Jeanie Duncan

The Challenge: Assessing the Organization’s Relevance

According to the latest statistics maintained by Americans for the Arts, there are about 5,000 local arts agencies in the United States. Many of these agencies take the form of a United Arts Council. And while there are some common structural and operational similarities, I like to say that, “If you’ve seen one United Arts Council, you’ve seen one United Arts Council.” At its best, a United Arts Council is specifically designed to serve its particular regional community through a distinctive and unique blend of programs and services.

The United Arts Council of Greater Greensboro’s (UAC) portfolio of services and programs includes fundraising, grantmaking, marketing, and advocacy. The UAC was established in 1961 by the business community as a united fundraising effort for a core group of arts organizations. For more than 40 years, the UAC has operated an annual campaign (known within the industry as a “United Arts Fund,” or UAF), which at its fundraising peak in 2008 raised $1.62 million. In this regard, Greensboro’s UAC is like most across the country: It’s both a fundraising engine, cultivating and securing contributed revenue largely from the local private sector, and a chief grantmaker to the local arts sector, investing approximately 90 percent of funds granted into a small, defined group of member agencies. 

Over the last decade, there has been growing conversation and debate among leaders of United Arts Councils across the country on one important question: How should we transition to models that are more relevant and deliver greater impact in their respective communities? This challenge is driven by many factors, which may vary greatly from community to community. At the UAC of Greater Greensboro, where I served as President & CEO from 2003-09, we recognized the following concerns, which sparked an in-depth analysis of our UAC’s reach and effectiveness:

  • Declining fundraising results and the need to diversify revenue sources.
  • Increasingly diverse community and limitations of current programming to serve the population.
  • Positioning and leveraging the arts to address community priorities.
  • Limitations on our ability to make grants.

These realizations lead us to re-examine our mission and priorities, which we did through a year-long, broad, and inclusive community process. It yielded creative, bold, community-focused strategies that would eventually change the shape and focus of our organization. Our strategies were reinforced with a wealth of research and data, but of course, change would not come without some resistance and challenges.

Note: Parts 2 and 3 of Jeanie’s series will be published on Thursday and Friday.

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One Response to “Navigating to a New Business Model – Part 1: The Challenge”

  1. Paul Miller says:

    I would like to offer an interesting role that the Illinois Arts Council played in developing a non-profit circus arts group I created. The Arts Council was used as a LITMUS TEST by many other smaller family foundations. In frank open discussions with other foundations/donors who gave 2-5X what the Arts Council gave… They knew that if the IL Art Council was funding you and that you had done the rigorous work to get the measly funding you were worth investing in. The funders also knew the requirements of this Arts Council funding.

    This is one way to look at how other foundations may use the 5,000 Local Arts Agencies. I cracked the joke all the time: “Here are you tax dollars at work!”

    After assessing the organization’s relevance ArtsWave formerly the Fine Arts Fund, here in Cincinnati has made many of the same transitions based on the factors outlined in this blog.

    -Declining fundraising results and the need to diversify revenue sources.
    -Increasingly diverse community and limitations of current programming to serve the population.
    -Positioning and leveraging the arts to address community priorities.
    -Limitations on our ability to make grants.

    I kinda wish I was in the business consulting for the 5,000 groups making these tough assessments.

    Could be a diversified revenue source for UAC and ArtsWave….

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