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An ArtsProfessional feature in partnership with Arts Fundraising & Philanthropy

Covid-19 may have stimulated the Big Society, but it will see the arts sector fundamentally change, says Michelle Wright.

banner on railings with the words "there will be a rainbow after the storm" (the word 'rainbow' is replaced with a painting of a rainbow)

K. Mitch Hodge

As lock-down for the arts appears to stretch on, we have an agonizing amount of time to ponder what a post-Covid 19 future might look like for performing arts, museums, visitor attractions and other organisations that rely on in-person audiences. Many days can be wasted in crystal ball gazing, and there is still so much that we simply don’t know about this disease including likely future immunity, vaccine potential or whether we will experience repeated mini-lock downs for years to come. However, there is one thing for certain and that is we’re unlikely to quickly return to behaviours which might be considered ‘normal’.

Adapt or die

From a societal point of view, Covid-19 has been a whirlwind. In its global impact, its speed and reach, Covid-19 has left no one untouched – be they arts organisations, charities, businesses or politics. We all have to adapt urgently or face rapid extinction.

For the charity sector, those organisations on the front line or those that see their beneficiaries disproportionately impacted, such as cancer patients, face the double whammy of increased demand whilst fundraising and other income falls off a cliff. For arts organisations, we see an ongoing dilemma of competing with front line charities and a struggle to justify requests for donations and keep front of mind now that venues are closed. But it’s also clear that there are companies that are proving slow to adapt, and others that are trying to do their best to adapt urgently and seeing the potential that Covid-19 has presented for rapid-fire longer-term change. No organisation ‘deserves’ to survive this. We’re all in it together, on a level, and only those able to adapt will (or perhaps should) survive.

Mid-scale could outlive others

In strategy terms, the charity sector often talks of a ‘squeezed middle’, those organisations that have grown to an income turnover of say £500k-£5m. It can be very difficult to get out of this box. Media focuses on the larger household names and, at the other end of the spectrum, many funders prefer the entrepreneurial socially-motivated start-up that needs a leg up to support a talented founder.

The same has been true for arts organisations, with world famous brand names keeping in the public eye and grassroots organisations winning the hearts of their local communities. But Covid-19 will surely turn this on its head. The charitable organisations most vulnerable at the moment are the monolithic, hierarchical household names that have seen all their sources of income hit simultaneously, along with the smaller organisations that are seeing sources of early stage seed funding on pause for the foreseeable future. It might just be that those rather prosaic mid-scale organisations that have carefully diversified their funds, prove to be more flexible in being able to respond to what will undoubtedly be a tough post-Covid operating environment.

What do we know?

Whilst we cannot possibly see ahead with certainty there are some things that we definitely know about the arts sector’s future.

  1. There is going to be a long tail for fundraising and philanthropy – Government will be overspent, Trust and Foundations will take time for investments to recover and individual philanthropy and corporations will see personal falls to investments and profits. It will take some years to recoup and no charity should expect fundraising to return to normal anytime soon.
  2. Audiences and funders will zone in on relevance – human beings have a need for engagement and togetherness, and audiences will return in time. It will be the organisations that are helpful, positive and practical in this lockdown period and afterwards that will see their business models recover quickest. Similarly, funders will want to see organisations prioritize people, community and agency. It will be those arts organisations that can support communities to get back on their feet, that will be most relevant for audiences and funders alike.
  3. Digital will emerge more strongly but producing it will be a challenge – We have seen a swathe of available online content where many arts organisations have immediately moved to offer digital ways to engage audiences. The benefits of having a library of available material to call up and share has given some organisations a major advantage. It will be a while before large scale live recordings will be feasible and the ‘mash up’ of Zoom-enabled orchestras or home-recorded monologues will never have the same impact as big cast performance filmed in front of an attentive audience. Time will tell whether enhanced digital consumption in lockdown will emerge into long-term monetized content, but we can assume that funding is likely to favour the urgent as opposed to the nice to have.
  4. Charitable strategies will have to focus – Many charitable business models are bloated and awash with pet projects. A post-Covid 19 public is unlikely to hold truck with the non-essential. As organisations struggle to survive, the non-urgent activities must disappear and quickly. But our commitment to essential principles such as diversity and inclusion must sustain. As should moves towards data philanthropy and new partnerships in which private and charity sector companies share data for public benefit and for social purposes such as addressing isolation or mental and physical wellbeing.
  5. Business models will have resilience built in – only the most myopic leader would revert to business as usual. Arts organisations will inevitably see less job security, reduced staff pay, training and paring down of services. Flexibility will be the name of the game and the risk of temporary shut-downs will be front of mind for charitable risk registers (the lessons of Covid will form part of ongoing organisational resilience). Hopefully, we will also see a long-awaited move to collaboration as mainstream, with joined up services and merger and acquisition par for the course, so that leaner organisational structures can sustain.
  6. We will all be more activist (and angry) – post Covid-19 will see many people yearn for agency and control over what happens to them. The move towards an activist society was already well in train, as were phenomena such as rage philanthropy that saw civil society benefit from anger induced by populist politics such as the Trump election in 2016. Covid-19 has seen us re-evaluating what community means to us more quickly than ever before. Be it helping a neighbour, clapping our care workers or protecting our loved ones. Arts has always been a way to explore and express the emotional climate and projects with this sort of purpose hold the key to a brighter future.

But as anyone working on organisational change knows, despite the crisis facing us, we still can’t leave change to chance. We have to push forward deliberately.

In 2010, David Cameron put forward the concept of the Big Society. In my view, the Big Society was fundamentally a good idea. Its central premise to build community activism at a local level, was important, but it had two fatal flaws – firstly, that it seemed to completely ignore just how much community activism was already happening and, secondly, that it presupposed that Government was an effective arbiter of telling us how we should behave in relation to volunteering or philanthropic action. Nobody wants Government to tell them how they should spend their charitable time or money.

It’s Government’s role to create the conditions for effective charitable activity not to dictate it. However, if there is any sort of silver lining post Covid – or opportunity to be seized, it’s that the charitable sector could now seek to drive fundamental change that would ensure the creation of an activist and workable version of the Big Society.

We are already seeing the myriad ways that people, communities and organisations are reclaiming agency and finding purpose from Foodbanks to Mutual Aid groups. Many commercial businesses and suppliers are also coming together rather than simply competing. The arts sector will need to get better at targeting support and sharing resources.

If there is a positive to take from Covid-19, it’s that the arts sector has a huge opportunity to shape a future that is both activist and collaborative. This will require leaders to adopt a mindset focussed solely on supporting its people and communities and learning from others will be the essence of resilience.

Michelle Wright is CEO of Cause4 and Programme Director of the Arts Fundraising & Philanthropy Programme.

This article is part of a series on the theme Fundraising for the Future, contributed by Arts Fundraising & Philanthropy.

Link to Author(s): 
Headshot of Michelle Wright


It’s a good article and echos some of what Dr Alexandra Williamson and I suggest about philanthropic support for the nonprofit sector in our article in Third Sector Review. The current recession will affect various nonprofit sectors and sources of funding very differently. Those reliant on their own earned income as opposed to benefiting from significant government funding will face challenges. For the arts, audience income and sponsorship are particularly fraught. Now is the time for arts organisations to be strengthening their ties with their donors and building a strong case for their loyal support. The article is behind a paywall shorturl.at/ahpK1