Fail to plan and you are planning to fail

Cultural institutions are becoming more aware of the importance of good governance
Patrick Steel
Firstsite, the beleaguered contemporary arts centre in Colchester, will present its business plan to Arts Council England this month, as part of what interim director Anthony Roberts describes as “a very traumatic restructure” that will lead to the appointment of a new director in the new year.

The restructure has been instigated by Noorzaman Rashid, who took over as the centre’s chair of trustees in August.

Rashid, with a background in management consultancy, was brought in to help turn the centre around after the arts council withdrew its funding earlier this year and replaced it with a one-off grant for 2015-16, with any further support to be reviewed at the end of the year.

Firstsite’s problems have not come about overnight, says Adrian Babbidge, a museum management consultant with Egeria, but issues can sometimes take years to emerge if boards are not rigorous in their business planning.

Prominent insolvencies, such as the recent example of the Kids Company charity in London, and the fact that the Charity Commission is being more active where it uncovers issues of concern, mean that organisations are more aware than ever of the importance of good governance, Babbidge says.

Ellen McAdam, the director of Birmingham Museums Trust, says that when a crisis hits, all the support the board can muster is appreciated. She stresses the importance of the chair and director working together “with no secrets between each other”.

This was key for Tony Butler, executive director at Derby Museums, earlier this year, when his organisation took the decision to publicly campaign against funding cuts imposed on it by Derby City Council, its main funder.

It was a difficult time, he says, but the board and chair agreed it was the appropriate thing to do, and following it up with “diplomatic work” to rebuild the relationship with council members and officers has ultimately made the relationship stronger.

The board was also able to help in another crucial way, he adds, by leveraging a five- figure donation to pay for a fundraising post for the next two years, helping boost the earned revenue that Butler believes the service will largely be reliant on by 2018.

The role of trustees as advocates is key, says Gordon Watson, the chief executive
of Lakeland Arts Trust, as they support the organisation in discussions with potential supporters and stakeholders.

Philanthropy is not just about giving money, but it is also about giving time, he says, and the board can contribute to the organisation through the authority that they carry.

Range of talents

Having the right spread of talents and personalities is also important, says Kim Streets, the chief executive of Museums Sheffield, which has experts in accountancy, law, museum studies and marketing on its board, as well as, crucially, people “versed in the politics of the region”.

Local links are vital, says McAdam, particularly to businesses and the tourist industry. Management and staff are not generally lacking in entrepreneurial spirit, she says, but you cannot underestimate the value of knowing people.

McAdam enjoys good relations with her board in Birmingham, but says she has seen examples of boards losing sight of their role and getting over-involved in running an organisation, or being excessively critical, leading to staff losing morale.

Ultimately, she says, like all relationships – it takes time and work to build those personal links between staff, board and beyond.

For Firstsite, however, it is still early days.

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