Is the arts baby drowning in the strategy bathwater? Alice Devitt thinks that business techniques should support, not overwhelm, artistic and social vision.
Those who know me best will tell you that I’ve always been a bit of a slapper – promiscuously darting glances at other sectors to see what the arts can learn from them. We should all see commercial, education and public sectors on the side to steal their ideas and confirm what we do best. The commercial sector’s pursuit of shareholder value ensures clarity and effectiveness. The education and health sectors have found interesting ways of managing and sharing knowledge and developing stakeholders. I remain astonished at how much the arts achieves on limited resources with virtually no access to appropriate management training. The occasional grand leadership scheme doesn’t quite fill the breach, yet somehow we produce people who can make the arts work.
We are bracing ourselves for an uncertain future and the old arguments on whether arts subsidy can be justified in rough economic times have been revived. Oldies like me will remember the ‘kidney machines versus arts’ conversations from the 1980s. It’s been a while, but we may hear them again as public sector financing is cut to the bone. Now seems a good time to improve our organisational tool kit to meet ever greater challenges.
Organisations have been beaten over the head to develop business strategy, vision and mission. I was one of the people beating you over the head about it. I have lately been struck by the thought that the application of strategy and vision has become confused in the not-for-profit sector. Perhaps we could use strategy more effectively while celebrating the power and effectiveness of our visions, missions and values. I have recently studied with very capable senior commercial executives who struggled to understand the complexity of the not-for-profit model. To gain resources and sustainability for our organisations is a first step. Those resources are then used to achieve higher social or artistic purpose through the vision and mission. We have discussed strategy and vision using a model that simply delivers shareholder value and does not understand us.
The concepts of strategy and vision were largely introduced to the arts and charities by commercial sector trustees and consultants. The straitened circumstances of the 1980s helped the concepts take root. The funding regimes of later years ensured they blossomed. Funding largely requires a written-down business strategy. Strategy is actually what you do, not what you say you do. The insistence on strategy documents has led to an ever-widening gap between actual practice and the written statement of intention. We feed the beast of business plans and long-term planning then park it until next time while we get on with our actual work, our true strategy.
Vision is often very hard to pin down in workshops, yet other sectors regard us with envy. Charities and arts organisations generally have strongly embedded higher purposes and highly motivated staff. Most of the artistic directors I have worked with find it very difficult to encapsulate their vision, yet live and breathe it every day. The difficulty arises if the vision is not specific to the organisation but seeks to achieve for the sector as a whole. Vision for a whole sector is often impossibly ambitious and neglects the needs of our specific organisation.
Strategy is a military concept. Commercial directors and chief executives implement strategy ‘to win’. They gain market share and resources and stuff the competition. Sun Tzu, author of ‘The Art of War’, and intellectual father of this approach, has much to answer for. As a sector I believe we have not fully benefitted from his approach in an attempt to avoid competition and remain cuddly. We have also learned from people who fail to grasp the crucial second stage of our approach: our higher purpose. We have attempted to contextualise business strategy by mixing it up with the vision, mission, values and the brand that delivers them.
The not-for-profit sector has adopted business strategy, but has often sought to de-fang its competitive edge. This attempt to develop a not-for-profit model of business strategy has hampered our effectiveness. Counter-intuitively, it seems to work better if business strategy is implemented as commercially as possible and restricted to the gaining, stewarding and utilisation of resources. It should not flavour the vision or mission of the organisation where the true heart and strength of the not-for-profit sector lies.
The commercial sector can often look at itself objectively in its constant drive to increase income and cut costs. It is worth emulating this clarity in order to understand the different elements of the organisational tool kit. We can deliver great art and genuine social purpose through our vision, mission and values while remaining commercially viable through our business strategy. Inevitably the two intersect as the vision, mission and brand of an organisation are key business assets. Commercially applied business strategy does not have to compromise our values, ethos and artistic standards. On the contrary, this approach can help us realise them.
Alice Devitt uses a toolkit of marketing, fundraising, PR, lobbying and strategy techniques to help not-for-profit organisations face business challenges and sustainably realise their hopes and plans.
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This week Alice listened to Max Lorenz completely out of his tree in Act III of Tristan and Isolde, and the ‘Beatles to Bowie’ exhibition at Laing Art Gallery made her reconsider the beauty of rock legends she had filed under ‘annoying old tosser’. At Circus Space in Hoxton she watched her five year-old nephew learn circus skills with kind tutors making great performance feel attainable.