Your name’s not down, you’re not coming in

As winter draws on, the minds of artistic directors and CEOs across England are once again turning to the big pitch. “How do we convince Arts Council England to keep us on as a National Portfolio Organisation?”

The hints coming from Great Peter Street are that there will be a lot less next time round and those that remain will probably be bigger.

In 2010 those Regularly Funded organisations who were getting less than £40,000 were told that NPO status probably wasn’t for them and that there were other funding routes, such as Grants for the Arts, that were far better suited to their needs.

Arts Council England says that it values the smaller organisations and that NPO status is not about status. It is just another funding stream that they direct towards larger organisations who have a strategic regional, national role to play.

There is certainly logic behind this on paper but like many wonderful ideas it falls foul of the people involved.

could you pass the 11+NPO status is still seen to be a badge of honour. It is a competition. Of those that apply the ‘good companies’ will get it and those that don’t will have ‘failed’, at least in their aspiration. It will be like passing or failing the eleven plus – initially designed to sort out which child was best suited to different forms of education, it rapidly became about status.  We will all be guilty of this. We will all pore over the lists and gossip about the haves and have nots – it is human nature.

Unfortunately, and this is where the big problem lies, Arts Council England Officers will behave just like the rest of us – just as they have been doing for the past few years.

Gerry Robinson, former chair of Arts Council England, was on Radio 4 last week talking about the barriers to change in organisations. He talked of great ideas from the top failing because the managers in the middle are a) conservative and resistant to new ideas that might change their role and status and b) haven’t really understood the big picture.

Arts Council England flagship Bridge organisations are being directed by the above ACE managers to tunnel their resources through NPOs. In some places these are a bit thin on the ground. Surely common sense would indicate that when trying to change attitudes towards arts in education that smaller, more flexible companies have just as valuable a role to play.

If you’re not an NPO then you’ve probably fallen off ACE’s mailing list. Without direct communication it is so easy to miss opportunities and initiatives. NPOs are told that they should be supporting non NPOs but this isn’t working. They have neither the time nor resources to ensure equitable support across the country and its never going to be a priority – sometimes even is slow to get the news out as only the NPOs have been told.

ACE expect news and ideas to ‘trickle down’. A recent email I had on this subject used the phrase, “piloted with a selected number of NPOs first and then rolled out if it was successful”, assuming a) that the smart CEO of an NPO would ever let a successful project out of their grip and b) that big strategic companies were the best to pilot the project in the first place.

In the 80s the gas and electricity boards were privatised in the hope of generating competition and making the industry more efficient. Thirty years on we’re left with the big six. As ACE works towards fewer, bigger NPOs the small guys, the ones with the new ideas, who are seriously trying to do things differently are being squeezed out – not by policy but by the way people are responding to that policy. Companies who are focused on participation and engagement tend to be at the smaller end of the scale. They often need to be in order to stay grounded and in touch with their communities. How many more of these organisations will no longer be at the NPO table in April 2015?

Last week an ACE officer was telling me about how she was going around telling everyone to think of alternatives to NPO status. It would be a brave CEO who currently has NPO status who doesn’t apply this time around. NPO status may well not be the best way forward for their organisation but as long as it carries bragging rights, kudos and access to ACE information – how could they not? Having set on this road it is almost impossible for ACE to put the genie back in the bottle. Squeezed resources will find themselves channeled to a shrinking elite who will grow in power. We will all, including ACE officers, read the lists in terms of success and failure – that is human nature – but it doesn’t make it right.