New Year News: philanthropy in the regions can be done

The one clear cultural policy idea the new government has pushed is philanthropy - stepping in as the state withdraws proportions of its funding, at both national and local levels. (The Tory-led coalition has effectively abolished regions as planning and funding units, so we don’t need to mention that formerly key level.) They have been remarkably quiet on audiences, but philanthropy is another version of the marketisation which underlies their policies in most areas: if people want or need something they will pay for it (now or later via loans) or find a voluntary way of doing it. Charitable donation via ATM would have seemed satirical once upon a time, now we have to wonder who’ll get put forward.

The idea that philanthropy should or even could plug gaps left in public funding has been met with both resistance and scepticism by the arts sector, although it could be said it builds very firmly on established traditions of barter, in kind and financial support, as well as now deeply embedded practice in sponsorship. There have been two main lines of attack, both of which seem backed up by the statistics: a) the meaningful sums go to the big organisations not the medium sized and small organisations and b) the money goes to organisations in London rather than the rest of the country (also known to some as ‘the provinces’ or ‘the regions’). B may, of course be related to A.

To these critiques I would add the unpredictability of philanthropy, the huge effort and variable return of creating endowments (seemingly the government’s simplistic preferred option), and the distraction factor which can see philanthropy preventing proper long-term investment in the creation of assets and renewable activity.

But that said, some of the arguments against the government’s case have been weak. The argument that there are no rich people in certain parts of the country to turn into arts philanthropists, for instance, strikes me as simplistic. One good thing about philanthropists is a few of them go a long way. The challenge in a place like, say, Teesside where I live, with next to no stockbrokers or bankers or national/multi-national head offices is that the few potential givers are approached by lots of people, and can soon become fully committed no matter how much money they’ve got. (Forming personal foundations is one way they can manage that, as is gifting to regional community foundations.) There are however, some people with money and a commitment to the arts, and some now departed ‘local boys and girls made good’ with a fondness for their home towns, so even in seemingly unpromising places it can be done- but only with the ‘right’ activity that makes connection to an individual. It’s therefore not a universal panacea and shouldn’t be expected of all organisations.

That it can be done in the North East, to some extent, was shown again yesterday by this story in The Journal about Seven Stories, the national home for children’s books in Britain  which is in a regeneration area in Newcastle. Set the challenge by a very generous (and not local) donor to match his potential donation of £25,000 in order to receive it, as the start of a campaign to mark 5 years of operation in their building, they have more than done so, drawing on local businesses and individuals.

Seven Stories has a very ‘backable’ offer, given the connection many people feel to children’s books and illustration and using the arts to encourage a love of reading and books – and it is a brave and risk-taking undertaking supported by reservoirs of goodwill. It has drawn on board members’ networks and expertise, and approached the task very strategically, very positively, very professionally and with the right kind of urgency. (I should say – ‘disclose’ - I’ve just joined the board of Seven Stories, but so recently I can in all honesty say I’ve had literally nothing to do with the success of this campaign.)

My point is not to say how great the team at Seven Stories are or their work is, though they are. (Don't take my word for it though - listen to the children and the 4 Children's Laureates in the video above.)  It is to start the new year with some good news, and an example of how some seemingly almost-impossible challenges set can be met. I know there are other examples, which have used similar tactics, based on similarly strong arts work. I also acknowledge the scale issues - not just of the sums for individual organisations, but when you multiply it up across the sector. But while not accepting philanthropy as the heart of investment in culture, it is important to give it its due place, and to know it can be done when you place the art at the heart of the ask and ask well.