Nordicity Insight: Learning from the creative industries
Posted by Stephen Hignell in London U.K. on Nov 01, 2016

First published by ArtsProfessional, 20/10/2016. 

The reasons for gathering evidence of impact are more important now than ever before. Demonstrating an impact helps organisations express their legacy and demystify their activities, and equip trustees, staff and supporters with the strongest possible messages when speaking on behalf of the organisation. Measuring impacts can also help assess internal progress and plan strategically for the future. This tenet is true for an individual artist, a company, a venue or an arts administrator.

A clear plan

One of the more ambitious examples of this principle takes place not too far from home, in the creative industries, which have been finessing this approach for years. Throughout the credit crunch, for example, the UK’s video games sector campaigned on two major issues. First, to gain public support in a similar way to the film and television sectors, and second, for policymakers to recognise them as an important cultural contributor, and one with artistic value. Despite the tides of austerity against them, the sector was enormously successful on both counts.

In setting out to achieve these two feats, industry leaders devised a clear plan that began with gathering evidence in relation to three things:

1. the number of people working in and around the video games sector (employment),

2. the value of the video game work that was created in the UK (gross value added or GVA); and

3. the value of the works that make their way outside of the UK (exports). 

Equipped with evidence of their impact, they then convincingly demonstrated to policymakers both what was at stake if the sector was left without support and what opportunities for growth would be fuelled by investment in the industry (in a report called the Economic contribution of the UK’s film, high-end TV, video games and animation programme sectors).

To the sector’s hard-earned delight, video games came to be embraced by the nation’s most prestigious film organisation, when in 2013 the Secretary of State requested the British Film Institute (BFI) to expand its traditional remit to include games. Going one leap further, in 2014, the Government introduced the Video Games Tax Relief, which signalled to many a recognition of games as an important part of British culture.

More than just economics

But impact doesn’t always need to be represented in economic terms. And certainly economics alone won’t always cut it, particularly when the impact of arts organisations can be much more experiential, personal and unruly to quantify.

Case studies about the work, statements from supporters and testimonials from participants can be very powerful. A statistic carries far more weight when it is accompanied with a relatable story. And conversely, a story carries more weight when it is accompanied by data.

Unsatisfied with pointing strictly to economic impacts, the video games sector then turned to demonstrating its social impact. It explored “the value of cultural experiences, organisations, and the cultural sector to the individual and society”, and the question of “who engages with products, how often, and whether they understand them as being British in origin”.

This emphasis on both economic contribution and social impacts seems to be working to great effect, as games have become increasingly recognised for their artistic merit by government.

What about the arts?

Many arts organisations are already doing a great job of communicating their impact, such as Edinburgh FestivalsWelsh National OperaThe Lowry and even Arts Council England.

Looking at what data and material you’ve already got is always a good place to start. Staff numbers or audience figures? Total turnover or expenses? Testimonials or press clippings? Mapping this information (key performance indicators or KPIs) will help you quickly identify and prioritise what you currently have and what data you might need to begin collecting to bolster your position.

Just because you have a certain type of data, doesn’t mean you have to use it. Think about the story you want to tell and don’t waste time collecting or presenting data that doesn’t add meaningfully to it – you can refocus those efforts elsewhere. And again, social impacts can be just as powerful as economic, but most often a combination of the two is what will be the most effective.

Social impacts

The bog-standard impact study is an economic one, providing estimates for job creation, contribution to GVA and fiscal impact (or the revenue generated in taxes). But these can be expanded significantly, looking at social impacts, such as cultural contribution and audience value as deployed by the BFI; contingent valuation methods and willingness to pay by the British Library; or social return on investment (SROI) as explored by London charity the Bootstrap Company.

Other powerful impacts deployed include supporting integration, social cohesion and benefits in criminal justice, as evaluated by the Arts Alliance; or cross-cultural dialogue, diplomacy, brand-building and soft power, as explored by the British Council. And some go as far as self-, peer- and audience assessment, as in the case of HOME in Manchester and Glasgow 2014 Cultural Programme.

And in the case of many public support decisions, impact assessments can be instrumental for estimating cost-benefit analysis, as currently being done by the Mayor of London for the capital’s grassroots music venues in crisis.

Often organisations conduct their impact measurement fully in-house, led by senior colleagues or done collectively by delegating discrete tasks across the team, often leveraging funding proposals, reports and audience data. Some organisations work with external consultants to do the reporting they are unable to do, or as a capacity solution to enable the company to continue focusing on its core work. Either method can be equally as effective, and both will still require a close eye from you.

Where there’s art there’s impact

For many, feeling forced to demonstrate evidence of the impact of something as personal as art can be more than unsettling. Concerns that any attempt to measure impacts may not sufficiently capture the work’s full effects is understandable. But with art there is always an impact.

The impact of your work is important and meaningful, and the public wants to hear about it. So think of what your ‘ask’ or objective is, devise a plan to campaign for it, compile the evidence you’ve got, edit and tweak, and you’re already putting your best foot forward.


About the author

Stephen Hignell is a Manager at Nordicity's London office.

Stephen has led numerous evaluations, evidence and impact projects across the UK and Canada, including recently for Arts Council England, British Film Institute (BFI), Bootstrap Company, British Council, Creative Scotland, Mayor of London and Greater London Authority (GLA), UK Theatre and Society of London Theatre (SOLT).

Twitter: @StephenHignell