An honest assessment of the fundraising challenges facing outdoor arts organisations delivers a cautionary tale about the potential value of philanthropy.

Emergency Exit Arts
Emergency Exit Arts - The Lounge, Saturday 17 May 2014, Roehampton Library Green

Enrique Rovira

Generating income from individual giving, trusts and foundations and business sponsorship is very difficult for the outdoor arts sector, according to an “extremely frank and comprehensive report” released by the Independent Street Arts Network (ISAN). The report follows a study of the impact of a two-year Arts Council England Catalyst-funded programme of fundraising activity by a consortium of five arts organisations. The companies involved found that developing a sustainable financial relationship with a transitional audience is particularly challenging, and that trusts and foundations may not “completely understand” the work being produced, leading to the sombre assessment that the long-term prospects for fundraising in the sector are unstable.

Lessons for other organisations are found in case studies from the participating organisations, describing their attempts to raise funds. The overriding message to emerge is that whilst the financial support enabled them to develop their fundraising knowledge and gave them the freedom to test (and fail with) new fundraising techniques, there are many barriers to diversifying income. Tangled Feet identified the level of competition that the sector was competing with: “There are thousands of charities chasing finite resources for worthwhile causes. Funding for outdoor arts won’t be a priority for many.” Emergency Exit Arts told a cautionary tale about its funding applications to trusts and foundations – initially receiving rejections across the board, and very little feedback – but ultimately concluded that trust funding could be an integral part of its business model.

The report suggests that the strongest potential for financial growth could be in individual giving, given the culturally, socially and economically diverse audience for outdoor arts events and its huge popularity. But Kazzum, who attempted to secure individual donations using a collection bucket during two days of performance at Stockton festival, found that performers were ‘uncomfortable’ with requesting money, and were reluctant to challenge an instinctively hesitant body of potential donors.

The report concludes that the learning permitted by the Catalyst funding was essential for all five organisations, that the return on their investment for most trialled activities was small, and that the process raised serious questions about the most appropriate way of raising funds from audiences for work that is intended to be free. Robin Morley, Chair of ISAN, emphasised the benefits of the work done in the study to uncover new sources of funding for a vulnerable sector: “This report highlights the role we need to play at ISAN in supporting organisations to appreciate the different funding options that exist. It has also reinforced the need for advocacy to potential funders and partners about the positive impact that can be achieved by financially partnering with outdoor arts companies.”

Angus MacKechnie, Executive Director of ISAN, praised the honesty of the participants as a guide for other organisations in the sector to learn from: “The commitment of the five companies to this project means we now have a very useful and very honest account of what works and what doesn’t. At ISAN, we will be using these findings to develop further strategies to help our members engage more meaningfully with many new fundraising opportunities.”