Image courtesy telegraph.co.uk
A few months ago, Mark Robinson, of Thinking Practice, called ACE Catalyst funding “schemism”. I wasn’t sure what he meant at the time, but having seen the list of recipient organisations, released today, it becomes clearer. With Catalyst, an extra £30m of funding has been found and given to some worthy, well established and high performing organisations. And also some organisations that are, and have been for many years, money sinks. (And yes, I will mention names – the ICA and Rich Mix come to mind).
The money is aimed at enabling organisations “to move their fundraising and development expertise on to the next level, whatever their current starting point”. Am I missing something here? Surely every NPO application received by ACE addressed how the organisation intended to diversify their income, and increase their resilience and sustainability? Wasn’t this a key part of the criteria for NPO funding?
It’s difficult not to see Catalyst as extra money sloshing around the system waiting to be allocated. Of course arts organisations are going to apply for it. But the most fundamental aspect of the Catalyst Fund is that it has been politically driven, rather than developed from solid evidence and rational assessment of its likely practicality. It stems from the conservative dogma that the private sector is always best and the free-market will somehow always correct itself; both disproved concepts many times over. Jeremy Hunt and Ed Vaizey are quite clear that this is ‘nudge’ politics, attempting culture change that both have said is unlikely to work for the many. Its overall aim – to help organisations develop significant sponsorship, endowments and other private giving – is a kind of one-size fits all wishful thinking. Even disregarding the most obvious flaw in this less than cunning plan – that the country is in its worst recession for sixty years, and few people other than millionaire Cabinet members have any spare money at all – it appears misconceived.
As has been well-rehearsed, many organisations will struggle to generate private giving at any level, because of their geographical location, size, audience demographic, programme and type of work. For the same reasons, other organisations, particularly in London and parts of the South East, have a better chance of succeeding. As many small organisations know from long experience, what they do may well be “sexy” and even world-class, but if there is no major corporate in your locality with the money and desire to target your audience, you are seriously disadvantaged in the sponsorship stakes. And if what you do has no intention of being sexy, the chances of success are virtually nil. If you live in an area where the public sector is the biggest employer – say Merseyside, or Newcastle-Gateshead, even (you might be surprised to learn) Brighton & Hove – the problems are obvious. Also not to be underestimated is the competitive element. Arts organisations will need to compete not only with each other for scarce private pounds, but with many other deserving, non-arts related causes.
Nonetheless, ACE is obligated to distribute the money with as fair a geographic spread as possible. But as the Director of one highly-regarded regional organisation points out, the central dilemma for the decision makers is what to base the decisions on:
“Do you give it to the organisations who are really going to struggle to generate private giving because of their location etc so they need most help in terms of capacity building? Or do you give it to organisations who stand a better chance of getting money because of their profile/artform/demographic because overall that would mean more money for the sector as a whole, ie a better return on ACE investment?”
I would say that ACE has tried to strike a balance between the two. This round of Catalyst funding has been allocated to quite a range of organisations, of varying sizes and capacity, and working in a range of ways and areas. I don’t begrudge any of them a penny of it (except maybe the ICA…) At the very least it gives dedicated cash towards fundraising for a year.
But I can’t help thinking what a shame that some of this extra £30m wasn’t available – presumably – when the NPO decisions were being made. I wonder if some of the cut organisations might have made the grade if it had been? And in five years or so, I look forward to seeing an analysis of exactly how much private sector cash this £30m has levered in, and in what parts of the country.
26th June 2012: Click on the link for my comment on the related Catalyst: Endowment awards for a-n.