Cultural Playing Field

Refining the action plan for the voluntary arts in England by Robin Simpson
October 30, 2008, 10:10 am
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On Monday I was in London for a meeting at Arts Council England to discuss the latest draft of ACE’s action plan for the voluntary arts sector. Reemer and I fed back to the ACE and DCMS officers the views of voluntary arts umbrella bodies on each of the proposed actions. David Brownlee and Meli Hatzihrysidis reported back to us on their visits to ACE’s regional offices to discuss the draft action plan and how to improve links with the voluntary arts sector. To date they had been to seven of the nine regions. They said that they had found a large amount of warmth and understanding of the potential of the voluntary arts and an acceptance that ACE was not engaging with the sector in the way it could and maybe should at regional level. Many ACE officers had, however, raised issues about capacity and the pragmatic practicalities of increasing engagement with the sector and were cautious about over-promising what might be possible at a time when ACE is facing substantial cuts. We talked about how best to launch the action plan publicly, whilst appreciating that its implementation is likely to iterative, with some actions having started while we are still finalising the others. We agreed to produce an interim joint statement from ACE, DCMS and VAE to explain the work that is being done as a result of the ‘Our Creative Talent’ research and conference and to highlight the outcomes the action plan is striving for.

Robin Simpson


Working with the Directory of Social Change by Robin Simpson
October 23, 2008, 12:58 pm
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I was back in London on Wednesday to meet Ben Wittenberg, Director of Policy & Research at the Directory of Social Change. I was quite familiar with the DSC’s information and training for voluntary sector organisations but impressed to hear that the charity, which employs 45 people in London and Liverpool, works with more than 20,000 organisations a year, generating 87% of its own income. The policy and campaigning side of their work is new and growing: to date their main focus has been on public service delivery and commissioning. DSC will launch its ‘Funders’ Almanac 2008’ on 5 November. The almanac will provide vital intelligence to funders and marks the first step towards producing a comprehensive picture of funding in the voluntary and community sector. DSC then has plans for a broad campaign on giving and grant-making. Ben and I had a wide-ranging discussion about how we might be able to work together – both in relation to our lobbying and advocacy work but also where there is some crossover in our information services. We will start by collaborating on a review of DSC’s ‘Arts Funding Guide’ early next year.

Robin Simpson.

Improving linking and learning with the wider Third Sector by Robin Simpson
October 23, 2008, 11:05 am
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On Tuesday I was in London for a meeting of the ACEVO (The Association for Chief Executives of Voluntary Organisations) arts, culture & heritage special interest group. This was the first meeting to be chaired by Robin Osterley of Making Music who has taken over from Peter Pearce of the Landmark Trust as Chair of the special interest group. We took the opportunity to reflect on the purpose of the group and agree our priorities for the coming year. As well as maintaining its core function of providing valuable networking and peer support for Chief Executives of voluntary sector arts, culture and heritage organisations, the group will be working on improving linking and learning with the wider Third Sector, improving the sector’s influence with the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, and improving our influence with other Government Departments, local authorities etc. We were joined on Tuesday by ACEVO Chief Executive, Stephen Bubb, who echoed our concerns that arts and heritage organisations tend to operate in silos, not seeing the links to the wider Third Sector. Stephen stressed that arts, heritage and sports organisations were a key part of the Third Sector. You can read his own description of our meeting on ‘Bubb’s Blog’ at

Robin Simpson.

The Great Monitoring and Evaluation Debate by Robin Simpson
October 16, 2008, 1:46 pm
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On Wednesday I was back in London, at Leyton Orient Football Club, to attend the last in a series of seminars on ‘The Great Monitoring and Evaluation Debate’. Organised by Substance, the creators of the SPRS reporting software, the seminar looked at the problems created by the reporting requirements of funders. There is often lots of monitoring but little evaluation and it is rarely done in a way which is useful to the project organisers or participants. The challenge is to move from ‘monitoring and evaluation’ to ‘learning and development’. Substance is now working on the use of open source software tools to combine existing data sets (including mobile phone photos and recordings), rather than requiring extensive collection of new data, and create custom front ends for different funders to allow the evidence to be analysed in the most useful ways. The seminar became a little too focused on software issues and the particular system created by Substance for the Home Office’s ‘Positive Futures’ project, but it still raised some interesting points. It was good to see that some of the organisations represented had started to take a more creative approach to monitoring and evaluation along the lines developed by the Voluntary Arts Wales team. (If you haven’t seen it I strongly recommend the VAW publication, ‘Tear Up Your Tick Boxes’.)

Robin Simpson.

New Shadow Charities Minister at EVDC by Robin Simpson
October 16, 2008, 1:44 pm
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On Tuesday I was in London for a meeting of the England Volunteering Development Council. We were due to have been addressed by Greg Clark, the Shadow Minister for Charities, but the Conservative front bench reshuffle last week moved him on to pastures new. Fortunately his successor, Nick Hurd, agreed to honour the commitment and addressed the massed ranks of volunteer-involving organisations and volunteering infrastructure bodies after only a few days in his new post. Hurd was keen to stress that the Conservative Party takes the voluntary sector very seriously indeed, referring to the importance of ‘bottom-up’ social responsibility and seeing the sector as the “engine of social progress” and “the beating heart of civil society”. He said “voluntary activity is a powerful accumulator of social capital and building communities”. The great news for the sector is that there is huge cross-party support for the voluntary sector. The Shadow Minister thought the Government was entirely credible in its commitment to the cause but was not convinced it was working effectively. He referred to the Conservative Party green paper, ‘A Stronger Society’, which advocates lighter touch regulation and a better balance between grants and contracts. A Conservative Government would be likely to be prepared to take more risks, with an emphasis on outcomes rather than targets and a sensitivity to the dangers of micro-management. Charities need to be allowed to recover costs. Nick Hurd was particularly interested in stimulating more workplace volunteering – connecting communities virally. His presentation was extremely supportive and he seemed genuinely keen to work with the sector. It is great to be working in the voluntary sector at a time when all the main political parties seem to be falling over each other to tell us how important we are! Hurd’s grasp of the territory was, naturally, a little limited at this early stage: he seemed to be using ‘volunteering’ and ‘voluntary sector’ fairly interchangeably but I raised this with him and I think he took on board the distinction. Over lunch I spoke to him about the voluntary arts sector, the ‘Our Creative Talent’ research, the difficulties of falling between the arts and voluntary sectors and the massive, and largely untapped, potential represented by voluntary arts groups. In the afternoon we heard from the Chair of the Commission for the Compact, Sir Bert Massie. He spoke of the difficulties the Commission faces in having to be independent and follow the Government line. He discussed the pros and cons of the voluntary sector Compact becoming statutory: Sir Bert clearly feels this would make the Compact less effective – taking considerable time and effort to create something it would be difficult and expensive to enforce and losing much of the current voluntary commitment to the Compact principles by local authorities etc. He was keen to look again at the Compact Codes of Practice to see whether they could be clarified and shortened to make them easier to remember and implement. As always, the EVDC meeting was a fascinating update on current issues and a great networking opportunity.

Robin Simpson.

Comparing notes with Belgium and Holland by Robin Simpson
October 9, 2008, 2:22 pm
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On Tuesday and Wednesday I was in London for a series of meetings with Kaat Peeters, Director of Forum voor Amateurkunsten which supports the amateur arts sector in Flanders, and Tom de Rooij, Director of Kunstfactor – the equivalent organisation in the Netherlands. We looked at the similarities and differences between voluntary arts groups in Belgium, the Netherlands and the UK & Ireland. We compared how our three organisations are structured and resourced. Finally we looked at how we might work more closely together and identified some potential joint projects.

Robin Simpson.

Networking in Bracknell by Robin Simpson
October 9, 2008, 1:43 pm
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On Monday evening I was at the South Hill Park Arts Centre in Bracknell to address the first meeting of a Creative Network for local amateur and voluntary arts groups organised by Bracknell Forest Borough Council. Arts and Heritage Officer, Lynne Dick, hopes to organise two or three events a year to support the sector. This first meeting was extremely successful with just under 30 groups represented and lots of useful networking and sharing happening from the start. I spoke about the ‘Our Creative Talent’ research into the voluntary arts sector in England, stressing that local groups were far from alone and had plenty to learn from each other. I invited everyone to tell me the most pressing problems or issues for their groups and then compared these with the national findings from ‘Our Creative Talent’. There was a reassuring match with the main issues being: cost of venues; suitability of venues; funding for additional activity; attracting new members and audiences; recruiting volunteers to manage the group; access to equipment; and dealing with bureaucracy and legislation. It was great to see so many people on Monday and to hear them quickly beginning to try to solve each other’s problems. One person said: “there are groups here we didn’t know existed” and hopefully, having started to discover the benefits of talking to each other, the Bracknell Creative Network will thrive.

Robin Simpson.