Northern Soul and People’s Powerhouse are continuing our partnership to share good new stories about businesses, people and communities coming together in the North of England during the COVID-19 crisis. As the country begins to loosen lockdown restrictions, we’re talking to Northerners doing excellent work across the region.
This week, we chat to Hannah Mason, senior project manager at Prosper North, a free business support programme backed by the National Lottery Heritage Fund. Aimed at cultural heritage organisations in the North of England, Creative United helps organisations planning for post-lockdown recovery.
Northern Soul: Tell us about Creative United and Prosper North.
Hannah Mason: Creative United is an entrepreneurial community interest company that provides sector specific support to the arts, cultural and creative industries through a range of programmes and business services. Our vision is for artists, creative enterprises and cultural organisations to have access to the specialist skills, professional advice and services they need to achieve their ambitions for growth and impact within their communities.
Prosper North is a free business support programmed specially aimed at cultural heritage organisations in the North of England and is funded by the National Lottery Heritage Fund and delivered in partnership with Key Fund, Bates Wells and Social Investment Business. The programme started in 2019 and to date has supported 55 cultural heritage organisations which range from museums – People’s History Museum, Manchester – to festivals – Huddersfield Literature Festival.
We have now launched applications for the final edition of the programme which will work with 30 cultural heritage organisations to become more resilient businesses, covering subjects such as trading as a social enterprise, business modelling and social investment.
NS: How has the focus changed during lockdown?
While the overall aim of the programme hasn’t altered, it will now also directly address the challenging times faced by the sector due to the pandemic and we will specifically address business planning within the context of post-lockdown recovery.
Like most organisations, we have had to pivot our work online and now our bespoke 1:1 support, workshops and meetings take place via zoom meetings and webinar. Of course, it’s a shame that we can’t all be meeting in person, but one of the plus sides is that we’ve found travel across the region hasn’t been a hinderance for organisations so they can benefit from the full breadth of the programme.
NS: What issues are being faced by cultural heritage organisations during the COVID-19 pandemic? How will they be able to recover from having to close their doors?
HM: Like many sectors, the lack of people entering their premises has had a devastating effect on many cultural heritage organisations. Thankfully, we are seeing these restrictions lifting but most organisations will struggle to manage financially if they cannot function at their previous capacity due to social distancing and will need to be able to ensure the health and safety of their customers first and foremost.
There is a fear that the funding landscape, which the sector is heavily reliant on, might be more challenging if there is a greater need for it but less to go around. The sector is also underpinned by the work of freelancers who have readily brought their breadth of knowledge and expertise where needed and this may no longer be so easy as we have seen many freelancers shutting down their practices due to economic difficulties. Redundancies across the board may also reduce the capacity of cultural heritage organisations, so recruiting more volunteers to provide products and services will be essential but challenging.
NS: What positive change does Prosper North hope to put into place?
HM: Working to ensure and support the accessibility, sustainability and resilience of the cultural and creative industries is at the core of the work that we do, and it has never been more crucial. If as a heritage organisation you provide training, education and participation opportunities for your local community; or a safe, inclusive space to experience art and culture, or improve well-being and reduce isolation for local and diverse communities, or safeguard and promote local stories and heritage, then we are looking for you.
NS: For those interested in applying, how does the process work?
HM: The application process can be found on our website and once an organisation passes the eligibility quiz, they will be asked for more detailed information such as services, audience, mission and vision, financial position, investment need, etc. Organisations that are chosen for the final edition of the programme will then benefit from a bespoke tailored programme that works around their needs and wants and harnesses our pool of talented business advisors. For the time being, this will continue to be conducted online. If anything, we hope to provide a supportive and guiding hand for cultural organisations as they navigate this unprecedented set of circumstances.
NS: Has there been an increase in requests for support and advice?
HM: As we’ve been conducting our current edition of the programme online, we’ve seen an increase in participation from the entire staff of organisations we are working with, not just the senior management team which has been really fantastic to see. We’ve also seen an increase in peer-to-peer support on the programme, which was already there but has definitely heightened during these times. The Prosper North programme is already oversubscribed and so, we may see a rush on applications for this final edition considering the circumstances.
NS: What are the greatest concerns faced in this sector, particularly in the North, during this crisis?
HM: From our conversations with organisations within the sector, there are several concerns that have been raised. Firstly, many cater to an ageing audience or have an ageing volunteer workforce that are key to their running. In the current health climate, it could impact their ability to come back to venues and buildings either as visitors or workers.
Regarding workforces, many organisations have loyal staff who they mad need to make redundant to break even; being able to do this fairly and with dignity will be a worry for many. Many are concerned about the future funding landscape and how the economic downturn will affect their sponsors and philanthropic donations – will money be directed back to big institutions in the South?
Further to this, there are concerns over depleted financial reserves in the face of potential local lockdowns, which seem more likely in the North of England due to areas of deprivation being hardest hit during the pandemic.
NS: So, what steps can be put into place to ensure the sector is resilient?
HM: This pandemic has been an opportunity for leaders to analyse the purpose of their work and measure their social impacts. They are predicting a shortfall in traditional funding, so they need to diversify income so they can adapt to micro and macro changes in the economic environment. They need to represent their communities better with equality, diversity and inclusion and they will need to embed these changes throughout the organisations, which will impact the success of the wider sector.
Alongside our tailored programme, Prosper North also really offers collaboration and peer support. It has become a very tight knit community of organisations, relying on each other for new ideas and shared learning. We believe that with a connected and collaborative sector in the North of England, there is the opportunity for us to work together to bring each other back from this.
NS: How do you think cultural organisations, particularly in the North, will fare during and after the current crisis? What needs to be done to best support these places?
HM: We believe that no matter what people still want to be able to access high quality cultural experiences, but with reluctance to travel far or frequently, this means that having great arts organisations on your doorstep, or even in your homes, will be incredibility important. This will hopefully show the demand and place the focus on having a thriving and accessible local cultural heritage sector on a wider funding and policy level as we emerge from lockdown.
NS: How can our readers help/get involved?
HM: At the moment, supporting your local cultural heritage organisations in any way you feel most comfortable is crucial. Whether that be buying membership, attending online events or offering your time to volunteer, we can all do our small bit together to ensure their survival during these trying times.
If you’d like to find out if you’re eligible for application, check out the website for more information about the programme. There’s an online briefing on July 22 if you have any questions before the August 3 deadline.
Main image: West Yorkshire Print Workshop.