On 25th March 2021, we gathered practitioners, researchers and funders to talk about the future of the arts ecology in Northern Ireland. 'Horizons: Re-Imagining Cultural Sustainability’ thought about how organisations can sustain themselves financially, the role of business models, how funders should invest, how strong transformative leadership can drive change internally and externally, and how place-making and supporting communities are at the heart of our sector.
Ultimately, the topics and conversations within Horizons dealt with the same considerations that informed our new Blueprint programme, as both posed questions about how we guarantee the best possible future for our arts sector. As we welcome applications for Blueprint, it felt timely to share a series of blogs from three valued Horizons contributors and attendees, all of which consider how we build a more sustainable sector, together.
The second of our contributors is Niamh Goggin.
Niamh Goggin is Director of Small Change NI and has worked in social investment and charity and social enterprise finance in Northern Ireland, Britain and Europe since 1991. She worked with Arts & Business NI from 2015 onwards, on a series of projects which culminated in the production of "A Blueprint for the Future: Supporting arts and culture organisations in Northern Ireland to become more financially resilient".
An organisation working in the arts & culture sector is resilient when it is able to deliver on its artistic mission consistently and over the long term.
To do this, it needs resources, organisational infrastructure, a strong operating model, capacity, capability and networks of trust. These strengths enable an organisation to anticipate, prepare for, respond and adapt to incremental and unforeseen changes.
Funders and the funding environment have a big role to play in building resilience among the arts organisations they support.
Every funding intervention should leave the arts & culture organisations stronger in artistic and social impact and organisational and financial resilience than before.
This means that you are never ‘just’ funding a project; you are investing in an organisation. Arts organisations should be given agency in how funding is spent. Comprehensive funding packages should contribute to core costs, project costs and ‘backfill’ costs to free up time and capacity to participate. Support is needed to broaden financial competence within organisations, reaching trustees, managers and other staff, not just the finance function.
This brings me on to the challenging concept of surpluses and profits. There is a culture in funding that profit is a dirty word, belonging with capitalists, profiteers, vulture funds. What matters about profit (and the capital it helps to grow) is not the concept. It is who controls them and how they are used to strengthen arts & culture, educate and broaden access and attract audiences locally and beyond. All organisations that are not just a series of projects need to make surpluses. They need;
· Working capital; to cover costs where income is received after the project starts;
· Reserves; not just to pay off debts if organisations have to close. It is needed for turnaround funding, unpredictable costs, maternity/paternity/illness cover.
· Change capital; for developing, testing and funding new strategies or projects;
· Depreciation capital; for those with buildings and equipment, which will need renovation, refurbishment, replacement;
· Opportunity capital, to support arts and culture organisations to fly and soar and live up to their true potential – not just in Northern Ireland but in the wider world.
Capital can come from grants, fundraising and making profits. It is reported on the organisation’s balance sheet. Instead of reducing funding for organisations with strong balance sheets, we need a more informed approach to analysis and the support needs of the sector. Covid-19 has delivered a huge shock to the whole economy. If we are ‘building back better’, could we raise our game in funding arts & culture?
This ground-breaking 5 year programme will support a group of NI arts organisations in building their sustainability, helping them to claim creative freedom by building their financial resilience.
Find out more and apply for Blueprint by downloading the brochure and application form here.
Watch the Building Financial Sustainability Panel from the Horizons conference, chaired by Niamh, below...
Arts & Business NI is generously supported by The Arts Council of Northern Ireland.