Working Together: SSOs in Action

The Audience Agency CEO, Anne Torreggiani, lays out her plans for bigger better sector support and invites collaboration with fellow Sector Support Organisations.

Until recently, The Audience Agency’s work – especially the Audience Finder data and audience development programme – has been funded through hard-to-navigate competitive funding programmes. As of April, however, we became one of 58 Sector Support Organisations, or SSOs.

I’ve long argued that support organisations should be evaluated and funded in a different way from frontline cultural producers. So this is great news - on a practical self-centred level, it means we can make bold and confident long-term plans. But thinking more widely, I believe that this enlightened new investment in support agencies is key to the resilience of the sector, heralding new opportunities to work in a more focused and collaborative way.

One of our strengths as a sector is that it is made up of a great diversity of small, distinctive and light-footed organisations. But it is also a weakness, as it puts great pressure on small teams with limited resources to cover so many bases. In short, it’s hard to scale, and hard to invest in change. This thinking chimes with the views of the sector leaders who took part in our recent research for ACE on organisational resilience (look out for the full report on the ACE portal later in the autumn).

So SSOs have a crucial role to play in achieving economies of scale, effort and impact. Most commonly perhaps, we help bridge specialist skills-gaps and support capacity development, be that through offering best practice advice, professional standards, affordable training, mentoring and so on. Many of us also scan the horizon on behalf of the sector to anticipate next practice.

The other traditional role SSOs have played is as advocates – the likes of Outdoor Arts UK, One Dance UK and Contemporary Visual Arts Network make a huge difference in making the case for their sectors. (Incidentally, TAA supports expert advocate SSOs with strong evidence – if we’re not working with you, get in touch!).

Increasingly, though SSOs are developing a new function as brokers of strategic collaboration. TAA works with place-based and artform networks using data to develop joined up engagement strategies. This work encourages experimentation and it seems that the capacity to experiment is one of the prime benefits of collaboration – it helps spread the risk across the group and maximises the learning gained. It’s the principle that drives fellow SSO Culture24’s Lets Get Real programme encouraging collaborative digital experimentation.

Another important aspect is what I think of as “user-centric collaboration” which sees SSOs enabling people to navigate hundreds of organisations to get what they’re looking for. SSOs like Vocal-eyes, Kids in Museums and Family Arts Campaign, are all showing the way forward by tailoring information and services from across the sector that meet the common needs of particular groups.

The combined work of SSOs to enable collaboration should play a critical role in tipping change across the sector, towards a more outward looking culture, more partnership-savvy, more responsive to the public. Those of us working with data in particular have a big responsibility to drive this user-focus. We want to work with partners to discover more about audiences and share sector intelligence with the Audience Finder community.

To make the most of our new status and the considerable public investment we receive collectively, SSOs need to work together to achieve the same benefits for our user-organisations as I’ve suggested we want for the public. In particular we need to end duplication, develop more complementary services, improve signposting, integrate our data, pool – and lobby for - resources to face the big challenges together. That also means reaching out to other sector support organisations not funded as such by ACE.

There’s a long way to go. I’d like to see ACE helping their NPOs to access our services and enabling some co-ordination, but mostly I think we as SSOs need to take the initiative ourselves.

At TAA, we’re working in partnership with a lot of other SSOs. A group of us have already set up an open alliance of SSOs (ACE funded and otherwise) working in the museums sector and this has proved really useful as a first step. We are aware of the potential value of opening this up to a wider SSO constituency. If you’d be interested in joining the alliance, do contact me at The Audience Agency.



Written by Anne Torreggiani, CEO at The Audience Agency.
30 August 2018.