What a a month – a staff party to celebrate our finished building works; a showcase of new talent to give a platform to young people developing creative responses to social injustices; a recording of a special debate for The World Tonight for Radio 4 (press freedom vs national security); an exhibition of new graphic short stories that explore contemporary attitudes to Europe. And last week Jeet Thayil, author of Narcopolis (my favourite read of 2013), speaking at Free Word as part of The South Asian Literature Festival.
These are just a few of the things that have happened at Free Word in the weeks since I arrived here. The centre is home to a number of organisations working across literature and freedom of expression including Article 19, The Reading Agency and English PEN. Together with these organisations, Free Word curates a year round programme of events that celebrate the transformative power of words.
It is an interesting time to join the team. The building has been closed to the public for months whilst it has undergone extensive refurbishment. During this time, Free Word has been reflecting on what its future will look like. The plans are ambitious (but under wraps until 12th November when we officially re-launch). It is a small organisation with a big vision and it works at a frenetic pace. Starting a new job is always a little bit daunting; new people and protocols, information overload and meetings a-plenty.
But I am very happy here. When applying for the Arts Fundraising and Philanthropy Fellowship with Cause4 I chose Free Word for two reasons. Firstly, because it sits – or indeed balances – on the border where art and politics meet; it is a sort of creative laboratory that exists to promote, protect and democratise the power of words. And secondly, because it is relatively small. Whilst the building is home to around a hundred members of staff, Free Word itself has a core team of only ten. This means that I sit in an office with the director and executive director, the digital producer and the building manager amongst others. Working in such a small team means that we all pitch in when necessary which I love. I have contributed to design decisions, proof read various communications and attended a number of programme meetings.
I feel I need to come clean on something. I am (or rather was) a reluctant fundraiser. Don’t get me wrong, I realise that money provides the means for organisations to thrive. And I realise that without great fundraisers there would be no money. It’s just I have never seen myself as a ‘fundraiser’ per se. I’m a creative person and had always thought that fundraising was something best done by a more logical, business minded person. Excel sheets with multiple tabs and formulas make me shudder, I’m only so-so at maths and I don’t really understand tax. And yet I find myself on a fellowship that is training the next generation of arts development professionals and I couldn’t be happier.
In the short time I’ve been at Free Word, I’ve come to realise that fundraising is not separate or in addition to programming. Rather, it is at the very centre of every creative decision. The year ahead is set to be an exciting one and, whilst I’m sure I’ll have to confront my excel demons head on, I’m also sure that I will play a part in shaping Free Word’s creative output, albeit, with a fundraising head firmly on my shoulders.