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An ArtsProfessional feature in partnership with Twine

For small arts companies, it’s a fiercely competitive time to be applying for funding from trusts and foundations. Annie Rigby and Natalie Querol share their very different experiences. 

Photo of two actors on stage

Alex Brenner

Annie’s story

I am generally an optimist and can be relied upon to find positives in most situations. However, I have to admit that Unfolding Theatre’s experience of fundraising from trusts and foundations over the past three years has been pretty frustrating. Looking back, this is probably down to our expectations and an underestimation of how hard the current climate is for trust and foundation fundraising as a small, young organisation. Optimism meets reality, perhaps.

To set out a bit of background, Unfolding Theatre has been relatively successful at raising donations of £2,000 to £8,000 from trusts and foundations. We’ve established some good relationships, particularly with funders based in our home region of the North East of England. We hoped our journey through Twine – a Catalyst Arts-supported project helping small touring theatre companies diversify their income streams – would see us begin to achieve larger scale funding, and build more national trust and foundation relationships.

However, we think it’s important to be honest about our experiences so far. It is difficult, competitive and a long haul.

Of course, at the same time we were plotting this course, so were hundreds (if not thousands) of other arts organisations, many of whom also had Catalyst funding to match their hoped for trust and foundation donations. Many were much bigger organisations than Unfolding Theatre, with more staff available to work on applications and longer relationships with funders. Still, we are optimists, and we set out accordingly.

There’s something that appears reassuringly simple about raising money from trusts and foundations. You read and match the funder’s criteria, you try to build a relationship with their team, you write the most compelling application you can, and the funding is yours. And, of course, this is what we did. Except the funding wasn’t ours.

The issue isn’t that we, or many other people fundraising for small, young arts organisations, are lacking in skills. We work and think hard about our trust and foundation approaches. We pick funders where there is a real match with our mission. We write targeted, rather than ‘cut and paste’, applications. We attend events where we can get to know potential funders, we spell their names right and submit our applications with the right information, on time. But, it is fiercely, fiercely competitive.

We have received some lovely personal emails from staff at trusts and foundations, saying things like: “I just wanted to let you know that we all thought your application was really strong, and normally it would have been successful, but we were just overwhelmed by the number of applications we received.” And actually, we’ve got a long enough view to know that this is, in fact, excellent news. Much as it is disappointing this time around, we’ve made an impression that means we might well be successful next time.

But, it is worth saying again, it is fiercely, fiercely competitive. So many brilliant arts institutions, indispensable to our cultural infrastructure, have had their public funding cut in recent years. Almost all of them are turning to trusts and foundations to attempt to fill the gap. Many of them have full-time (or even departments of full-time) fundraisers working hard on applications. It’s very difficult for Unfolding Theatre, and companies like us, to compete in this climate.

Still, we continue to be optimistic in building our relationships with trusts and foundations. We’ve sent in new project applications to those funders who expressed disappointment that they couldn’t support us last time. We’ve had some success achieving funding through partnership applications made with other arts organisations. We are in the process of becoming a charity to increase the numbers of funders to which we can apply. We believe in the quality of our work, and in the quality of our applications. We feel confident that we’ll start seeing more success as Unfolding Theatre continues to build its track record and profile.

However, we think it’s important to be honest about our experiences so far. It is difficult, competitive and a long haul. Like many other touring theatre companies, we will keep working hard at it. We plan to remain optimistic, but perhaps also more realistic about how long it may take for trusts and foundations to play a bigger part in how we thrive as an organisation

Annie Rigby is Artistic Director of Unfolding Theatre.

Natalie’s story

The Empty Space is no stranger to receiving large grants from trusts and foundations. From our earliest days we, like many companies in the North East of England, were supported by the Northern Rock Foundation (now sadly missed). In 2013 we were awarded £90,000 by the Esmée Fairbairn Foundation for a strategic project supporting ten artists on Tyneside and trialling a model of artist support that could easily be replicated elsewhere.

Whilst the cash investment has been transformative both for The Empty Space and the artists we support, I value the relationship with the foundation’s staff and the additional support we have received from them in terms of advice and training every bit as much as the grant itself. I am almost evangelical about the trusts and foundations with which we’ve developed relationships and we are currently applying for charitable status to increase the range of potential supporters.

There are so many touring theatre companies that it’s difficult – even for particularly brilliant ones – to stand out.

However, I recognise the reality of Annie’s experience. It’s relatively easy for The Empty Space, an independent organisation committed exclusively to artist development, to make a strategic case for support. We can offer a very different kind of support than venues and there aren’t that many non-venue based artist development organisations out there. There are so many touring theatre companies that it’s difficult – even for particularly brilliant ones – to stand out.

Generally speaking, The Empty Space doesn’t apply for less than £30,000 in any one application, and we have never applied to more than one trust or foundation for the same project. If we had some form of core funding, I suspect I might be more inclined to make more, smaller applications to top up project budgets. But as it is, I always work on the basis that the 10% management fee we write into most applications has to justify the amount of time taken to set up the project, bring partners on board, establish and maintain a relationship with the funder, write a compelling application, and properly evaluate and report on the project. It takes much the same time to write an application for £5,000 as for £100,000, so I avoid smaller bids just to make the time/income ratio stack up.

Again, this works for us, but poses a potential problem for small theatre companies applying for individual projects – they often have to balance the fiercely competitive environment in which they are functioning by applying for smaller amounts, so the time/income ratio is out of kilter.

Trusts and Foundations have been a valuable source of funding for The Empty Space and I do believe that can be the case for theatre companies as well. But as Annie’s experience demonstrates, the biggest difficulty is not a paucity of skill but an overabundance of competition that will only become more intense as long as public funding continues to be cut.

Natalie Querol is Director of The Empty Space.

This article, sponsored and contributed by Twine, is part of a series exploring the fundraising challenges faced by small touring theatre companies.

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Photo of Annie Rigby
Photo of Natalie Querol