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An ArtsProfessional feature in partnership with Arts Fundraising & Philanthropy

A positive internal culture is key to building resilience in arts organisations, says Michelle Wright. She shares her tips for creating one.

Photo of a meeting

As we strive to ensure that our arts organisations have a sustainable future, management teams up and down the country are focusing on income and diversifying business models as key drivers for resilience. Resilience is the buzzword at the moment and was the subject of a session at the Arts Fundraising Summer School at the University of Leeds.

This session reminded me that we often forget the softer areas that are at the heart of creating great organisations – a commitment to vision and purpose, an ability to collaborate, the way we treat our people, and overall the culture we create. These are the hallmarks of the organisations with staying power.

Focus on culture

Putting organisational culture at the heart of the resilience agenda, and of the training for our arts leaders, therefore seems a no brainer. I can already feel people recoiling in horror at the thought of this, but if we look to some of the world’s fastest growing and sustainable organisations, what singles them out is their unrelenting focus on culture – and I mean unrelenting as it’s a daily focus on creating, reviewing and reflecting on culture.

There needs to be a regular period of ‘check and adjust’ to make sure that organisational purpose and culture are aligned

For organisations such as Facebook and Amazon, when you get under the skin of their leadership agenda, the area that takes the most management time is the focus on creating culture – and by culture we mean skills, behaviours, how we treat people and how our audiences and partners experience our artistic offer.

However, rather depressingly, and perhaps not surprisingly, within this group of participants at the Summer School, the majority didn’t feel that the leadership of their arts organisations gave time to create culture or to reflect on what was going right and what needed improving. Perhaps worse still, some felt that the leaders took time to consult but only as a mere tick-box exercise, and that often such sessions were used to push through change from the top despite feedback from staff.

But then it’s very easy to bash our artistic directors and CEOs. They already have an impossible role being chief artistic planner, fundraiser, operations director and strategist, with not enough hours in the day. In this economic environment, such roles can be utterly thankless. And it’s also all too easy for junior members of staff to lay blame at management, to moan and to get into a ‘no before yes’ mindset which just exacerbates cultures that are less than ideal and protect the status quo.

A sustainable culture

The key point for leaders to realise is that a culture exists in your workplace whether you like it or not. And that’s the point: to develop and co-create a culture, you need to be ‘intentional’ about it. If you don’t think about it, it’s going to emerge anyway and, more often than not, you won’t like what you find. These more accidental cultures are determined by what employees do and how management react – they can be both fragile and fluid, and they certainly aren’t sustainable.

From my perspective, creating an effective and intentional culture requires one key ingredient: time. Our arts organisations have some of the most creative employees in the world, but ironically we often don’t take time to harness those skills. While communication and vision are important, we can’t short-cut the fact that creating culture takes both time and investment, and you have to work at it every day. We also have to remember that existing cultures are very hard to break, and that takes a massive amount of effort and energy.

Top tips for organisational resilience

Here are some top tips for creating a culture that can support organisational resilience:

  • Creating space: Leadership needs to make space to think about culture. To identify the core values of the organisation and then to make sure there is time for employees to engage with them, bring their ideas to the table and to reflect. There needs to be a regular period of ‘check and adjust’ to make sure that organisational purpose and culture are aligned.
  • Write it down: Developing effective communications around culture is an obvious point but in our fast-growth companies, evidence of culture appears throughout the building and wherever employees engage with the organisation. It needs to be visible and constant and tailored to the key elements of success. So if growing audiences is essential, then your measures need to be put at the heart of the employee experience.
  • Training: Investing in staff is important, but a savvy culture plan will make best use of skills that already exist in the organisation, sharing knowledge and bringing training back into the building. It’s not a cliché to recognise that staff can mentor and coach each other and if you happen to have a skilled facilitator or yoga teacher in your midst, then using the skills that already exist is a great start. Great cultures maximise their internal assets; they don’t often buy in ‘experts’.
  • Model: All staff need to walk the walk, but we also need to be much more rewarding of good culture when we see it, and to showcase those organisations that do it well. Many participants were flummoxed when asked the question: “Which arts organisations will be flourishing in ten years’ time and why?” So that’s a great question to start with – and getting under the skin of the ‘why’ should be at the heart of any organisation’s culture plan.

And one final reflection from participants on the Summer School: for the more junior members of staff, it’s no good falling into the trap of moaning about what is less than ideal, but instead we have to get into a mindset of taking positive action about what we can influence.

It might not be possible to change organisational policy, but we can have an impact on our own team’s behaviours or ways of working, we can be a positive ambassador, and we can always be positive in putting forward new ideas. After all, it’s people and ideas that are at the heart of resilient organisations.

Michelle Wright is the Founder and CEO of fundraising and development enterprise Cause4 and Programme Director for Arts Fundraising and Philanthropy.

This article is part of a series of articles on the theme Fundraising for the future, sponsored and contributed by Arts Fundraising and Philanthropy.

Arts Fundraising and Philanthropy runs one-day training courses on essential fundraising skills, trustee leadership half-day courses, bespoke and tailored training, and a number of one-day courses are offered on demand.

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Thanks for this really interesting article Michelle - I think it's a very pertinent issue in the arts and one that is not talked about enough. There's an incredibly high turnover of staff in arts organisations and I'm sure it's partly down to a failure to do the things you are discussing.