical funding – a practice that, though relatively easy to implement, worked to the advantage of some long-time applicants and put others at a disadvantage. To help us move away from historically-based funding, we adopted a points-based evaluative process. This process ties funding outcomes to the scores each applicant receives based on their performance in each of our five new evaluative criteria.

group of people observing a presentation
TACA Grant Panelist Orientation (March 2018)

What isn’t Changing
Despite all these changes, there is one critical piece of our old process that we made sure to keep: Live/in-person observations of artistic work. While many arts grant-makers we spoke to across the nation felt that live/in-person observations were incredibly valuable, they often didn’t have the capacity (or the budget) to keep it up. To our grant-making peers, we get it! Managing over 50 grant panel volunteers over a 10-month process is not easy. But for TACA, we felt it was absolutely critical to keep. Why? Because there is no substitute for experiencing artistic work, in-the-flesh and up-close-and personal. Absolutely nothing. Is it difficult to do? You bet. But is it worth it? Without a doubt.

In 2017, TACA’s 49 volunteer grants panelists spent over 3,000 hours anonymously attending performances and observing work and $20,000 of their own money on tickets (they purchase their own). We are eternally grateful for that extraordinary investment of time and talent in TACA and our arts community. It truly is invaluable.

We are continuously listening for ways we can improve our process and be responsive to our arts community. And, although we admit that our process is not perfect (nor do we think it ever can be), we truly believe it is a major leap towards becoming a more fair and thoughtful grant-maker.

Maura Sheffler
Deputy Director, Programs & Marketing

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