Changing the Chip' by David Dixon

Changing the Chip' by David Dixon

Nothing to do with food; everything to do with mindset!

This post is about the most important six inches in fundraising…between the ears of the leaders of our arts organisations.

The expression 'cambiar el chip' ('change the chip') is used in Spain to signify a radical change of mindset – reprogramming, rebooting, upgrading firmware – of a person or an organisation. The Spanish are actually quite good at this and have reinvented their nation, society and economy since the 1970s. Unfortunately the one area where they are quite incapable of ‘changing the chip’ is in arts management where a funding model based on political patronage has led to sclerosis. Spanish culture is vibrant but arts managers are all too often ‘old boys’ who are mainly interested in securing their position in the queue for government handouts and who experience enterprise as a threat. I know, I have worked in Spain for quite a few years now. Frustration is too small a word for it!

Just in case you think that this is a rant against Johnny Foreigner, I can tell you that I also work quite a bit in the Netherlands where the situation is quite different. There, an arts sector just as heavily subsidised as its Spanish counterpart has responded to severe funding cuts with vigour, openness and enterprise. In Spain the general reaction to cuts in public funding has been to reduce the amount and quality of work undertaken, leaving many producing companies and artists in dire straits, whilst in the Netherlands (after a great deal of protest), the arts sector overall has responded by investing in new initiatives for generating income and, in the process, are re-imagining their relationships with their communities, artists and all stakeholders.

There are important differences between the two countries, of course but, when it comes to the making of art and entertainment, both are dynamic and creative and the basic organisation of a theatre, gallery, producing company, orchestra etc. are essentially the same in all countries. So why is there such a difference between the two in arts management and in adaptation to changed economic circumstances? The answer lies in the minds and hearts of leaders of arts organisations and of the main funders. In Spain the cultural sector is essentially a branch of local and national government and the leaders of arts organisations must answer to a handful of politicians, civil servants and, especially at local level, a small group of bigwigs who run everything on a system of personal and political patronage. In financial terms nobody else matters to arts leaders. Not the audiences and certainly not the local community. Oddly, these leaders often genuinely believe that by taking only public funds they are focusing purely on the art and often regard other kinds of funding or even marketing to audiences as somehow ‘dirty’.

Public funding is the main income for the arts in the Netherlands too but this kind of patronage is frowned upon so public funding was always more of a negotiation than a gift from the big man. This independence of mind made it far easier for cultural managers to imagine different ways to paddle their canoes. True, not all want to change but all realise it is necessary. And funding bodies in the Netherlands are actively offering practical support to the arts during this transition (fundraising training, grants for enterprising activities, conferences on related themes etc.). This is almost completely lacking in Spain where the funders don’t want to change either – a more independent arts sector would mean a loss of political influence for them.

Let’s bring this back to the UK now. In my opinion the overall management of arts organisations in the UK is better than in any country I know. Our leaders, managers, staff and artists have consistently responded to financial challenges by innovating and learning, reinventing themselves and often making more and better work and new work as a result. But, leaving aside this overview, there are still many examples of organisations which could do far more in fundraising (and other areas of enterprise) if only the leaders on the board or at director level could only get their heads around the new economic reality and the new opportunities it presents.

I recently did some work with the board of a respected producing theatre which should be generating far more income from fundraising and commercial income than it does. It soon became clear that the main problem was that the Chair of the Board who does a great job in all other respects) did not really believe his organisation deserves donations – in fact he said he would not give a donation himself to an arts organisation, including his own, since his political view was that arts should be funded from taxation. A valid point of view, but not an appropriate position for the Chair of a fundraising organisation.

Fundraising is not just a technical question. Without the whole-hearted engagement of the leaders of our organisations success will be very limited and slow.

David Dixon is Director of The Phone Room and David Dixon Associates, working with cultural organisations to help them with fundraising, marketing and management. He is also a trainer for several courses on the Arts Fundraising & Philanthropy programme including Effective Fundraising from Audiences, Visitors & Members and Entrepreneurial Approaches to Fundraising Through Effective Use of Data.