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What are the everyday experiences of arts and cultural organisations in generating and diversifying income in times of austerity? Daniel Ashton shares his research findings.

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In 2011, Arts Council England (ACE) launched its first National Portfolio Organisation funding round in which 695 organisations joined the portfolio (compared with  849 that made up the Regular Funded Organisations (RFO) portfolio which preceded it). This first NPO round was delivered in the context of the government’s austerity programme when the DCMS budget was much reduced. 

In July 2014, ACE announced its investment for the period 2015-18. Much of the press coverage covered this as a matter of ‘winners and losers’ and how demand and the number of applications outstripped available financial resources.

For the 2015-18 round, there were 663 organisations. And the current portfolio, which runs until March 2023, comprises 828 organisations. For 2023 – 26, ACE received a record-breaking 1,730 applications, requesting £655m from the available NPO pot of only £428m. 

From this, two challenges emerge relating to funding availability and funding cycles and processes. This article summarises research published in the European Journal of Cultural Studies which explores the experiences of arts and cultural organisations applying for and securing funding – or not. 

Funding in times of austerity, Brexit, Covid and … austerity

The NPO scheme over the last ten years has run in times of massive socio-economic challenge and transformation which have impacted on the funding landscape for the sector. The constant background has been of austerity - with Brexit, Covid and a now the cost-of-living crisis. The need for arts and cultural organisations to diversify income has become ever more important. 

And several national reports (Bazalgette 2017, DCMS 2016 and Harvey 2016) also highlight the prevailing government and cultural sector policy direction towards encouraging diversification of income. More recently, ACE published its 10-year Let’s Create strategy that states organisations will ‘develop business models that help them maximise income, reduce costs and become more financially resilient’. 

This priority is central to the contemporary funding landscape and requires organisations to identify and understand funding opportunities in relation to an ever-wider range of possible sources. 

The research project

To understand what this means for arts and cultural organisations we designed a project involving research visits to organisations across literature, music, theatre, visual arts and combined arts. They took place between February 2017 and August 2018 and overlapped with the application and decision stages for the ACE NPO 2018–2022 funding round. 

The sample included currently funded and first-time funded NPO organisations, alongside unsuccessful applicants and those that had not applied. Organisations were a range of sizes and participants were a mix of creative director, chief executive and specialist fundraising and development managers. 

For each organisation, a research visit was conducted consisting of a career biography interview (addressing career background, current role, organisational context, wider sector and policy contexts, and arts funding experiences and practices) and an object interview using a range of funding application forms/proposals as discussion prompts. 

Bringing together all the research findings, three themes emerged: ‘simultaneous sources’, ‘timelines’ and ‘working with change’. 

Simultaneous sources

Simultaneous sources explores how organisations find and balance multiple income sources. One of the challenges identified in engaging with multiple sources was experience and familiarity, articulated by one participant in the following way: “It’s a different kind of skill that unless you’re doing it all the time, I think it can be quite daunting’. 

There were also instances of experienced participants outlining new or ongoing challenges, such as the well documented difficulties using the online portal Grantium. Overall, adjusting to the structure and requirements of a multitude of funding forms was a notable issue. 

Specific challenges included: the tension between the order of questions on a funding application and what makes sense for the project; the limitations on the inclusion of supporting documents; character and word limits and the impact they have on how a project is communicated; and the need to complete the form with financial information by a cut-off date, but not unable to revise and edit it.


Timelines addresses the complexities of managing possible income streams and its impact on an organisation’s ability of to manage their various activities. 

Insights from participants showed that income diversification goes beyond identifying and securing funds from a variety of sources. It involves complex decision-making about the balance of sources with impacts that extend to audiences, beneficiaries and project freelancers, not just the organisation itself. 

While this research focuses on organisations, this point also shows how organisations’ experiences and conditions closely connect with those of freelancers.

Working with change

Working with change investigates organisations’ experiences in undertaking core aims in times of socio-economic change and in sync with changing policy direction. We discovered the wider context of change and upheaval impacted on the day-to-day experience of organisations when applying for funding. 

Across the experiences explored, funding could be summarised as being continual and episodic. Continual in terms of always writing funding applications, and episodic in terms of the specific life cycles of applications and decision-makers.

Organisational portfolio precarity 

In moving between and bringing together funding sources, organisations are
undertaking a form of portfolio working - applying for, and in receipt of, different types of funding from different sources at the same time. The variety of funding possibilities translates into a varied and continual set of deadlines, milestones and opportunities to secure funding.  

This way of operating is precarious with uncertainty in securing funds and instability in sustaining activities, relationships and - at times - the organisation itself. Financial capacity and certainty might periodically be addressed as income is generated, but the overall experience of precarity remains because expanding funding opportunities does not necessarily equate with increased funding and ongoing security.

Reflecting on the circumstances and experiences explored, we developed the concept of organisational portfolio precarity. The concept addresses how the priority for income diversification requires organisations to move between and maintain multiple funding sources. This is less about flexibility and adaptability (often seen as a positive of portfolio working) and more about uncertainty and precarity.

This research considers a range of examples in which organisations struggle to balance the priority to diversify income with the associated state of organisational portfolio precarity. Examples include: working on existing projects while simultaneously planning new ones; managing projects and relationships with communities when expected funds do not follow through; modifying plans and commitments of people involved in a project depending on funding decisions; and issues of procurement, retrospective payments and cash flow that have implications for staff and freelance practitioners.

Rather than equating income diversification as the route to resilience and sustainability, the experiences of arts and cultural organisations discussed in this article highlight the complexities and uncertainties. While the experiences explored pre-date Covid, together with the findings from the Culture in Crisis report, it’s clear that the experiences and concept of organisational portfolio precarity resonate.

Dr Dan Ashton is Associate Professor of Cultural and Creative Industries, Winchester School of Art, University of Southampton.

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