What do the National Portfolio Organisation announcements mean for the cultural learning sector?

17 November 2022

Arts Council England (ACE) announced its long-awaited funding decisions for its National Portfolio Organisations (NPOs) for 2023-2016 on Friday 4 November. The National Portfolio is a group of nearly a thousand arts and cultural organisations that get regular funding from ACE, which invests public money for creativity and culture in England.

The day was one of mixed emotions for the sector. Many arts organisations received confirmation of funding, prompting celebration and a sense of relief – especially after the agonizing delays to announcements. However, many organisations did not receive the news they wanted to and are grappling with difficult questions about their long-term financial viability. 

Zooming out to take a system-wide perspective, CLA perceives the NPO round as a mix of positive developments, areas for concern and prompts to action. 

Positive developments

NPO funding to organisations historically marginalised by ACE. Some of this investment has focused on place. This includes: 

  • A 95% increase in funding for ‘Levelling Up Cultural Places’ – areas that have typically received low investment in cultural development 
  • A general 21.8% increase in NPO funding outside of London 

Some have of these funding increases have been made based on the demographics of leadership within organisations: 

  • The number of NPO organisations primarily led by individuals from Black, Asian and Ethnically Diverse backgrounds has tripled since the last funding round
  • The number of organisations primarily led by individuals identifying as disabled has increased to 32 in the current portfolio 

ACE claims that it has increased the number of organisations funded through the NPO to deliver work with children and young people by 20%, and that 79% of the portfolio will now be delivering activities specifically for children and young people.

Areas for concern

Despite these positive developments, the announcements and their implications have at least four areas where CLA remains concerned: 

  • The loss of the Bridge network as a backbone structure – Bridges have acted as a connecting tissue between education providers and different types of cultural organisations for a decade. As such, they are a critical piece of infrastructure in the cultural learning landscape. However, these organisations are no longer directly funded through ACE NPO investment. This means that the backbone of much of the sector has been removed, with no clear replacement. We discuss this issue in more detail in this blog.
  • The amount of funding being awarded – Grants have been made based on applications submitted earlier this year, long before inflation and the energy crisis had their sharpest effects on the day-to-day budgets of creative organisations. There’s a consequent concern that even organisations with stand-still ACE funding may not have received the cash required to keep them afloat during this difficult period for the sector.
  • The targeting of funding – While headline figures suggest an increase in funding for activity involving children and young people, it is currently unclear which young people these cultural learning opportunities will reach. Increases may result in young people from more advantaged families benefiting from greater opportunities and choice while those from disadvantaged backgrounds continue to struggle with limited access. 
  • The move from the national to the regional – ACE’s strategies and decisions have tended to emphasise a universal or national plan in recent years. However, the current NPO crop suggests a much stronger tilt towards decisions made at regional level. This will mean variation between regions and a system that is potentially less joined up. The outcome of this is currently unclear, but there is certainly scope for impact on the overall cultural learning sector to be negative.

Prompts for actions – what next?

It will take some time for the sector to make complete sense of the NPO announcements and to grasp their full implications. The funding decisions will also affect organisations very differently. We’re therefore calling on our CLA members to get in touch with us to let us know how the new portfolio announcement is affecting them. [call to action button] 

We’d also encourage any organisations which have missed out on NPO funding to attend Clore Leadership’s Tough Decisions webinar on Tuesday 22nd November, when Governance Associate Keith Arrowsmith will walk through the critical issues and options for those navigating current financial difficulties.