Ruth Davey: Three years of uncertainty in the fundraising landscape

In October this year I will leave my brilliant job as Head of Development & Marketing at the Bush Theatre to move onto my next challenge. I wanted to take this as an opportunity to reflect on my time at the Bush and how the fundraising landscape as a whole has changed since I took up this role in March 2020.

When I agreed my start date it was only interesting because it was the day after my birthday – it would mean less wine than usual for me at the celebrations! But the closer it got, the stranger the time became. Theatres closed on 16th March and everyone went home. On 30th I began as Head of Development from my dining table having never met the people I was managing and having never even seen the office. It was a wild time.

“Income generation is paramount to the future of the arts … Development teams are on the frontline enabling the creative work to continue.”

Early in my career fundraising seemed like something to keep quiet about – there was a divide between the creative work and raising the money for it. However, when theatres closed their doors that all changed and for the first time the messaging was loud and clear; if we don’t get donations we will close forever.

That hasn’t continued in quite the same way but it does feel like there has been a shift. Income generation is paramount to the future of the arts and as the threat of cuts to statutory funding looms Development teams are on the frontline enabling the creative work to continue. And recently it seems the creative teams have started to realise this – strategies are changing and Development minds are finally becoming an important part of future decision making in the arts.

The Bush was very fortunate in the most recent Arts Council NPO round as we received a small uplift in our funding. Of course in real terms it was still a decrease because of inflation rates, however, we were in a very different boat to some of our peers.

Where we are sometimes less fortunate is with the other income streams and a lot of this is down to the inherent risk of being a new writing venue. New writing is often seen as ‘risky’ and offers supporters an unknown. While some find this exciting and see it as the whole reason for the arts – to be in the room as something new is happening – others want to know what they’re getting. We can say ‘hey look {famous person} started their career at the Bush, you could be seeing the next big thing’ but what they really want is to see the current big thing! It’s a challenge for sure.

“The pandemic changed many things and in the world of fundraising… sometimes it feels as though Trusts and Corporate donors are battening down the hatches and leaving arts organisations out in the cold.”

Instead we lean on story-telling. Telling stories is one of the oldest human activities; sitting around a fire sharing stories is not that different to sitting in an auditorium waiting to hear the story on the stage. At the Bush our Development team is rarely able to leverage famous names but we can tell a great story of how our work will change the theatre industry, how the artists we discover will go on to populate other theatres as well as TV and film and how we are changing the narrative and opening up the arts for people who historically face barriers. It’s a true story and because of it our supporters are fiercely loyal and passionate about what the Bush stands for.

The pandemic changed many things and in the world of fundraising it has predominantly impacted Trusts & Foundation funding as well as Corporate funding. For years Trusts & Foundation support was the safe backbone of a theatre’s income but now it seems decidedly less sturdy. There has been a drastic reduction in core funding offers and even those bellwether trusts we thought we could rely on are changing their criteria for core funding and directing it away from ACE National Portfolio Organisations. While their decision is completely understandable it does leave many of us with holes in our forecasts – being an NPO doesn’t mean you have enough money to run the theatre after all. Other Trusts have paused grants altogether and some are reducing the value of each grant they give. Of course some Trusts are life-saving in their understanding of the pressure we are currently facing but unfortunately they are the exception, rather than the rule.

At the Bush we have been very lucky (I will also take some of the credit for that luck…) and have secured a couple of big chunks of unrestricted support that give us time and space to figure out what happens next. Not everyone will be so lucky this year and I wonder what will be lost from organisational budgets. Community work? Work with new and exciting artists? Possibly both.

I worry about the organisations who don’t have the buffer of good reserves or the resources to be re-strategising and increasing the number of applications being written and conversations being had. I’m not sure everyone will make it through to the other side and sometimes it feels as though Trusts and Corporate donors are battening down the hatches and leaving arts organisations out in the cold to fend for themselves.

“I will leave the Bush grateful for all I’ve learned”

Over a decade in Development has taught me that fundraisers are (as a rule) scrappy, and we have shown ourselves to be extremely nimble over the last few years. Development will evolve and we will find ways to make sure the work can continue. My time at the Bush has taught me that amazing people always find a way to make amazing work and they don’t let budgets get in their way! In the last year the Bush has won ALL the awards, including The Stage’s Theatre of the Year, and we’ve done it with low low budgets and no wiggle room.

I will leave the Bush grateful for all I’ve learned and knowing I leave the new team with strong supporter relationships, core funding in the bank and a healthy looking 23/24.

Ruth Davey will become Development Director at Headlong from October. The deadline for applications for Head of Development at the Bush Theatre is 4th September. Find out more and apply here.