Cuts to government funding doesnt have to mean #LightsOutNI
Here, Building Change Trust Director of Operations Nigel McKinney gives his view on why cuts to government funding doesn't have to mean the end for events like Culture Night.
On Monday and Tuesday of this week I worked with the Chairperson of Building Change Trust to facilitate 2 roundtable discussions on the subject of social finance in Northern Ireland, social finance being the provision of finance to voluntary and community organisations or social enterprises to create a positive social impact while also generating an economic return.
At these roundtables the issue of the cuts to the Northern Ireland Tourist Board Tourism Events Fund was a topic of much debate and discussion. 2 views were shared in respect of the impact on the most high profile event – Culture Night Belfast – which has been to the fore in campaigning for the reinstatement of the fund.
Firstly, it is inconceivable that government would put in jeopardy an event which contributes up to £2.5 million to the economy for the want of £30,000.
Secondly, it was equally inconceivable that an event that claimed such contribution needed any grant aid at all.
Many of us round the table believed what is needed was an examination of, and changes, to the business model to enable more income to be generated.
Perhaps some of the upfront costs could be met by affordable, repayable finance from a social lender.
We are not talking about saddling the organisation with debt, but rather looking for an affordable model by which these events can sustain themselves in the long term.
A tourism events fund is surely valuable and necessary in that it can facilitate new, creative events to be tried out on an ongoing basis and I’m not arguing that such a fund is not needed.
However, is it not incumbent upon the events and organisations funded to consider their own sustainability?
Should they not consider if and how they can become self-financing and allow public funds to be used to seed fund what might become the next big thing?
The Trust has been working in and developing its knowledge of social finance for some time, and indeed in its original 2010-2013 strategy set out that “now and in the future the (VCSE) sector will operate in a time of reduced and constrained funding and that innovation and changes in funding and financing arrangements are both inevitable and desirable”.
The reduction and change in funding have been taking place; the heady days of the Peace I and II programmes are now far behind us and the input of government funding to the sector is switching from mainly grant aid to contracts for service delivery.
These changes will not be reversed.
Organisations in the sector can either continue to hope to rely on traditional models of funding or seek to further diversify income streams by a combination of earned income including contracts , grant funding and of course fund raising.
Many organisations are capable of making this transition and can access the repayable finance that is quite often necessary to enable development, expansion and new forms of service delivery to take place.
However, not all can and it is in this context that the Trust has been arguing that resources are needed in Northern Ireland to enable a more coordinated approach to supporting organisations to become more entrepreneurial and to consider using repayable finance to achieve social benefits. Hand in hand with this, experimentation is needed with different forms of repayable finance beyond the simple secured loan generally for capital expenditure, important though that is.
Back to the Tourism Events Fund, beyond cutting the funding, the truly short sighted action by the NITB in the Events Fund debacle is that it hasn’t sought to invest in working with the funded organisations to explore their sustainability.
What changes to their business models might be needed, how they might generate income from activity whilst still achieving social impact and how they might become investment ready to enable a social lender to meet the upfront of other development costs for their activities?
Why hasn’t work been done on what transitional funding arrangements - such as grant/loan hybrid financing - might be useful, or what alternative financing might be available?
But the funded organisations surely aren’t without blame in this either.
Is it really #LightsOutNI for some of the most inventive, creative events and activities in the country organised and delivered by the most creative and passionate people?
Organising a campaign to secure reinstatement of a fund is one thing but the really creative response surely is to also honestly look inwardly and consider what can be done differently and what can be done better?