National organisations are under increasing pressure to deliver activity across the country, but are they best placed to do that?
Our London-based ‘national’ organisations are great at what they do, and of course we would all like to see more people from across the country experiencing their work. Previously many have focused their broader community engagement work on areas of London, where perhaps there is potential to develop a more meaningful relationship, but driven by the funding agenda, the focus has now shifted to working in the regions.
ARC is based in Stockton, an area of low engagement, and as an organisation with a good reputation and track record of partnership funding, we seem to be a magnet for organisations looking to develop partnerships outside London.
Our experience has not been good. The starting point for most seems to be that there is no question that we would want to work with them; and are completely baffled if you aren’t interested in what they are offering. One even refused to take no for an answer and applied pressure via our local authority for us to engage with them. There is little thought or research behind their approach, just an arrogant assumption that you would be glad of their intervention. It has felt like a very one way conversation, with no thought or consideration given as to why we, as an organisation, or people in our local community would want to work with them.
If they brought great experience of community engagement, then I am sure we would be interested. However most are bringing their existing education and participation practice, developed in London, which is unlikely to work in places like Stockton where cultural awareness is extremely low.
We have worked for many years to build strong relationships with our local community via groups and individuals, to build up trust and loyalty, and to shape our programmes of work around their needs and interests. We have some great relationships with organisations based all round the country who share our thinking, and work with us to connect with our communities. We are always open to working with new partners, but parachuting a national organisation in to deliver a pre-determined education programme is completely at odds with the way we work.
The most frustrating part has been asking these organisations why they want to work in Stockton. Most don’t have an answer. It is clear there is little strategy behind the work, with the onus to deliver in the regions delegated to junior members of staff with no genuine buy in from leaders within the organisation. Sometimes the opportunity to experience the organisation’s work live is not even part of the offer.
If London-based national organisations are really going to deliver nationally, then we need a more sophisticated approach.
Firstly, let organisations be good at what they do, and don’t assume, just because they are national, that they are good at everything. Organisations should only deliver nationally if it fits their organisation’s mission (and public funding should be allocated accordingly).
If they are going to work outside London, they need a clear strategy that is aligned with their mission and aims. This needs to be articulated by the organisation’s leaders, in order for it to be meaningful and valued to the organisation. If your community engagement work is effective, then it will change the art you make, as well as the range of people who experience it.
Thirdly, listening is key. Don’t come out to the regions and tell us what you want to do. Come and talk to us about what we are doing, and listen. If you want to achieve meaningful community engagement, then you need to work with existing arts, health, VCSE and other organisations who are already established, listen and learn from them, shaping your activity and offer to suit the people you want to reach.
Assuming you do want to reach them, that is, and aren’t just bowing to political pressure.
Chief Executive, ARC Stockton