Working in a small arts organisation can feel a bit like a one person band – you can find yourself juggling multiple business lines within one team, getting creative with limited budgets or pushing back that retail development project yet again! How do you strike the balance between innovation and operation whilst also caring for your team and the bottom line? There isn’t an easy answer – it comes with a heavy weight of responsibility as well as a great sense of achievement and pride of doing it all.
However, there are some considerations small arts organisations can make to manage conflicting priorities, aid decision making whilst creating a more welcoming, manageable place to work for your team.
Following on from a recent panel session at the Cultural Enterprises Conference – with Holly Burrows, The Cartoon Museum; Rosie Baker, Bishopsgate Institute; and Kate Rolfe, The Revels Office – this article shares top tips for working multiple roles in a small arts organisation.
Business planning is essential to determine the best way an organisation can become and remain financially sustainable. In a small arts organisation the need to plan ahead becomes even more critical due to limitations on either resources or time.
Invest time to get your team involved in strategy building and implement a 3-5 year business plan. Strategising and creating a plan with your team will mean your business plan is more likely to succeed as they will “own” it and already have a buy-in to ambitions of the organisation. It will motivate the team and allow them to focus on what their priorities are, which in turn helps smaller organisations better manage the limitations on resources and time.
Kate Rolfe, Director at audience and commercial development consultancy, The Revels Office advises that sometimes a smaller team can mean pacing your ambitions:
“It can take longer to get where you need to and that’s okay so long as you’ve planned ahead on investment and return. A considered, strategic action plan will help inform and manage expectations of leadership and trustees.”
Keep a Record
Along with long-term planning, prioritise contingency planning. Decision makers will want numbers and evidence to back up any business case for investment and growth. Do this by keeping a record of all collected data, processes and team decisions. This will allow you to review and assess ideally on a weekly basis, and if not possible in one go annually. Holly Burrows, Commercial Manager at The Cartoon Museum explains, “Know your figures and let the data make the decisions for you. Work smarter, not harder.”
The Power of Volunteers
As an arts organisation, volunteers can play an essential part in scaling up your workforce, giving dedicated attention to specific areas or projects and building connections with the local community. Volunteers have dedicated time to your organisation because they want to be there and not because they are paid to be, so get strategic with your volunteer relationships!
By engaging volunteers you have the opportunity to work with people who are either passionate about what your arts organisation offers (enthusiasts), have more free time (retirees) or are eager to learn and build up their experience (graduates/students). Find out their skill sets, listen and learn from them, and allow them to apply it to areas they know about and enjoy. Allow them to “put some skin in the game.” The more they are able to contribute to the happenings in your organisation the more invested they will be in achieving the organisation’s goals.
Your loyal volunteers will be able to serve as advocates and critical friends for your employee activities and business focus whilst also holding you to account. It’s like having an audience voice within your workforce.
Remember that volunteers are just that – volunteers. Be clear on the nuances and differences between volunteers versus paid employees. Be conscious that ultimately the responsibility is yours as the paid employee.
Empower Your Team
“Invest in the knowledge of your team,” advises Rosie Baker, Head of Delivery at the Bishopsgate Institute, “so they can be more efficient and effective.” There may be areas you discover in your team that could be more efficient so upskill them in that area for their own development but also for the good of the organisation. “For example, if your team has a better understanding of food safety they will better manage catering supplies or if they understand contract law they will be better at negotiating with clients,” Rosie Baker explains. “Designate some time to allow your team to go for training in these areas.” Initiatives like the Cultural Enterprises Academy, Artswork Professional Development and the Association of Independent Museums have a variety of events, courses and workshops specifically targeted to those in the arts and culture sector.
Now you may say, “Training is expensive, how can we offer this to our teams?” but as the saying goes, “Alone we can do so little; together we can do so much.” Get to know your neighbours and fellow small organisations then work together to pool staff onto training courses! This will make the costs for training much more manageable. Don’t forget – you can design your own training for more organisation-specific skills.
The more confident your team gets with their skills and managing their different roles the more empowered they become in making their own decisions without needing more support from senior management.
Instilling trust and open communication in your team can also be improved with practical operational structures in place. For example, does your team prefer weekly meetings or factsheets? Does your team prefer in person planning meetings and debrief notes? Evaluate the dynamics of your team and what methods of communication works best for them. For example, some teams will use management tools like Microsoft Teams or Asana to help track, organise and manage work whilst also seeing what others are working on. Others will have a weekly meeting at the top of the week to brief the team on what they are working on and where they need support. Establish a consistent method of communication for your team which will allow for more open communication, reduce the level of miscommunication and improve trust within teams.
From the perspective of senior management, trusting everyone on your team is essential, especially in smaller organisations. Trust your teams to deliver but ensure there is clear communication on who is in charge of which tasks, as the lines of responsibility can easily be blurred in smaller teams.
Innovation in Ways of Working
With everything happening in the digital space, it is easy to instantly think about technology and big ideas when using the word “innovation.” Innovation is simply a new method or idea that challenges the status quo. A new way of working can make a world of difference to achieving your bottom line goals.
At The Postal Museum for example, CEO Laura Wright and Head of Operations and Commercial, Tish Jayanetti have adopted the mantra, “Don’t Stay In Your Lane” for their teams. As an organisation with under 100 employees, this new way of working empowers their teams to be curious about other areas in the museum beyond their main focus. It encourages the team to identify areas of interest, develop and take on new roles and challenges. It challenges the status quo of a linear career progression within the organisation and offers a new way of working that allows staff to move in, up and across departments in the organisation. It also provides an elegant solution to the current recruitment and retention challenges across the sector.
Working in a smaller arts organisation can be a rewarding experience and often gives teams a stronger sense of achievement when they meet their goals. However, the weight of responsibility can be heavy when the scope of your role expands and teams have to learn on the go. Despite that, small arts organisations are doing amazing jobs without compromising the quality of their offering. They are also coming up with empowering ideas to find the balance between innovation and operation. The key in finding the balance lies in the people within your organisation – listen to their ideas, ask them questions and trust them. People are your organisation’s greatest asset.
We hope that these practical tips will be the first step to create balance and relief for your teams.