Impact Assessment requires planning and results in change. But it also may require an appreciable shift in the way your organisation thinks and manages itself.
If you are leading only a part of your organisation – for example, the education and outreach department – it may be possible for you to decide to embed Impact Assessment into your practice. However, if it is something which you feel needs to be embraced by your whole organisation, the task is more complex. These issues arose throughout the project and in several of our meetings.
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For impact assessment to be of use to an organisation, it must have a clear mission or vision for its work, against which impact can be measured. An additional issue is that in many cases the outreach work of an arts organisation may have aims and priorities that are different from its artistic policy – this is usually not an issue for museums or heritage organisations. It is worth taking the opportunity to clarify mission, aims and priorities in order to assess whether impact assessment is something that the organisation wishes to pursue.
The issue of funders and their requirements is crucial. This came up many times during the project, though it was a particular focus of Meeting 1. We carried out an exercise trying to identify the information an organisation needs in order to learn and progress, and the information funders need to support grant-making decisions. Instructively, this exercise was only partly successful, as our participants found it hard to differentiate between the two – and of course there is a great deal of overlap. Moving to a model where the organisation gathers the information most useful to it, and then shares it with funders and potential funders, is probably some way off.
However, in Meeting 3 we discussed the funders’ perspective with Tim Joss of the Rayne Foundation. Many organisations are trying to please multiple funders and to report in many different ways, sometimes on the same project, to different funders. Negotiating ways of reporting which serve the needs of the organisation as well as the funder may be possible.
We were fortunate to have Douglas Lonie from the National Foundation for Youth Music present throughout the whole of Meeting 2, where we discussed at length the way the Youth Music has changed over a period of years into an organisation in which evaluation and impact assessment is embedded. The tools and methods used by Youth Music are a useful study – even though Youth Music as a grant-making organisation differs from many cultural organisations.
Identifying need is a key issue in organisational change. Particularly with arts-based organisations, where the artistic product rightly takes precedence, education and outreach work is often seen as a servant of the art rather than of the participants. Other arts organisations are highly instrumental in their use of art for social, educational, health or personal aims – an example being Dance United, which took part in the early stages of this project. The questions ‘what is the need for our [outreach] work’, or indeed, ‘is there a need for our [outreach] work?’ can be hard to answer, and may require a degree of self-examination which the organisation overall has not previously considered necessary.
In the current funding climate, local government commissioning policies may offer the opportunity for cultural organisations to use their outreach projects to create longer-term services to address specific need within the community. An example might be working with excluded young people or providing activities for vulnerable older people. However, this works against the normal artistic cycle of creating projects, working them through and then moving on to the next. Organisations should ask themselves whether this is something they wish to do or indeed which their own charitable objects allow them to do. Creating a separate ‘arm’ of a cultural organisation to run ongoing services is also an option.
A further issue that some organisations will face is the mindset that many of us in the cultural sector have that the arts in particular are somehow ‘different’ or ‘special’. Received wisdom within the sector about the power of the arts to change or improve people’s lives is not enough. Perhaps we do not always take enough notice of what people outside the sector may be saying to thinking. In an informal discussion outside the project meetings, the project staff discussed this, characterising arts practitioners as ‘believers’ – we do what we do because we believe in it, but this doesn’t necessarily mean that everyone else believes in it. Again, this can be hard for a dedicated artist or arts professional to take on board. However, if there is one thing that Impact Assessment can do, it is to secure the knowledge of what cultural organisation can achieve when they work within their communities, aiming to do good.