Last week, the RSA and Bank of America Merrill Lynch hosted a research roundtable with corporate funders of arts and cultural learning to explore how they currently support their grantees to continuously improve practice. Here is what we found.
The roundtable was part of the RSA’s Learning about Culture programme, which aims to build a stronger evidence base for cultural learning and support schools and cultural organisations to use that evidence, as well as evidence from their own work and elsewhere, to continuously improve their practice.
We recognise that cultural learning is supported by a complex system of relationships: between schools and cultural organisations; and between both of these and their respective governmental departments, funders, professional associations, and so on. All of these parties have a role to play in ensuring that every child has access to high-quality cultural learning.
This roundtable focused in particular on the relationship between corporate funders of cultural learning and their grantees. Representatives in attendance from Bank of America Merrill Lynch, Deutsche Bank, Sky, Linklaters, BP, Boster Group and Credit Suisse unanimously agreed that it was useful to meet with their counterparts – something they don’t usually have the chance to do. They welcomed the opportunity to share current practice and think together about what more they could be doing.
The roundtable allowed for an open discussion about the context in which Corporate Social Responsibility teams are working. They need to demonstrate, to their organisational leadership, the return on investment from the grants they make. Sometimes, this is defined in terms of brand recognition and the number of media mentions, and often because grants aren’t only for learning programmes, the focus may be on measuring the number of participants reached, rather than learning or developmental outcomes.
However, CSR managers working with grantees every day see that cultural learning projects are contributing to children and young people developing a wide range of skills and knowledge, and they are fascinated to learn more about how these are developed. They are particularly interested in the contribution of cultural learning to development of ‘soft skills’ that are valuable for employability and life more broadly.
Given this, there are some key opportunities for corporates to support the evidence-rich practice agenda that Learning About Culture is seeking to instil:
CSR Managers can draw on skills within their organisations to support evaluation and learning.
In addition to providing valuable funding, corporate organisations can draw on the skills of employees to support grantees around evaluation and learning. Contributing in this way could form part of their annual allocation of volunteering days. However, it seemed from our conversations that when employees are involved in volunteering with cultural partners, their involvement often isn’t focused on supporting grantees around evaluation.
We know of cases both in this group and elsewhere where using employee skills to support evaluation does work really effectively. We heard about one business that sent members of marketing staff to support a grantee to capture case studies through focus groups and interviews. Similarly, we looked at a case study from another organisation where a team of analysts carried out a cost benefit analysis of a cultural learning project. In doing so, they supported this organisation to learn more about the contribution its work makes to society.
CSR leads are looking for guidance on what good looks like in evaluation and learning.
The attendees spoke about the trust they have in their grantees’ efficacy to do good evaluation and learning. However, as our discussions developed, questions started to be raised about how CSR teams can identify strong evidence.
“No-one has ever taught us to evaluate”
This statement from one roundtable participant met with agreement from around the table. Attendees started to ask how they could develop their knowledge of evaluation and learning. How do you establish baseline measurement? What are the relative strengths of different evaluation methods? What tools can be used beyond surveys to avoid bias?
It is really encouraging that CSR Managers have a real enthusiasm for developing their skills in this area and doing that in a collaborative way with their counterparts from other organisations.
There is a desire for more honest conversations about what isn’t working.
The CSR managers present at the roundtable noted that they often hear what is going well from grantees in their reporting, but that they don’t hear about what is going wrong.
They would be keen to have these open conversations so that they can offer support where it is needed. There was a recognition from the group that some grantees will fear funding being cut if things aren’t working as planned, but a sense that they really are committed to the organisations they support, and this transparency would only strengthen relationships.
One attendee who was able to have these open conversations with a grantee discovered that they were facing a challenge in trying to give the most disadvantaged children opportunities to visit their art gallery because they were uncomfortable with the new environment. The CSR manager realised that another of their grantees worked with an older youth cohort who could be trained as “near peer” mentors to support the children to feel comfortable to visit, and learn in, this new space. In this case, the commitment of their grantee to continuously improving their programme and the opportunities offered for the CSR team to be a part of that journey are strong motivators to continue the partnership.
Improvement of cultural learning has to be a shared endeavour between corporate funders and their cultural partners. For this to be truly successful, there is a need for a new contract between corporate funders of the arts and cultural organisations. Within this, the roundtable participants highlighted a few first steps that CSR teams could usefully take:
1. Identify and deploy the skills they have in their organisations that will help grantees become evidence-rich organisations.
2. Develop their knowledge of evaluation methods and tools in order to have more effective conversations with their grantees about evaluation.
3. Explore how to incorporate children’s learning and developmental outcomes into return on investment measures and raise awareness across their organisations of the limitations of solely using participation numbers as a measure of success.
4. Communicate to grantees their interest in supporting evaluation and learning including learning from what isn’t going well, being clear that this isn’t a threat to the continuity of funding, but rather would support it.
The RSA and Bank of America Merrill Lynch will continue to explore how best to support corporates that are committed to making these next steps.
For more information on the programme and how you can be involved, email firstname.lastname@example.org