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Short and Sweet?

I just noticed today (courtesy of Culturebot) that the Knight Arts Challenge Philadelphia is accepting applications through the end of the month. I’m jumping a few states away, but after clicking through their website, I found the philosophy of the Arts Challenge, and the application process in particular, quite intriguing.

In a nutshell, this September, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation “launched a three-year, $9 million initiative … providing new funding opportunities to the steadily rising Philadelphia arts scene.” The parameters for applicants are broad to say the least:

1) The idea must be about the arts. 2) The project must take place in or benefit Philadelphia. 3) The grant recipients must find funds to match Knight’s commitment.

When I first read this, I asked, “That’s it?”

Just think about how many ideas could fit those parameters. They do provide some more details on the matching element of the grants and a rough timeline, but that is it. Moreover, applicants do not need to submit an LOI or 990 or mission statement in the initial phase of the process. They do not even need a cost estimate. They must simply fill out a short online form with the title of their project and a description. The title field has a 70-character limit (half the length of a Tweet) and the descriptions field cuts off at a little over 1,000 characters. Their website likens the process to applying with an elevator speech.

Essentially, the broad parameters and non-intimidating first phase of the process were created to encourage non-traditional grant applicants to give it a shot. Arts and service organizations can of course apply, but the program gives equal consideration to artists without a company affiliation, businesses with arts-related programs or ideas, or “any individual who has a great idea for the arts.” I am sure the process becomes more stringent later on, but in the beginning, this is it. And I rather like it.

This no-nonsense, short-and-sweet approach raises a bundle of questions for me. First, does the more traditional grant application process freeze out (or just intimidate) particular groups or individuals? Or does that intimidation signal that they are not yet ready for the responsibility of high-level funding? Does a Tweet-length application encourage risks and idealism? Or does it encourage brevity and impulse over depth? Personally, I could see either side. But I like that the core of this program is a simple respect for one cool out-there idea. Yes, later in the process the details become important. But for now, they seem to say, give us your burst of inspiration — your great dream for the arts scene. And then we’ll take it from there.

That raises a peripheral question: were you to create a similar application process, where would you start? Would you pull out, say, the 100 proposals with a great idea and then move on the specifics of implementation? Or would you go the other way? Say, narrow down all the interested parties based on financials and strong infrastructure and then move on to ideas? Clearly, programming and financing are not mutually exclusive nor are they inherently opposed. But should one function as a litmus test? Or is the more common approach (evaluating both side-by-side) actually more common because it is more effective and realistic?

Overall, I’m intrigued by the philosophy behind the simple nuts and bolts of an application process. I’d sure like to know how this one came to be and to what it may have been responding. I’m going to do some asking around this week and report back here, but do let us know what you think. If you were put in charge of a city-wide arts funding (or education or human services funding) process, how would you run it? Would that change if you were running a public-sector program as opposed to a private foundation? What (if anything) guarantees the best and most diverse field of applicants to a program like this one?

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