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An ArtsProfessional feature in partnership with Arts Fundraising & Philanthropy

Arts organisations’ failure to devote proper resources to lifelong learning will lead to the sector falling behind, warns Michelle Wright.

Photo of man lecturing to students

I was with a well-respected arts consultant recently who had been on a training course. She didn’t want anyone to know as she felt it would undermine her role if people felt she had gaps in her expertise. I was rather gobsmacked at this statement and wondered if this was a widely held view across the arts sector towards learning and development? Do we not value it, or worse, are we still rather ashamed to take part in it?

Barriers to training

As we’ve developed the Arts Fundraising & Philanthropy programme over the past four years many things have become apparent. There isn’t a well-established culture of investing in training across the arts sector, and there certainly are no generous organisational budgets to support it (or indeed any budgets).

Senior leaders are afraid of showing any vulnerability, with a sense that somehow they should know it all by now

Other barriers include: staff are worried to take time out of the office to learn new skills; there is precious little study leave to support academic learning; and senior leaders are afraid of showing any vulnerability, with a sense that somehow they should know it all by now.

While there is huge progress through investment in programmes such as the Clore Leadership Programme, our own Arts Fundraising fellowships and many more, it seems that we still have a long way to go if we are to embed a culture of lifelong learning across the sector. This is worrying as staying current and updated is even more important in today’s uncertain economic climate.

So I set myself the task of talking to other training leaders and seeing if they were experiencing the same challenges.

Academic-based learning

Ben Walmsley, who runs the Arts Fundraising and Leadership Summer School at the University of Leeds, thinks that one of the biggest benefits of university-based learning is to provide a space for arts professionals to step back from their busy day jobs and reflect on their professional practice. An academic course helps delegates to theorise things they often do instinctively and to question the rationale behind new models of income diversification and resilience.

The summer school always starts with a hopes and fears exercise, which usually brings up the concerns of the delegates around the usefulness of academic theory and their anxieties about writing academic essays. Once completed, the course usually results in delegates realising how useful theory can be and giving them confidence in aspects of strategy, change and leadership. However, when they get back behind their office desks, they often struggle to dedicate the requisite time to ongoing learning and critical reflection.

Upskilling around sponsorship

Likewise, Peter Raymond who runs the ESA Arts Sponsorship Certificate, believes that the sector can struggle with the new demands of raising sponsorship. Not because they don’t want to embrace it, it’s just that they’re intimidated by it. Yet in many cases it’s the antidote to some of the headaches currently being suffered as a result of financial sobriety.

Arts training is no different to any other. Where there is a will to learn, there is a way to succeed, so personal motivation is an essential prerequisite. It’s important to remember that training often leads to improved performance in existing roles. Surely, hiring one of these ‘galacticos’ who has successfully completed the sponsorship certificate and embraced new knowledge is going to give these organisations a headstart in raising new funds?

It’s also worth mentioning that training, when taken seriously, is likely to lead to career advancement – of benefit to the sector as a whole.

New attitudes

It’s all too easy to get into a comfort zone as an adult and forget to challenge ourselves. As skills gaps in digital marketing and engagement, data analysis and organisational development (as well as fundraising) become ever more prevalent in the sector, organisations must invest time and money in lifelong learning so they don’t get left behind.

To embed a better sense of lifelong learning we need to do the following:

  • Demand expertise: In tenders it strikes me that, as in the professional services sector, it might be useful to specify that a key requirement of consultants and freelancers is to demonstrate that their expertise is up to date and meets quality standards. Leaders of organisations should also ‘walk the talk’ and ensure that they regularly update their knowledge and share this information with their teams – role models are important.
  • Value learning: Research would suggest that lifelong learners are on the whole more skilled and more competent than those who habitually avoid learning. Ultimately, they also make for more fulfilled and satisfied employees. We need to value these skills in appraisals and perhaps even in major funding applications. When funders assess viable leadership, up-to-date learning should be part of the package.
  • Offer training for loyalty: If the new generation of employees don’t demand training and support it is unlikely that anything will change. In return, if these employees can demonstrate loyalty to their organisation in return for the training opportunities offered (at least for a period of time), arts leaders may be less likely to see training as leading to that employee leaving the organisation, but instead as the key to competitiveness and employability.

The benefits of learning are not just for Christmas, but the prospect of funding for years to come.

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

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

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

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Headshot of Michelle Wright