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Why re.volution, and a theory of change as we set off

I’ve been lucky enough to work with Mission Models Money for some years now, in a number of ways –most recently as an associate. Their thinking has been instrumental in leading me to the considerations of cultural and broader ecologies that are reflected in my writing about adaptive resilience. Founder Clare Cooper is one of the most optimistic collapsitarians you are ever likely to meet, with energy to match her urgency.

So when I was asked to draw out the learning from the MMM pilot programme  ‘re-evolver’, and then to work on designing a peer learning network which could, ultimately, reconfigure the ways the sector meets its organisation development needs, I was pleased to get involved. It was absolutely what I’m up for: intellectually and politically challenging, as well as a stretching and stimulating creative task working with a great team of people,  – and with the potential for large-scale impact on the long-standing issues I felt I had grappled with during my time as a funder. How best to support people to be sustainable and culturally thrilling? How best to intervene? What’s best left to the sector itself?

The pilot programme brought 8 leaders together and worked through many creases in the idea of a network of leaders which would work on individual, organisational and sectoral issues through a spirit of mutuality – peers giving and getting. On one hand, it’s very simple, on the other, complex and rich but also deceptively hard to deliver.

The more we worked on it, the more I became convinced that re.volution, as it became known, has the power of a simple idea to tie together a number of MMM’s previous strands, including The People Theme and Capital Matters. The network has been designed to help people solve the problems of trying to do too much, with too little, too often on their own. It might, by doing that, just have the system wide effect we need.

Here’s our ‘theory of change’ in summary:

‘A peer learning network of leaders in the arts and cultural sector can develop the confidence, competencies, qualities and attributes needed to renew mission, reconfigure business model and revise approaches to money. They can provide, with appropriate experts from beyond the network, the insight to tackle urgent and long-term challenges, through learning opportunities including mentoring, peer support, on-line learning and face to face events. This will gradually build into a critical mass of leaders who will affect their own and other organisations and the sector as a whole, leading to measurable impact on reducing overextension and undercapitalisation across the sector and a radical, sustainable, reconfiguration of how business support and organisational development can be offered.’

Like all theories of change, it’s debatable and time (a long time for many aspects!) will tell how close reality sticks to it. Two bold funders have backed this vision so far, in the shape of Creative Scotland and Arts Council England. Not only have they invested in re.volution, they have been involved along the way in its co-design, given the importance of funder-behaviour to many of the aspects of the current and future ecology, so many thanks to them.

This is an experiment – as I say, time will tell to what extent it works, and we will of course adapt as we learn along the way. But we do need new ways of going at the wicked problems of over-extension and under-capitalisation in the cultural sector, so why not start with the people? It will be exciting finding out: as one peer in the pilot said  ‘It’s quite refreshing to do something that’s quite hard.’

Mark Robinson*


*Mark Robinson runs Thinking Practice. He founded the company when he left Arts Council England after 10 years. Mark was Executive Director of Arts Council England, North East, from 2005-2010. Before that, he was Director, Arts & Development, having been Head of Film, Media and Literature at Northern Arts since 2000, where he was instrumental in the creation of Northern Film & Media. He writes regularly about arts strategy and policy on the Thinking Practice blog. This follows in the footsteps of his groundbreaking Arts Counselling blog. (Groundbreaking in that no one else from the Arts Council dared to write in that way.)

He was previously Director of Arts & Humanities at the Centre for Lifelong Learning, University of Durham (1999-2000) where he researched and published on poetry, literature and education, arts and health, and community development. As Director of Cleveland Arts (1993-99) he set up the Teesside Arts in Education agency, amongst a wide variety of initiatives. Prior to this he worked as a freelance writer, literature development worker, writer-in-residence in a prison, directed the Writearound Festival and was an award-winning Head Chef in vegetarian catering.

Mark is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts. He is also a widely published poet and critic. His most recent publication is A Balkan Exchange: 8 British and Bulgarian Poets (Arc 2007), the result of a long collaboration between North East England and Bulgaria. A Bulgarian translation of new work will appear in 2011. For 10 years he edited Scratch poetry magazine and press. In 2000 a film featuring one of his poems won a Regional Royal Television Society award.


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