GOOD PRACTICE GUIDE The growing challenge of creative ambition

Moya Maxwell, executive director of Shobana Jeyasingh Dance since September 2018 having come from the Royal Institute of British Architects, on the joys and hardships of managing a small arts company

For most of my career I have worked for medium to large arts organisations, each with large teams, huge output, secured funding infrastructure. So when I took on the mantle of executive director at Shobana Jeyasingh Dance last year, I was expecting to notice clear differences and challenges.  

Of course, there are basic principles when leading any company, regardless of size.  Ultimately, whether a dance company or charity or commercial business, there are fundamentals that need to be done – managing the finances, managing the day-to-day operation and ensuring the company achieves its goals, developing your team and nurturing growth, creativity and ambition from within the company. 

Before I started the role, I read that a good leader in the charitable sector spends one-third of their time managing the day-to-day operation, one-third fundraising and one-third planning future projects and developing relationships.  I have tried to ensure “I only do what only I can do” (a Cranfield School of Management maxim).  However, faced with deadlines and staff off sick, I have too often found myself covering other people’s roles to the detriment of future planning or developing relationships.  

There is a huge challenge with meeting the creative ambition, which very often can far outstrip the resources available.  Prioritising the ambition and the projects is key. Planning to deliver on a scale which is achievable within the budget and resource available is often a hard discussion and requires some tough decisions.

As with most small organisations, managing cashflow becomes critical.  Ensuring the team understands the importance of managing spending is key, and something which needs to be communicated well.  I have found that just the introduction of a spending record and agreeing with staff in advance how much money can be committed that month has ensured all staff share the responsibility of managing cashflow and engendered a more responsible attitude to company spending.

The funding model for our sector is a challenge, reliant as it is on philanthropic donations. In order to plan with confidence for the medium term, organisations need to know that income is secure for at least two to three years ahead. That means agreeing multi-year donations from charitable foundations, the Arts Council and other funding bodies. 

It takes time to earn the trust of a new donor to make those gifts unrestricted and multi-year.However, investing in that relationship will yield massive benefits to the organisation not just for its financial security but for its creative output. Once financially secure, a creative organisation can plan to be ambitious.

Faced with a funding crisis, it is very easy for an organisation to try to create a project to fit the funder, and ignore (or relegate) their own organisation’s goals and ambition.  In my experience, projects conceived under those circumstances rarely achieve their aims and usually end up costing the organisation financially and reputationally. 

Developing commercial opportunities to create new revenue streams is a huge challenge, given the lack of time and resource available in small organisations.  Often new ideas will fall by the wayside because there is no money to invest in R&D.  Being small can also mean that your purchasing power is greatly reduced. It is difficult to negotiate the best rates for hires, etc., if you are seen as a “one off” user, for example. It is also unlikely that negotiating skills have been developed to the fullest within your team either. 

It is ironic that those organisations who would benefit most from good deals are probably the last to receive them, with the one exception – when they buy from other similar organisations (rehearsal space, etc.), then I have found the level of cooperation to be extraordinary.

The arts sector, for all its challenges of funding and resources is extremely supportive if you make the effort to network.  It is so important when leading a small organisation to spend time building your contacts as you will rely on them for advice, support and introductions in the future.  Cultivating good relations with the Board of Trustees is vital to earning their backing and support and ensuring the Board fosters the organisation’s growth and ambition.

I adore being free of organisation politics!  A small organisation can be nimble, the decision-making process is quick and not held back by waiting for various levels of hierarchical approval.  It is a joy fostering a creative team to express and develop new ideas and then to see these being put into play, and makes up for all the late night worrying about funding.

Key to the success of my role is ensuring an open and healthy relationship between executive director and artistic director.  If as ED I have done my role well, then I will have given the AD the resources, time and space to realise their creative ambition. 

Finally, the most rewarding part of the role is of course watching the new production hit the stage for the first time – then I know I have been successful. 

Shobana Jeyasingh Dance is celebrating its 30thanniversary this year

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