Left Behind: The Inequity of Pandemic Relief Funds

Rachael Cristine Woody

Rachael Cristine Woody

September 30, 2020

For many funding programs (and as is the case for the recent round of pandemic relief funding) the following funding principal exists: the larger the institution, the larger the amount of funds they’re eligible to receive. 

“Larger” in this context means the large amount of funds already present at a museum through the operating budget, reserves, endowments, and other forms of capital. This isn’t to say these larger museums aren’t struggling too. They are. However, they already have access to reserve funds or capital, large-dollar donors, and a development department who can solely focus on bringing in more grant and donor money. The majority of smaller museums don’t have access to any of these assets and therein lies the inequity present in the funding system. 

What is “Equity”?

Here’s a quick definition for equity, in the context of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion; as provided by the Ford Foundation: Equity seeks to ensure fair treatment, equality of opportunity, and fairness in access to information and resources for all. For visual learners, I refer you to the picture of children of various heights all standing on the same size box to try and see over a fence. This picture shows the problem with “equality” due to the height difference among the children. The shortest child is standing on the same size box, but still can’t see over the fence. The “equity” picture gives each child a box in increasing height so that all children have a different sized box that, when stood on, gives them all the same height to see over the fence.

There was Zero Equity Present in the Distribution of Pandemic Relief Funding

Equality in opportunity. Fairness in access to resources for all. The reality is smaller museums don’t share an equality in opportunity compared to larger museums. Therefore, the way in which the pandemic relief funding was distributed to museums via the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Nation Endowment for the Arts, and the Institute of Museum and Libraries Services was inherently inequitable; and thus violates any commitments to Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI). However, both NEH and IMLS don’t appear to have a commitment to DEI on their websites, even though many NEH and IMLS grantees are working on DEI-related projects. (Here’s the NEA’s DEI commitment). 

As I wrote in a previous post: Analysis of the US Stimulus Package and What’s in it for Museums:

Applying for federal grants is known for being quite difficult, especially for organizations who can’t afford grant professionals who know how to navigate the federal application system. The process will need to be greatly simplified in order to provide equitable access and ensure museum of all sizes can access the emergency relief funds they so desperately need.

It’s not enough to have pandemic relief funding available to museums. In order to provide an equitable opportunity, these relief funds need to be offered to small museums with less red-tape and solve for the requirement of federal grant application knowledge and resources. 

The Lack of Situational Context

Finally, even if relief funding can be offered with less red-tape and more support, it still doesn’t fix the situational context of further inequity experienced by smaller museums. Situational inequity in this case is the lack of access to capital, high-dollar donors, and staff knowledgeable and dedicated to bringing in donations and grants.

What this “equality vs equity” picture usually lacks is that not only are the children different heights, they’re also standing on different elevations of ground depending on the resources they have available to them. The shortest child also stands at the lowest elevation—needing an even taller box to see over the fence.

An Example of Inequity in Funding Distribution

The issue of inequitably distributed pandemic relief funding is illustrated by an interview with Billy Ocasio, the president/CEO of the National Museum of Puerto Rican Arts and Culture—the  only Puerto Rican history museum in the nation outside of the U.S. territory. In Ocasio’s interview with WBEZ (Chicago’s NPR News Source) they report:

[A]long with other cultural institutions of color in Chicago, [Ocasio] has always had to work significantly harder for fewer resources while enduring empty promises of “diversity, equity and inclusion. […] He points to systemic racism as the main culprit, particularly in how government funding is distributed to museums.

The WBEZ articles observes that: Larger museums such as Adler Planetarium, the Museum of Science and Industry, and the Shedd Aquarium each received more than $1 million in Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loans, as reported by the Chicago Tribune. By comparison, the NMPRAC only qualified for $71,000, because the relief funding was based on the size of the museum’s operating budget. Ocasio explains, “10% in funding can help a small organization with a $1 million budget, but it doesn’t provide opportunities for growth the way a large organization with a $1 billion budget does.”


There are many, many issues with how the United States government has tried to provide financial relief to people, nonprofits, and corporations. To keep it at the micro-level, I believe there are three changes we need to make: 1. Require NEH and IMLS adopt DEI statements with specifics on how they can implement DEI into their application calls, submissions, and review process; 2. Facilitate and subsidize smaller museum access to grant consultants in order to receive knowledge and help applying for relief funds; and 3. Increase the percentage of funding given to smaller museums in an acknowledgement of their situational context also lacking in equity, when compared to the money and resources available to large museums.

Rachael Cristine Woody

Rachael Cristine Woody

Consultant, author, and blogger Rachael Cristine Woody advises on museum strategies, collections management, grant writing and the future of museums for a wide variety of clients. Read more of Rachael’s posts here. And check out Lucidea’s market leading CMS, Argus, that empowers museum professionals to make their collections more visible, accessible and engaging than ever before.

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