Sunday, 14 June 2015

The truth about fundraising: all wound up like a ball of twine?



  Twine is a consortium of theatre organisations in the North East that have been supported through Arts Council’s Catalyst programme to explore how best to raise funds for small touring theatre companies. The organisations are The Empty Space, Northumberland Theatre Company, Théâtre Sans Frontières, Theatre Hullabaloo and Unfolding Theatre. (Declaration: Thinking Practice has worked with Empty Space, Hullabaloo and Unfolding over the last few years, and I know TSF and NTC well from my time at Arts Council.) 

 It’s an interesting, and in some ways representative, consortium: 1 NPO, currently involved in a capital project as well as touring, 2 companies that have lost regular Arts Council funding in 2012 and 2015 but survive, and 2 organisations that have never had regular funding. Some organisations have long histories, and have reinvented themselves over the years, others are still going through their first evolutions. The leaders, mainly women interestingly (or not), also represent a range of ages, from Miranda Thain, who I think at one point had amongst her claims to fame being the youngest NPO Chief Exec, through to others who have notched up - in the very best sense! - slightly more tours. 

 The Catalyst programme – intended to help organisations increase the amount raised from philanthropy, sponsorship and fundraising – was a key plank of Arts Council’s attempts to ‘capacity build’ towards a new funding model, one less ‘reliant’ on public funding and drawing in more private money. There were a number of consortia supported, which begged an additional question to those raised by other grants: do people give to groups of organisations or to art forms? 

 Twine have recently published a brilliantly honest and open collection of essays called ‘The Truth About Fundraising: Or what we learned as a Catalyst Arts consortium’. It includes reflections and practical tips on individual giving, surviving when you lose regular funding, data sharing, and applying to trusts and foundations - with Natalie Querol and Annie Rigby comparing rather different results there. There’s also some nitty gritty legal and accounting advice (with usual caveats) from the North East culture-world’s favourite accountant, Pete O’Hara. (A former colleague at Northern Arts, Pete is the reason I know ‘brackets are bad.’) 

 You can boil down the conclusions to a few tips. Be realistic about the ££s. (Sample quote: ‘We’ve clearly had a great experience of individual giving. Yet it makes no sense, in terms of the time we’ve put into it, when judged only in financial terms.’) But be ambitious. Be open with your funders and audiences about what you need and why. (Funnily enough, I said this in a conference session just last week, before reading this report. If people can see what it costs to put things on, they are more prepared to help, but organisations need to be a bit more open about the reality.) Keep it simple. Keep it passionate. And keep it true to you. 

 This publication does all those things itself, so should be useful for others grappling with these issues. It doesn't quite answer my question about fundraising for common interest, but I think I picked up a few clues. To be honest, I kind of wanted a balance sheet of investment and return, but I can understand why that is not here. More of this kind of sharing, please, from other Catalyst recipients. 

 Here's the song by Lightnin' Hopkins that's referenced in my title, as my own small philanthropic act:

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