The future of shared platforms

by Jini Stolk

I thought about calling this post “Shared platforms: the future”, but I’m not yet sure that’s the way it will go. At this point, there’s a lot of discussion, an insightful research paper by Jane Marsland and funder support for new “platforms” that take on major components of the administration of small arts and other non-profit organizations.

Marsland clearly identifies the context and motivations behind this surge in interest: “there are no longer enough resources in the public arts funding system to make it feasible for many of our artists to establish fully independent, adequately capitalized, charitable, non-profit organizations.” At the same time, “there is less desire among many artists to incorporate as a charitable, non-profit organization, because they realize it is increasingly difficult to raise the resources required to support an ongoing organizational structure and keep it healthy.” So very true.

The Metcalf and Laidlaw Foundations, with the Ontario Trillium Foundation and the Toronto Foundation, have been at the forefront of supporting and developing shared platforms and shared platform initiatives. Modeled on TIDES Canada, these can take on the tasks of board oversight, budgeting, financial and corporate reporting, grant oversight, personnel policies, and accounting for projects and small organizations – leaving independent artists and community change agents to focus their energies on programming.

Many types of non-profits in addition to the arts world’s small theatre and dance companies, indie opera groups, writers, community arts organizations, and youth arts groups, are exploring this notion. The Ontario Nonprofit Network (ONN) has had an active Shared Platforms working group for over four years. It identifies benefits including reducing duplication and charitable start-ups, increased efficiency and administrative expertise, nimble and responsive structures, reduced governance risk, focus on the project rather than administration, and increased collective impact.

Some groups have decided to “incubate” new initiatives – a mentoring approach with many similarities and some differences to shared platforms. This article uses the example of the Ontario Nonprofit Network itself, which spent seven years as an incubated project of the Social Innovation (CSI), the co-working space where my office is located, which has a mission to “catalyze social innovation in Toronto and around the world.” Creative Trust incubated, or acted as a platform and charitable trustee, for Picasso PRO for three important years in its development.

The way forward is not going to be smooth or straight ahead. Organizations formed as administrative support structures in the arts (STAF and DUO) have had ups and downs and are revising how they work; new, more project-oriented shared platforms are struggling to find the resources to do the job well. However, for anyone prepared to seize the challenge of starting up one or more of these new structures, the need is urgent and the potential is huge.

The Ontario Nonprofit Network recently issued a Request for Proposals to create a Shared Platform Guidebook to lay out the “must-haves” for a strong shared platform approach from a legal, governance and fiduciary standpoint, and the administration required to support those specifications.

Toronto Arts Council’s Open Door funding initiative, taking applications until April 15, aims to provide catalyst funding for big ideas and initiatives – perhaps like Shared Platforms – that have the potential to create transformative change for artistic disciplines, communities of artists and arts organizations and the arts sector at large. Project proposals for Open Door must demonstrate the potential for impact in at least one of the following areas: Market Development, New Models and Innovations, and Exceptional Opportunities.

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