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An ArtsProfessional feature in partnership with Arts Fundraising and Philanthropy

The last 18 months have seen arts fundraisers face numerous challenges in trying to bring in income when the sector has been in such flux, says Michelle Wright.

image of the Roundhouse Theatre
The Roundhouse Theatre is looking to increase its funding from non-arts funders 

George Rex

As our latest cohort of 11 senior arts fundraising fellows start their immersive year of learning, we asked them to reflect on the past year and to consider what the Covid-19 experience might mean for the future. 

Amid the challenges and uncertainty, the enforced pause from Covid-19 coupled with essential emergency funding meant that organisations had some welcome time to reflect on their priorities and the way ahead. As Melody Walker, Business Development Lead at East Street Arts, said: “Stepping off the treadmill for a while helped us reflect and bring to focus key issues in our business planning.”

Bethan Touhig-Gamble, Head of Development at NoFit State Circus, agreed with this: “We had unapparelled access to the artistic leadership… which allowed us space to reimagine how we work locally and in the community.” As a company whose pre-pandemic business model relied on high levels of earned income, this live or die drive, combined with a distinct shift in funders responsiveness, made the company braver in its fundraising.  Rather than trying to frame an ask that suited the criteria of a funder, NoFit pushed the limits and asked for core support, as the need was now so apparent. 

The adaptability of funders – long-term flexibility

Many fellows appreciated the allyship shown by funders at this time, as well as their more coordinated response. Jo Verrent, Senior Producer at Unlimited, described the dialogue with funders as “one of openness, urgency and care”. Joyce Cronin, Co-Director of the Bower, felt that funders really listened: “Covid created a situation where everyone was affected (albeit in different ways) which led to a much welcomed active response from funders.”

But of course, there is concern about how much of this approach will stay, as Jo Verrent says: “I’ve witnessed brilliant short-term flex and responsiveness from funders - pivoting systems and focuses, shifting requirements, being human. But these have been signalled as ’short term’ - the changes are temporary, not embedded. The challenge is keeping that responsiveness, that humanity.”

Joanna Newell, Associate Director of Development at the Roundhouse, also welcomed adaptations from funders, especially those that relieved pressure on stretched fundraising teams. For example, the Esmee Fairbairn Foundation specifically gave permission for grantees to use information that they had already prepared to apply for recovery funding.  

This sense of deepening relationships and moving from the transactional to the partnership was welcomed by all. Liz Hughes, Head of Development at Cambridge Junction, described unrestricted emergency grants as a vote of confidence, the money of course being essential, but the goodwill from funders in itself a huge part of seeing organisations through more challenging times. 

Competition will be magnified 

Of course, Jo Verrent and others are aware of the likely competition for funds in the future. I think we have to be really clear about what ‘we’ need and who exactly we mean when we say ‘we’. “When we fundraise now, I think it’s about not just specifying what we are fundraising for, but who is going to benefit and how - who will get paid, who will get supported as a result?”

Melody Walker agreed with this: “The challenge is that emergency support has possibly created a false economy of sustainability. What happens once we are out of ‘recovery’ funds. Will we be in a worse position?”

The re-emphasis on societal needs is a key way fundraisers are looking to redefine their case for support. As Joanna Newell recognises: “This links to how we define our work within wider societal challenges that the public are concerned about and how creative spaces and programmes can be part of the solution.”  The emphasis on these areas has given the Roundhouse the important potential to increase its funding from non-arts funders. 

And of course, there are no quick fixes to audience confidence returning. Bethan Tourig-Gamble knows that the balance between earned and fundraising income will be acute until audiences return. “I hope that the state and private funders will see the impact of the investment they have made to date and understand that sustained support will be needed as we work out how to operate (let alone create, engage and change the world) in the realities of a post-pandemic Britain.”

Uncertainty takes its toll

The sustained length of the crisis has taken its toll, with fellows recognising how difficult it is to retain energy levels and to bounce back from the losses – people, companies and projects.

Joyce Cronin talks of the challenges of how to know with certainty that projects can happen and that often there is little support for people in managing change. Liz Hughes also highlights the human cost and exhaustion that comes with teams having to do things multiple times, for example, because of rescheduling or communicating changes to audiences and donors.

And while furlough has been a lifeline, it also creates challenges to getting things done, with many organisations running on a skeleton staff with small teams that are now exhausted. And all this has come when cultural leaders face scrutiny like never before, as well as an environment that is demanding action in relation to campaigns such as Black Lives Matter.  These matters require constant attention and focus from leaders for change to happen. 

Flexible working

As in many industries, working from home has had a mixed response. The Roundhouse Development team has seen some important gains including increased productivity, communication and efficiencies.  There has also been greater attendance from the Board and Committees because of the additional flexibility. The focus is now going to be on incorporating these benefits into a flexible approach to create a new hybrid working model as the team returns partially to the venue.

But for some fundraising teams, there is a lack of confidence, with many feeling atomised away from the team and having lost the informal means to solve problems that we experience in an office environment. 

Shared learning

The challenge now is how to hold on to some of the positive aspects of changed practices as a result of Covid-19, as we hopefully resume some pattern of normality.

Melody Walker recognises that it was often the innovative projects that were most vulnerable during the pandemic – and that stopping these areas can be detrimental to the future. For East Street Arts, now is the time to push on with collaborative approaches and place-based philanthropy that can mobilise donors and funders for future support.

Other models of innovation, such as the Roundhouse Test and Learn method – which involves saying yes to most things (but keeping an eye on level of risk), using and analysing the data and adapting work can also really inspire staff to try things and innovate.

Networking is a particular challenge right now with social distancing restrictions, as Liz Hughes says: “How do we connect to new people when it has even been hard to connect to people who know us and we know?”  

But all agree that the allyship with funders to help rebuild the sector will be essential, as we will be bringing networks, funders and fundraisers together. Fundraisers need to feel responsibility but with support.

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.

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Headshot of Michelle Wright