Where is philanthropy for writing and literature? — Inside philanthropy

In a sentence: Philanthropy for writing and literature is tiny compared to other arts, but the field has steadfast supporters.

What is going on

Philanthropic support for writing and literature is low compared to other arts, we reported in an in-depth report on the state of American philanthropy. Music and theater both have denser networks of nonprofits, while literary nonprofits tend to be smaller and less visible than other arts organizations.

Funding for writing and literature goes to individual writers, nonprofit literary arts organizations, and educational organizations. In this area, education groups like Youth Speaks and 826 Valencia tend to receive the most grants. There is a clear lack of support for rural organizations and non-profit publishers, although the latter may be essential to the survival of a diverse literary culture as commercial publishing continues to consolidate and focus on bestsellers.

Corporate philanthropy tends to support book festivals in the form of sponsorships, while literary magazines rely heavily on revenue generated from subscriptions, advertisements and fundraising events – or an individual benefactor. The National Endowment for the Arts and city and state arts councils provide public funding to literary organizations and individual artists.

By the numbers

Institutional funders gave $418 million to writing and literature programs in the United States from 2014 to 2018, according to data from Candid. That’s nearly 15 times less than giving to the visual arts and four times less than giving to music.

Main funders

Philanthropy for writing and literature is dominated by private foundations. The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation stands out among them, followed by the Lannan and John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur foundations. The Whiting Foundation is notable for focusing on the literary arts.

Community foundations are important actors at the local level, particularly in funding literacy and creative writing programs for children. Amazon and Target are the companies that support literary nonprofits the most.

Major donors don’t often make huge donations in this area. A notable exception was a $200 million donation in 2002 by Ruth Lilly, heiress of pharmaceutical company Eli Lilly and Company, to the Poetry Foundation. Dolly Parton’s impressive Imagination Library offers more than a million books a month.

Intermediaries like the Academy of American Poets and the Community of Literary Magazines and Presses help major funders select recipients and award funds to writers and small organizations.

New and remarkable

  • Elizabeth Alexander is perhaps the most important philanthropic advocate in writing and literature. The esteemed poet and writer is also president of the Mellon Foundation and was previously director of creativity and free expression at the Ford Foundation. Under Alexander, Mellon launched major literature-related fundraising initiatives, such as a $4.5 million grant to the Academy of American Poets to fund Poet Laureate Fellowships across the United States.

  • Emergency funds were a lifeline for literary nonprofits in the early months of the pandemic. The Academy of American Poets, for example, awarded emergency grants to 282 organizations in 2020 through a $3.5 million Literary Arts Emergency Fund funded by the Mellon Foundation.

  • The Speculative Literature Foundation is one funder that has made changes to its grantmaking program specifically to address issues of diversity and equity.

  • The Art for Justice fund, started by collector Agnes Gund with the Ford Foundation and Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors, funds artists who disrupt mass incarceration. Viewing the written word as an important tool in the fight for decarceration, the fund has extensively supported literary organizations including the Asian American Writers’ Workshop, PEN America, and the National Book Foundation.

food for thought

“There are very few writers who go on to pursue a top career who haven’t been nurtured along the way by smaller grants and awards and residencies.” — Daniel Reid, executive director of the Whiting Foundation, here.

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