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governance News

Our first new, workshop-style board meeting

How do we make world-changing art which is relevant to the real world and doesn’t shy away from the issues affecting communities we work with, whilst ensuring that we keep within the legal restrictions relating to charities and political campaigning?

That was the question under discussion in the first board meeting following our new workshop format.

(Backstory: we recently came up with a new plan for our board meetings and governance because boards need to change – and we wanted to be able to include lots of different perspectives in our board meetings.)

How it went

I opened up the Zoom call and started letting people in: a combination of our formal trustees and the guest participants who wanted to join this workshop session.

As the screen began to fill up, I genuinely had tingles of excitement – not something you usually associate with a charity board meeting!

Over the course of the meeting, we heard from artists, lawyers, producers and trustees. This was a room full of fantastic people. People generously shared their own experiences: of the police turning up at their show, of changing legislation through theatre, of being censored by their government, of being asked to tone down their work, being asked to make it ‘less political’.

We talked a lot about the big things – if you aren’t engaging with the real world and people’s experiences then what is the arts even for? – and about the more specific things – how does ‘education’ function as a charitable object in this context, for example?


Below are our notes from the session, which we’re sharing for anyone who might want to use them. We’ll be using this to write up our staff and board procedures for how we create and manage work which could be considered political. 

A massive thank you to everyone who joined us in this new venture and who so openly shared their experiences – we really value it.

We’ll be hosting workshops in future on different topics. If you’d like to be kept up to date, let us know.

Notes and actions

Framing question

We believe that failing to engage with the challenges of today’s society isn’t apolitical. Saying nothing is not a ‘neutral’ position. It’s an active choice to maintain the status quo and the privileged which that status quo serves.

It’s true that charities have legal obligations about avoiding party politics – but this is something else. This is the word ‘politics’ being weaponised to attack charities that are engaging with the real world.

Over the next year, Strike A Light will be supporting artists and communities making work about food banks, the climate emergency and Black history.

Is it possible to do this without being ‘political’? Or should we just stage plays about the upper middle classes, written by dead white men? Is that less ‘political’?

Participant comments

  • Art is about sharing stories and sharing experiences, and it responds to the world around us. Therefore it will always include current events, people’s opinions, reflect society and to brand this as political in its own right is inaccurate. 
  • Charities are not able to undertake political campaigning unless it supports their charitable purposes – and such campaigning cannot be the continuing and sole activity of the charity (official guidance here). For many arts charities their purposes are related to promoting the arts and/or education, rather than specific social or political causes.
  • It’s important to separate ‘political’ themes and actual political campaigning – the latter is only allowed for charities in some specific instances. The former often gets branded as campaigning but it isn’t. Engaging with social justice or social change could be branded as political activity or it could be about an organisation’s responsibility to the communities it serves, about equality, human rights or simply relevance in their work.
  • Partnering with a campaigning body or organisation that does have a remit or purposes related to the cause can be a way of enabling the campaigning work without it being led by the arts charity. Academics or organisations with a policy remit will have expertise and knowledge that can drive this process, with conversation and public engagement facilitated by the arts activity. 
  • Co-creating with the communities that the topic directly affects, using verbatim theatre or asking the audience for their suggestions/ perceptions, means that as the arts charity you are providing the creative facilitation for the conversation but it’s not the views of the charity that are being presented. The charity themselves are not actively campaigning so this can be a way of managing risk as well as ensuring the work is authentic.
  • Nervousness and risk-averse messages often come from venues and funders and very often from within the arts e.g. not external censorship of an artistic product but a risk-averse culture which stifles it. For example, venues won’t programme something out of fear of local authority funding being pulled or unspecific fears that it might ‘cause trouble’. For example, conferences asking for less ‘political’ work because they are concerned about a Charity Commission investigation etc. 
  • Do your research and explore what the real risk is – for example, what really counts as defamation of character. Just expressing a negative opinion about an individual’s conduct isn’t defamation. There may be occasions where it is appropriate to speak unwelcome truths to achieve change. Conversations with funders and venues in advance help determine the actual risk of funding being withdrawn. If funding was withdrawn what are the alternatives, is your reputation strong enough to withstand it etc. Is it actual risk or perceived risk?
  • We talked a lot about balancing risk and ‘walking the tightrope’.
  • Funding that is tied to central government funding is more at risk of being allocated or withdrawn in response to government policy
  • Some organisations who want to explicitly campaign on government policy will choose a legal structure which allows for this or establish a separate campaigning organisation linked to the charity. 
  • You can create processes around a show to allow a space to air things that you might not be able to say publicly, so that you’re not closing down that dialogue for participants. Or you could signpost to action people can take outside the show – again the arts organisation is a creative facilitator not the campaign vehicle. Think about the provocation to the audience and plan this into the project.
  • Be clever and well-researched if you’re engaging with individual politicians and policies: know the action you’re trying to achieve and why. If you’re trying to affect change, what is the best way of doing that? That’s not necessarily by making political statements in the script of a show. 
  • Index on Censorship have some great resources for arts organisation and give clear guidance on topics where there is an existing legal framework, for example Obscene Publications, Counter Terrorism or Public Order.
  • Have open discussions from the outset, look after the people involved in your project and your staff, prepare for the emotional toll and put in support mechanisms.
  • The way you run your organisation and how you use your resources could in themselves be ways of affecting social change. It doesn’t always have to be about an artwork provoking change. The arts are robust when they have a civic role and they matter to people. That can be about who’s at the table, who gets a platform, challenging barriers to access, providing opportunities for creativity etc.
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governance News Past Opportunities Uncategorized

Workshop board session: the arts, charity and politics

Listen to an audio transcription of this page

How do we make world-changing art which is relevant to the real world and doesn’t shy away from the issues affecting communities we work with – whilst at the same time ensuring that we work within the legal restrictions relating to charities and political campaigning?


Charities and arts organisations are coming under fire for being “too political”. But we believe that failing to engage with the challenges of today’s society isn’t apolitical. Saying nothing is not a ‘neutral’ position. It’s an active choice to maintain the status quo and the privileged which that status quo serves.


Why workshop sessions?

Earlier this year, we outlined our new approach to our governance: how decisions are made about how Strike A Light is run, and how we could make sure that more voices were heard in this

Like a lot of arts organisations, Strike A Light is a charity and so our board of trustees meet regularly throughout the year to oversee, advise and support the running of the organisation. We want to open up this process and have written a couple of blogs about why we think change is vital for us and across the sector. 

In short, we will move the primary focus of our governance activity to workshops rather than board meetings – where artists, communities and industry work alongside board members to directly influence and support Strike A Light’s approach. 

We’re making this happen and our first workshop will be taking place on Tuesday 20 July at 1pm – focusing on arts, charities and politics. 

Rather than a single, static board who feel they have to drive the strategy and make decisions on every topic, this arrangement provides dynamic support and skills for the governance of Strike A Light.


We’ll be doing a workshop on a different topic every three months and each different workshop will involve quite different groups of people. 

There will be a combination of trustees, freelancers, arts professionals, professionals from other industries, community members and artists.
The size, make-up and dynamics of each group will change to best reflect the workshop topic. 

  • Workshop attendees can be paid for their time. We know there’s an issue with asking freelancers, artists etc to put in unpaid time. After the workshop you can invoice us for £75 towards your time. Alternatively you can choose to donate your time as a trustee would. You don’t need to tell us which you’re opting for – just send us an invoice afterwards, or don’t. 
  • There’s flexibility to the time commitment. You might attend future workshops too if you feel you can contribute to several topics, but equally you might just attend the one workshop that’s your bag. 
  • Workshop formats can vary to suit attendees and topic e.g. we can do one small group discussion or a structured activity with breakout sessions etc. 
  • Options for digital or hybrid meetings give much greater opportunities to work with people from across the country or even internationally. We’re planning this first workshop on zoom. If you’re local to Gloucester and would prefer to meet in person for a chat on the topic or would prefer a one to one phone call we can do that too.

We hope theses sessions will also give people an opportunity to find out more about how the Strike A Light board works, meet trustees and demystify the governance process.

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governance News

Changing charity leadership #2: who can lead?

This is the second in a short series of rants and resolutions about why charity boards/governance structures are often a pale imitation of what they should be, and what we intend to do to change that.

‘Decisions are made by those who [are able to] show up’

This time, we’ll look at how the practicalities of board membership and logistics can stop them from functioning well.


Common problems of building a board

Collect the whole set

We’ve all seen it happen: what starts out as the crucial responsibility of assembling a diverse, relevant board ends up being reduced to a game of Pokemon (‘gotta catch em all!’)…

‘We need to get a finance person, a marketing person, an artist, a disabled person, a beneficiary, a person of colour, a young person – oh and better make sure there’s some women and someone with friends in high places in there, too…’

How, in a setup like that, are people supposed to feel any more than tokenistic?

Big responsibility, little support

Moreover, typical charity governance structures ask a huge amount from trustees, which impacts on who sits on boards and how they function.

Being a trustee generally requires you to:

  • have lots of free time
  • be able to take on unpaid work
  • be comfortable with legal responsibility, corporate and charity speak
  • provide specialist skills

You’re trying to find people willing to give up their time for free – people who are confident in a board room setting, reading and commenting on business plans and cash flows, and happy to take on ultimate financial and legal responsibility for a complex organisation.

Giving up time for free becomes particularly problematic if you’re asking freelance artists, or asking beneficiaries when you have a focus on people living in areas of socio-economic deprivation.

It’s also not OK asking people who have experienced racism to join your board just to help improve diversity in your organisation. Free labour to improve a systematically racist industry, sitting within a systematically racist governance structure? No thank you.

Local vs national

For Strike A Light, one other consideration is that we are very much a Gloucester-based organisation: we need to ensure we are listening to and answerable to local residents, beneficiaries, audiences and artists. 

At the same time, we have developed rapidly as an organisation and we need support from industry professionals in fundraising, finance and advocacy at a national level. 


Bringing it all together

Trying to include all of these people and then expect them to all be at the same meetings, covering an agenda that is required to be primarily about oversight and due diligence, does not make the most of people’s time and skills.

Recruiting new trustees is a challenge; bring together a diverse, representative group of people who can be/do all of these things, understand Strike A Light, have a commitment to the work we do, are interested in Gloucester… 

Cold calling and open calls haven’t worked for us – there needs to be a relationship and a way of making sure it’s the right fit on both sides.

All of which is why we’ve come up with a shiny new governance plan

Categories
governance News

Changing charity leadership #1: activism, the arts and politics

This is the first of a short series of rants and resolutions about why charity boards/governance structures are often a pale imitation of what they should be, and what we intend to do to change that.


Why it matters

Boards should be a big deal. In theory, they’re about the leadership of an entire organisation:

  • they set the tone for a charity’s direction and running
  • they continually push the operation, challenging it to do everything it can to fulfil its stated purpose
  • they represent the communities the charity is working with, and make sure its work is actually serving the intended beneficiaries

In theory. But, too often, boards don’t live up to this billing – instead becoming just a managerial tickbox exercise, to make sure the quota of meetings is met and the accounts get filed on time.

We want to do better.

We’re lucky to have a supportive board who are working with us to do this. They’re not the typical “male, pale and stale” board – but they want to do more, and so do we. Because it’s in everyone’s interest for charities to have strong boards and governance.


‘We don’t do politics’

Let’s start by looking at the problem of quiet, passive, non-disruptive, don’t-rock-the-boat governance – and why that’s about to become an even bigger issue in the UK.

The Ministry of Silence

‘If you want to improve lives through charity, leave political fights out of it, writes Charity Commission chair BARONESS STOWELL’

The Daily Mail, 28 November 2020

There is currently a big push to ‘manage’ what charities say and/or emphasise in their work.

In the past couple of days, this agenda has been spelled out painfully, shamefully openly by the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, Oliver Dowden:

Now, it’s true that charities have legal obligations about avoiding party politics – but this is something else. This is the word ‘politics’ being weaponised to attack charities that are engaging with the real world, accusing them of “starting culture wars about ‘wokedom’”.


Keep calm and stroke my ego

There’s a call for the bygone era of Victorian style charitable giving, where donating to the poor and needy gave a warm glow to those upper class philanthropists. Like Ebenezer Scrooge giving a turkey to the Cratchit family, immediately making up for all those years of forced evictions and extortionate rents for slums. 

The message is basically “don’t question anything the government does, don’t look at the root causes of why your charity has to exist, and whatever you do, don’t mention Britain’s colonial past”.

The fallacy of ‘neutrality’

But here’s the thing: not engaging with the challenges of today’s society isn’t apolitical. It’s not a ‘neutral’ position. It’s an active choice to maintain the status quo and the privileged which it serves.


Telling inconvenient truths

The arts are about telling stories, engaging with people, and exploring and reflecting the human experience. The stories which get heard, who tells them and what they say, will be political – not like ‘vote for Lord Buckethead!’ party political, but political because they will unavoidably touch on questions of how we live and act as a society.

Over the next year, Strike A Light will be supporting artists and communities making work about food banks, the climate emergency and Black history.

Is it possible to do this without being ‘political’? Or should we just stage plays about the upper middle classes, written by dead white men? Is that less ‘political’?

It doesn’t even matter how much substance you cut out from your content, how many ‘touchy issues’ you avoid or how vacuous you make your material: the very act of choosing which stories to tell is itself political. You will always be centring, normalising or privileging one experience over another.

Find us a story that isn’t political. We promise you, it doesn’t exist.


Contradictory demands

AND ANOTHER THING! As if this effort to favourably ‘control the narrative’ weren’t bad enough already, it’s also directly contradictory to other demands also being made of arts charities.

In the 2020 New Year’s Eve fireworks display, the UK watched a sea turtle made of drones swimming through the sky – even as we failed to meet any of our 2020 carbon emission targets.

We paid lip service to Black Lives Matter in the same year that DCMS told cultural organisations that if they want to be funded they should steer clear of talking about “contested heritage”

The Charity Commission can’t say to charities in their annual public meeting that they want to involve people from more diverse backgrounds and then a month later publish an article where they ask charities to pretend racism doesn’t exist.

Except that’s exactly what the Commission did.

This means there’s a fundamental disconnect between public messaging and the structures and funding that accompany them. How can you as an organisation genuinely commit to addressing climate change or lack of diversity – things we are repeatedly asked to do by government funders – without addressing the structures which create those problems and which perpetuate them? Complicit silence is not apolitical.

These are the most significant, pressing issues of our time. Life is political and if charities are to exist in and be relevant to society and fulfil their charitable aims for the public benefit then they must engage with the public and with society and therefore with politics. 

A plan to change the system of industry leadership

We believe if you want things to change, the system has to change – and the leadership in the industry has to change. 

So we’re going to try something different with our governance.

We’re cooking up a new plan. One where you can get involved with Strike A Light governance without a long term commitment, share your skills and ideas, find out more about how the board works and get paid for your time in a workshop format.

We’re focusing on different topics each time and the first we want to tackle is arts charities and politics. 

How do we support artists and communities to make work which is about the world around us, which isn’t afraid to question and challenge, whilst working within the legal requirements of the charity structure regarding politics? 

Over the year we’ll also be looking at finance and fundraising, and what a cultural programme driven by artists and communities could and should look like. 

Get involved

We’ve drafted and shared a plan for how we’re going to change our governance structures.

If you’re interested in being part of this exploration and sharing your ideas and experience to support Strike A Light to achieve its charitable aims, we’d love to hear from you.