Two recent unrelated conversations have helped me to understand why it has been so hard to attract new, especially local, donor support for the Museum. It’s been the hardest thing to understand why an organisation that receives so many accolades for its work, and for its attempts to build sustainability, has not been very successful in its fundraising attempts. Delivering shoddy work or a drop in visitor or participant numbers would have made the reasons more credible, but neither of these being the case, it has been worrying and puzzling to say the least.
Neither of the conversations were about the Museum. Both of them were with businesswomen who were reflecting on the challenges of being small business owners.
In the first conversation, Ms A was lamenting the double-edged sword of being a successful business. Such recognition inevitably brought more work (good), required more input (labour, materials- not so good if you don’t have it), required sometimes that you would have to take a cash advance in order to complete the work (not so good), and completing the job successfully meant being in a good position to get more work and keep the team of people employed. But having to pay back the advance or overdraft at the end of the successful project meant that she as business owner occasionally had to forego a salary in order to move forward to the next project. Successful on paper, but the challenge of managing cash flow especially when payments for work were late, could be quite harrowing.
To people involved in business this might not be an unfamiliar scenario, but I had always associated this kind of situation with us non-profit types. Being so dependent on income from either donors, sales or services rendered, cash flow is always under threat when somewhere along the chain of movement, a blockage results in late payment. And not having the financial buffer to absorb such late payments means that much internal negotiations have to take place in order to meet commitments.
I have never quite understood the comfort to be gained from finding others facing similar difficulties because it does not make the problem go away. Possibly the need for human solidarity. Nonetheless, I took such brief comfort from this encounter!
In the second conversation Ms C (I am Ms B!) was reflecting on the single factor that brought projects to an end. The real deal-breaker was not getting the money to do a project. It meant the end of whatever bright idea you had. There was no way aroung that challenge.
This conversation more than the other, illuminated for me what might be one of D6M’s great successes but also challenges: the fact that our work did not end despite having no secure funding. So, what should have been the deal-breaker became the game-changer. I think of this as a success because, well, we’re still here; I think of it as a challenge because we seem to have created the impression that our crisis is over and that straits are not as dire as they seemed – otherwise we would have had to close shop by now.
Behind the scenes though, there is no secure money. We have had to change some of our way of working for the past 18 months or so, and hope to be able to get back to some semblance of the way we were. For example, we had to endure the unpopularity of not being able to offer meeting or event space to anyone who did not have a venue hire budget. It simply was not possible as we are not able to absorb the costs involved in staffing, lighting and securing the buildings after hours. We have had to cut down on partnerships with organisations who could not share some of the financial costs of running programmes. Like many other organisations, we have had to look at cutting expenses- from changing telephone contracts, making some staff positions redundant, and not filling vacanct posts. We have had to concentrate on products as opposed to project and programme outcomes. We have called on our many good friends to assist with skills exchanges and to volunteer their time to assist in areas which are unstaffed. And, very importantly, we have had to convert financial debts owed to staff into debts of gratitude.
A new way of working which has helped us, and I think that going forward, some of these strategies will remain with us by choice rather than necessity. But I am also aware that all debts, even non-financial ones, have a ceiling and cannot be continued as if it an endless tab.
We have managed to stay afloat; we have managed to keep a ‘successful’ programme going despite the financial challenges. But we are experiencing the fallout from the conflation of programmatic success with financial success. Our funding fate has not changed in terms of actual cash in the bank, but some find that hard to believe because I suppose we reflect the accoutrements of being well resourced. And although I believe that the future looks hopeful based on the expressions of support we have received, these are future commitments.Staying afloat and viable between now and that future time over which we have no control, is proving to be a tough road.
Our ‘old’ friends have been great. But we also need some new friends! New friends with new ways of encountering us, and who can believe in a motto which I have adopted: ‘support not sympathy!’