A person on a runway with there arms out streched, covered in yellow, orange and purple lights. They are wearing high white boots and a white headress. Surrounding the runway are cheering people.
The Unlimited House of Krip - Manchester Ball - Charlie Hembrow in Fantasy Category - Photo by Fotocad

The highs and lows of becoming an independent organisation

Last year we announced that Unlimited was transitioning into an independent organisation – exciting news, but what has that process of shifting from ‘programme’ to ‘organisation’ meant in practice? Jo Verrent, Senior Producer for Unlimited, takes us on the rollercoaster so far.

We blogged last year about building the initial team for transition and our advisory group. So much has happened since that it’s time for an update!

 

Start of transition

Mark Robinson, Thinking Practice, helped us consider governance and reminded us how if we wanted a different result, we needed a different process. (Mark has a new book out – ‘Tactics for the Tightrope’.) With his support, we recruited a board and looked more widely at how we could distribute power and control within a new Unlimited structure.

Our Transition Managers helped us discover our new mission and values – which were set, after further interrogation, by the board:

Mission: Unlimited will commission extraordinary work from disabled artists until the whole of the cultural sector does. This work will change and challenge the world.

Values:

  • We are Unlimited
  • We value Equity
  • We value Artists
  • We are Radical

(Watch out for a separate blog this summer unpacking these).

We kept circling back to clarity of focus – how do we define our role, our place? Trying to do too much overstretches staff, confuses audiences, dilutes our activities, and enables the sector to avoid responsibility – and even when there is a gap which needs filling, that doesn’t mean we need or should be the one to fill it!

We’ve always said we are part of the jigsaw and not the whole picture. We’re still working out where all the other pieces are and what the final image might look like.

 

All aBoard

The recruitment process for our board was tough; we weren’t able to appoint all the incredible people we met although some are already connecting with us in different ways. You can read more about the 13 amazing individuals who are on our board and the recruitment process here.

Our board is still technically a ‘board in waiting.’ We’ve taken this time to provide training for the board in Being a Trustee (training by Cause4) and Disability Equality (training by Goss Consultancy). Anna Starkey and myself attended an online version of the Chair/CEO Development day run by Clore Leadership and the Cultural Governance Alliance.

We’ve narrowed down to a couple of options for our Unconscious Bias training and are undertaking a board skills audit to see where our gaps lie.

‘In waiting’ doesn’t mean ‘not working.’ The board have been looking at the organisational structure for the independent Unlimited, where it will be based, what it will deliver, and how it might respond to Arts Council England’s new Investment Principles.

Unlimited will need to make a shift from a programme to an organisational mentality. Programmes tend to have very clear time-based deliverables – in our case, commissioning and supporting as many disabled artists as possible. Organisations need a longer-term view, balancing external delivery with an appropriate internal work culture which will be new territory for us in 2022.

 

(Funding) changes ahead

We have to redevelop our funding model and become more entrepreneurial, as all independent organisations need to build reserves – and as a programme we have none!

Luckily, I’ve gained a place on the Arts Fundraising and Philanthropy Senior Fellowship to brush up my knowledge base – academic and practical – on all things fundraising. For my first assessment last week I completed a PEST(LE), a SWOT, and a whole host more on this transition moment and found some amazing things.

For example, did you know that Arts Council England’s 2018-22 listing of National Portfolio Organisations included 831 NPOs with a budget of £409 million per year, and within that there were 35 disability-led NPOs with a budget £7.029 million a year? This means that currently 4.2% of the portfolio is disability-led with 1.7% of the funds available supporting disability-led organisations.

Thanks to support from the New Infrastructure Programme (National Lotteries Community Fund) we are part of a Design Lab looking at all things data – the law, ethics, access, design, impact and evidence, and more – all feeding in directly as we set up the independent organisation.

 

Changing our (visual) identity

Led by Sam Scott Wood, our Transition Communication consultant, we’ve been working on a new ‘visual identity’ with Honest Studio, and have just started work on our new website with Surface Impression, taking care to ensure both focus on access and aesthetics.

Tailoring these to fit our mission, values and focuses for delivery feels a bit like trying to finish a Rubik’s Cube.

The challenge for us is how to both stay the same and fundamentally change simultaneously. Keeping activity flowing, contracting our new commissions, and maintaining our partnerships within the sector is essential, and at the same time we’ve been imagining a new future structure, determining processes, and developing a fresh working culture. Now that’s like trying to finish a Rubik’s Cube whilst wing-walking in a tornado!

Our team have been amazing, responding to the extra pressure points with their usual calm attention. We’ve a larger team than before, thanks to Rachel and Toni joining us, which enables me to step back a little from the front line and focus on the transition.

 

Keeping on keeping on

Our application to become a Charitable Incorporated Organisation (CIO) is submitted. The whole process was a tough one with a number of ableist challenges baked in – we’ll report more in another separate blog this summer.

We’re applying to Arts Council England to cover the next year of operation (2022-23) and then will apply for NPO funding in the spring, to kick in from 2023 if we are successful. We are also chatting to a range of other funders to find the match funding needed to keep things running. It’s a busy time!

We hadn’t expected to be conducting all the above against the constantly shifting background of Covid-19. For someone like me who thinks via pens, post-it’s, and big pieces of paper, it’s been hard to work intensively on small screens. There have been some gains – it’s been cheaper for sure – but it’s been frustrating and less accessible for some people, and the social side of team building has been tough to substitute online.

We did manage one ‘in person’ trip last year to meet together as a team, in a socially distanced outdoor retreat in the woods, thanks to Wild Rumpus. This month we are having another ‘in person’ team retreat – in Blackpool at the Art B&B, where we have previously co-commissioned a room. Be prepared for a social media feed of fish and chips on the pier, Blackpool rock, post it notes, and, of course, lateral flow tests. Our mission? To tackle all the things on the list to deliver this year and keep preparing for the next!