Matchmaking: When David Met Goliath

Jan, 09 2017 / In /
Think Big

by Karen Brooks Hopkins, NCAR Nasher Haemisegger Fellow

I was pleased to participate in the recent TACA convening, a tremendous gathering of arts administrators and other community leaders in Dallas this past October. There was clear camaraderie among panelists as we discussed how to harness the cultural energy of Dallas to envision greater connections among arts groups themselves, as well as the community at large. Eventually, the discussion evolved into an exchange about the relationships between small and large organizations and how they might work in a more collaborative and supportive way, rather than compete with one another.

Nationwide, it seems the divide between large and small is significant, and the struggle has accelerated as new entities have come into fruition, overall demands on services have increased, and resources have grown scarce. Ideologically, the two sides have also grown farther apart, as small groups have seen the bulk of philanthropic dollars go to large, more classically-oriented, less diverse institutions whose programming, they believe, enhances the status quo, while their own approach forges newer, more relevant ground. The larger organizations, on the other hand, carry the burden of enormous overhead, as well as facilities, staff, marketing, and programmatic costs required to offer productions and exhibitions that can fill bigger venues.

So, the question is: how can these two sides, both hoping to create and deliver the best work, serve their audiences and communities at the highest level; in essence, how can they meet and find happiness together? In many ways, there is so much to gain if these organizations can find common ground.

Small organizations need greater visibility, more powerful board members, higher levels of donations, access to well-equipped facilities, and larger audiences. In turn, larger organizations desperately need to be more diverse ethnically and programmatically and could be so much more dynamic and interesting if they had more flexibility and were able to respond to opportunities with greater spontaneity. Oddly enough, each side has a bit of what the other side needs!

Bridging this divide is not simple, but I believe that there are some practical ways to solve this problem. Enlightened funders can impact the field through collaborative grant making—and both sides can benefit! The key to this effort, of course—as is usually the case in most conflicts—is that both sides must respect each other and what each respectively can offer. For example, large organizations cannot swallow their smaller partners in a collaboration. The smaller partners must be given substantial visibility and recognition for their own work. Alternatively, the “bigs” (as we will refer to them) cannot be expected to take on all the tasks and carry the whole project on their backs. In other words, the smaller organization should not simply become “another mouth to feed.” Everyone must be aligned for success. Therefore, assuming the partners have good will and a real commitment to moving forward, I would offer the following suggestions:


Ideally, a funding consortium would provide significant resources to undertake a three to five year partnership initiative. Nothing truly enduring can be accomplished in a shorter cycle. The first year, the grantee groups are figuring out both how to work together and what to do. The second year is stronger, and by the third or fourth year, the program is a well-oiled machine, destined for longevity (if it is a successful and worthy idea, of course).


Bold ideas call for both sides to engage in visionary thinking that move the needle forward for each organization.  Using this program simply to siphon off support to cover existing expenses will not generate a competitive submission for a funding opportunity worthy of a major investment by donors.  With this in mind, however, knowing how difficult it is to raise money for basic needs, each successful team could be awarded some percentage of funding to cover their administrative costs. 

In my own work at BAM, as President for 16 years, I strongly believed in these kinds of mutual enhancement programs, such as:

  • RadioLoveFest: This is an annual festival in all of BAM’s venues of some of the best shows, talks, and presentations coming from WNYC, New York Public Radio. While not vastly different in size, these two organizations are completely different in nature (i.e. a presenter and a radio station), yet together they have created something amazing—bringing beloved radio programs to thousands of people that are promoted consistently on the station. Through this effort, WNYC is able to offer a totally new type of “in-person theatrical experience” to its listening audience, as well as a completely original perk for its members (such as getting advance tickets to their favorite shows). Artists are able to tackle complex issues and attract top-level guests to their programs. Alternatively, BAM has the benefit of full houses and regular, free ongoing radio promotion. This program is now in its fourth season!


  • The Restoration Theatre Dance Company: Nearly twenty years ago, BAM and Bed Stuyvesant Restoration Corporation (BSRC), the nation’s oldest community development corporation, formed a partnership in connection with the annual BAM DanceAfrica Festival, originated by Baba Chuck Davis. The concept was simply to give young people in the Restoration community the opportunity to participate in an arts program right alongside the professional dancers in the annual showcase at the BAM Howard Gilman Opera House. The festival performances are supplemented by African films in the BAM Rose Cinemas, a huge Afrocentric bazaar outdoors, masterclasses, talks, and various leadership initiatives, overseen by the Council of Elders. Every young dancer admitted to the program has to maintain good academic standing, must be on time for rehearsals, etc. Each year a visiting company from Africa arrives early to work with the students. The students also study the rituals and traditions of the guest country under the instruction of the Council of Elders, Baba Chuck, and their own accomplished teachers and program leaders. In addition to events at BAM, there are supplemental events at BSRC, The African Burial Ground, and additional locations. The young people are energized and, as a successful dance company, they secure many more bookings throughout the year. The student dancers make their own costumes, and are, in essence, a fully professional component of the festival. While BAM benefits from this lasting connection to the community, BSRC has also received great acclaim for its role in this major cultural event, which has served hundreds of students , as well as audience members and bazaar attendees every year!

  • Ideas for Board Membership: I firmly believe that the role of the Board of Trustees in advancing institutional success cannot be underestimated. Board members not only make contributions and offer expertise, they reflect the vitality and depth of an institution’s role in its community and in the world. It would be truly significant if selected board members of a large institution could offer true and meaningful service to the smaller partner during the three to five year grant period, and perhaps beyond, depending upon the success of the initiative. In this model, a board member of a large organization would participate as both a contributor and active member of the partner organization, in addition to providing ongoing support to their home institution. The board member could provide expertise, access to other potential donors, and act as a true bridge, connecting the large and small both at a profound grassroots level—not just by giving money, but by getting involved! In turn, a board member from the smaller organization would serve on the large partner’s board potentially providing more diversity and expertise on topics such as community engagement, flexibility, and other areas where smaller organizations excel. This “exchange” would also give the smaller partner member an opportunity to observe the larger institution’s operating model. Through this effort, the larger and smaller organizations would both become more organically connected to their partners and the local community, and therefore would develop a much greater understanding of the other’s needs. It’s a match made in heaven! Through this effort, the larger organization would become more organically joined to their partners and the local community, and both would develop a much greater understanding of the other’s needs.

  • Credits: I have always said to my colleagues in the field “credit is easy, money is hard.” With this in mind and without spending too much time on it, I believe it is imperative that both organizations receive equal billing and the same access to the benefits associated with the partnership. Too much time and energy is squandered fighting about the credit issues, which is a distraction from building a brilliant program. For this initiative to work, the full status of the project must be shared 50/50 by the partners.

This is only the beginning! There are so many ways to share best practices in terms of management and budgeting, as well as real opportunities to break barriers and build a deeper level of engagement. Creativity both at the programmatic and administrative levels is the best way for our field to make progress on behalf of our neighbors and communities, as well as gain respect. Diversity makes our field more interesting and relevant; working together is the way. It is not a burden, but a truth path toward artistic glory for all.