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Alison O'Neill shares her thoughts on how small arts organisations can acquire the financial expertise that grant-making bodies are looking for.

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Many arts organisations are finding it increasingly difficult to apply for and gain project funding from public or private sources. The emphasis of funding criteria is typically on the quality of the work to be funded and the framing of the application. But the requirement to demonstrate robust financial management is also often a significant factor in winning or losing a bid.

The requirement to demonstrate robust financial management is a significant factor in winning or losing a bid 

Trusts and foundations are essentially run by investment managers, and the risk profile of the investment funds are low for a good reason. Therefore, the expected returns on the funds are fairly limited – even in strong markets.

If I was on a panel looking at a grant application form, I’d be looking for evidence that the organisation tries to help itself. So, if an organisation was entitled to theatre tax relief and it hadn’t yet applied for any, I would reduce my score.

Accounting courses

The reality for many organisations is that it is challenging to recruit people who have the appropriate experience in financial management. I have therefore recommended for some time that it is worth advertising roles with an offer of supported study, whether that role is purely managing finance or has a broader scope. 

This could involve enrolment on to an Association of Accounting Technicians course at a level suitable for the candidate’s previous experience. The courses are offered at colleges for one day per week in term time, and can be made through the apprenticeship scheme if the organisation cannot afford to meet the training costs. Of course, you can demand that if the employee leaves the role within a defined period, they would have to repay the course fee.

This is one approach, and I have seen that it works well. The only challenge is that often the person studying does not have anyone they can talk with about how the principles they have learnt might be applied back at the office.

Training and mentoring

Another approach is training and mentoring offered by larger organisations to smaller ones. I ran a pilot course on this subject area last year targeted at people working in the arts sector in Bristol. It attracted freelancers and those working in small theatre companies. We covered topics such as admin fundamentals, financial statements, cashflow, budgets, journals, company structures and presentation of management accounts.

Their comments ranged from “I wish they included this on my degree course” to “I didn’t know about any of this”. I am now writing a concise course for freelancers, have delivered a targeted course to young people becoming board members, and have offered drop-in sessions to companies and individuals on a one-to-one basis.

Ultimately, if arts practitioners need to be better at all of this, there should be more long-term support. In my view, the sensible option would be to provide a dedicated hub in each geographical area to provide training, consultancy or even outsourced bookkeeping and payroll services. This could grow to incorporate other skills areas such as fundraising.

Alison O’Neill is Founder of Bristol Arts Admin.

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