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.




7 thoughts on “Catalyst Funding – a cunning plan?

  1. By ‘schemification’ I was mainly referring to the abundance of different, targetted schemes emerging – Catalyst, international, touring, digital, creative people, etc – which is rolling back the simplicity (and broad spectrum weakness too) of Grants for the arts. I can imagine the Mime Development Fund reappearing soon. (Very quietly though.) This approach does allow ACE to say to government and the sector – ‘we’re doing something for x’ – and to target funds on specific areas. This is clearer but less effective overall I’d suggest. It leads to people feeling ‘obliged’ to bid when the deadlines come up, for that specific thing, rather than taking a big view. (The counter argument to this is targetted schemes focus minds on big issues.) One of my main concerns is the ‘inefficiency’ of such schemes in terms of time spent on applications and on assessment. It can also be hard to take a national strategic view – see Alan Davey’s comments on the capital awards.

    I think that ACE are trying to juggle treasury grant-in-aid funding – on the decline due to government decisions – and lottery funding – on the up and likely to be more so post-Olympics to get the best overall effect. (The idea that lottery is ‘additional’ may still be there in the letter but as prinicipal has been gradually eroded over the last 15 years, but that’s another discussion…) Basically NPO funding is treasury and schemes can be done via lottery. (I think this simpification may have blurred a little around the NPO time but not sure.) So this £30M couldn’t have been spent to fund extra NPOs or give more to others. ACe are trying to make sure the ‘key infrastructure’ – for want of a better phrase – is supported, probably knowing the NPO budget didn’t quite stretch that far.

    One side-effect of seperate schemes, though, is that given there are some common concerns to all of them – basically, ‘great art for everyone’ – if you let the same people apply everytime, you’ll tend to get a good proportion who ‘win’ everytime, which is what I think you can see in what looks a good list to me overall, trying to get the balance you mention. My eyebrows only raised a few times, which is to be expected. (Declaration of interest – I’m a trustee of Seven Stories which was successful.) Although NPOs cannot now apply to Grants for the arts, this is not quote as radical a change as suggested, because there are lots of other schemes now which are mainly going to NPOs…

    As you say, with regard to Catalyst, the key thing is will it enable a big improvement in levering private cash on what has happened before, and only time will tell.

      • Actually to clarify the NPO review was open access applications precisely so that the Arts Council could use lottery money and get around the old additionality argument, so that could have taken more from the lottery to save more organisations if they had wanted to. I think “schemification is a) political to meet coalition agendas and b) political to justify the arts council as a devleopment agency and not just a lottery distributor….but the real issue is that these schemes have been rushed into existence and are not based on evidence. Grants for the arts was set up as a simple one application for all process following research that this avoided the problems of appliciants chasing funding and applying to multiple schemes, and increased chances for applicants who were less experienced in application writing..the proliferation of schemes now requires someone adept at fundraising in an organisation to respond to them and therefore advantages larger organisations disproportionately. it is a real backward step in my view!!!!

      • Thank you Leila for this additional information and perspective, which I think is very interesting. It’s also useful to have the ‘long-view’ that looks at what has and hasn’t worked so well in the past, and the thinking behind those and subsequent decisions.


  2. 3 elements of the Catalyst that I thought were misguided:

    1. That it was focused entirely on “private giving”. When we were developing a project for Catalyst we wanted to partner with other arts organisations to offer a cross-London arts membership scheme for wealthy people looking to broaden their artistic experience/knowledge. When I put this to the arts council as an idea I was told it was not eligible because members would be buying a service rather than giving philanthropically. What sense does it make to shoe horn arts organisation into one type of fundraising, rather than encouraging broader ideas around both fundraising and income generation?

    2. That the money raised through the catalyst programme had to be for additional activity (i.e. activitiy that would not have been included within business plans submitted by arts organisations when competing for NPO status). This is incredbly poor practice in that it leads arts organisation to start generating activity in order to gain funding, rather than generating funding to support core/pre planned activitiy- leading to funder-driven mission creep and a great big gaping hole in funding for core activity.

    3. As with all the various schemes that were announced over the autumn- time frames for applications. It would be great at some point to do research into the correlation between time frames for submitting applications and quality of funded project!

    • Thank you very much for this – you make excellent points based on actual experience. I appreciate you taking the time to respond. Best of luck to you, Dany

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