voluntary arts ireland

Saturday, 29 January 2011

Big Ideas, Small Organisations

The recent Boardmatch event on 26 January 2011 in the Aviva Stadium, Dublin brought together a wide range of Chairs and Chief Executives from the not-for-profit sector. The focus for getting together was to learn from the experience of England in setting up a regulatory framework for charities - something that is imminent in Ireland and Northern Ireland. The event also advanced the benefits of networking to look at how organisations can work together to achieve common aims.

The charity information and learning came from guest speaker Andrew Hinds, former CEO of the Charity Commission in England and the networking was helped along by a fine lunch and some gentle lubrication. Hats off to Chris White and his team at Boardmatch - a very well run and interesting afternoon against the backdrop of a spectacular pitch. There was, I felt genuine consensus on the need to work together and there was a sense also that it may be a key means to grow through the current funding climate.

So how do we encourage this spirit of working together and how do we put in place ways of working that allow organisations of varying sizes and needs to be effective together?

One thought that occurs to me is that we have to have big ideas - ideas that are bigger than the capacity of any one organisation require people to work together. This is, generally speaking, counter intuitive for organisations. Whatever our capacity it usually is best to work within our means. However, what if our means don't fit?

Another thought is that focussing on outcomes - i.e. what is best for the communities we serve - helps us to keep working to our vision of the future rather than how to maintain our current organisational structures. That way too we can notice others who are working towards common aims.

Another running theme throughout the Boardmatch event was that the level of public trust for the charitable and not-for-profit sector was still high in relation to other parts of society (e.g. political, financial, civil service) and that we should seek to protect and enhance that reputation.

Trust is surely another key element. Trust is essential for people and organisations to work together, it is essential to learning, to providing services, to negotiating contracts, to allowing people to make mistakes and fail before succeeding.

As Society became more and more centred around huge urban centres which necessitated larger and larger organisations to help manage those centres, trust, which tends to blossom in smaller settings was replaced by heavier and heavier regulation.

Andrew Hinds made it clear that in his experience a "light touch" regulatory framework was essential for dealing with the charitable sector which is made up of a few very large charities and a plethora of small and very small charities.

At Voluntary Arts Ireland we can recognise the same dynamic in the voluntary arts sector - 1000's of small organisations linked by a common set of values. If we demand a certain level of governance structure of small organisations we may find ourselves putting up obstacles. In our drive to improve standards we may set many things back. Flexible structures and adjustments for scale are going to be needed and they are perhaps the most difficult to write into legislation.

We must also fight against the urge to consolidate, to fall back on type and in the drive for efficiency attempt to make logical sense of sectors that thrive on being a diverse network. Big consolidated organisations although needed in some instances, don't tend to encourage trust or partnership working.

One very interesting model that was featured at the Boardmatch event was the Credit Union movement. Kieron Brennan from the league of Credit Unions spoke very eloquently about how a network of mainly small membership organisations have provided a viable and trustworthy alternative to banks for savers and borrowers. From a standing start in 1960 in Ireland there are now over 500 credit unions serving 2.9 million members with savings approaching €11.9 billion. There are over 9,200 active volunteers involved in the movement, and over 3,500 people are employed. They played no part in the recent financial meltdown and one would have thought are poised to form a strong part of a more ethical financial system.

The Credit Union movement is a great example of what can be done. Big ideas and small organisations - not a bad mantra.

Kevin Murphy

Sunday, 23 January 2011

Big Society Arts

At the moment it feels like we are being bombarded by rhetoric. Rhetoric ranging from an age of severe austerity to one of big society revolution - from the burden of our financial woes being shouldered by the man on the street to the time when finally that same man can shape the policies and participate in the running of his local community. Of course the rhetoric is generally coming from the centre ground of our political landscape, not the margins, but we have to imagine that our political leaders are grappling with how to build our communities for the future.

If so its a wonder why are we focussing primarily on how much it costs instead of on the kind of society we would like to build? It is commendable that the current UK government has at least advanced the argument of a more engaged civil society - but it is still unclear if it will judge itself first by how big the society is or how small the deficit is. These do not need to be mutually exclusive goals but settling on a primary focus seems essential. The Republic of Ireland government finds itself in much more straightened and chaotice circumstances, and with imminent elections future policy is at best uncertain.

So it is in this context that the voluntary, community and professional arts across the island of Ireland are being asked to play a part. In Northern Ireland the current ask is for how much can you save, how much can you provide for less money? The round of departmental meetings on the budget organised by NICVA as part of their Smart Solutions campaign has been very informative and what the meeting with the Department of Culture Arts and Leisure made clear is that the budget for the arts is taking the largest cut. That is perhaps not a surprise despite the Northern Ireland government's recent rhetoric - there's that word again - on developing a creative economy. It is probably not a surprise either that the meeting with DCAL was almost exclusively attended by members of the arts community even though the department covers a range of areas including angling and sport. At one point the department representative did ask if there were any representatives of organisations other than the arts so wide ranging and persistent were the questions from the arts.

It struck me at that meeting that the department struggles to understand how such a small part of the government budget should have such a diverse and vocal lobby. Essentially government departments are used to dealing with big sectoral bodies and therefore a small number of influencial people usually at the top of hierarchical organisations. The arts community is in fact made up of a range of organisations - mostly small and entrepeneurial - and individual creative artists all focussed on their practice. They can be professional or amateur and they don't obey the normal rules of engagement. It is a much more organic structure.

To a certain extent this is mitigated by the representative role played by the Arts Council of Northern Ireland - the department's arms length body. The Arts Council has the somewhat impossible task of trying to balance the needs of the department and the needs of the sector. The department is its paymaster and the Arts Council is the paymaster of many of the arts organisations - not an ideal lobbying position. Is it the case that the Department imagines that it is engaging with the sector by engaging with the Arts Council and that the arts community imagines it is influencing government policy by engaging with the Arts Council? If so then there are gaps and perhaps we ought to build on the relationships by putting in place other additional means of communication that allow a more regular and free flowing conversation. There is a danger too that the arts community only sees its work in relation to the work of the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure when in fact many of us work with a range of other departments on social, health and education projects.

In the Republic of Ireland the arts budget has already been struck and after some severe cuts in previous rounds seems to be at least stabilising for the moment, although the impacts of local authority spending cuts are yet to be fully felt. In Ireland we can also see a very strong move by government to support the current European Year of Volunteering 2011 with a national programme of activity that has engaged all sectors of society and has made connections across the border in Northern Ireland. Having the president Mary McAleese as the patron for the year is sending a very strong and positive message.

Voluntary action is very powerful. In Voluntary Arts Ireland we can see the evidence of this on a daily basis - with over 5000 voluntary arts groups across the island of Ireland. Every week people get together to make art and crafts together, to explore new skills and meet new people. They do this whatever the government policy is - provided it enables freedom of expression - and most do it without thought of payment. Does that mean that it doesn't cost anything or that people who develop high level of skills and want to make a career out of it shouldn't get paid? No and it would be very wrong for policy makers to assume that because its voluntary or that professional people driven by their passion will do it voluntarily that it doesn't require investment.

However, when we think about the Big Society perhaps it is already here - we can certainly see plenty of evidence of it in the arts? Is it possible that the radical part of the call for a policy shift towards the Big Society is more of a call to governments, departments, quangos and local authorities to reconfigure their working practices to support more local involvement and empowerment? If so perhaps it would be more fruitful for the arts community to find ways to open out the eclectic, multi-faceted, diverse and frankly bewildering world of the arts - make it easier for people to get involved, to understand and to invest in. In a sense enable the above bodies to see a way to connect in more diverse ways with their communities through the arts. Might the two worlds then be more likely to meet and to work together for the common good?

Not an easy challenge and perhaps not an appealing one as it requires more than rhetoric to achieve.