Reflections on Finance: Naomi Sumner Chan

Leader of Tomorrow Naomi Sumner Chan reflects on the recent finance session in the Artistic Director Leadership Programme.

I have to be honest, when I was first asked to write a blog about the Leaders of Tomorrow finance session, I was worried. In primary school I was the kid who had to stand next to the teacher’s desk during maths otherwise I wouldn’t have done a thing – such was my fear of numbers. What if the session went right over my head? What would I be able to write that still made me look like a future leader rather than an idiot?

As soon as the session with Jeremy Smeeth started, I realised I wasn’t alone in my fear of finance or the only one lacking confidence with numbers. These feelings were shared by most of the group. The reasons behind these emotions are complex and not always negative. What quickly became apparent is that as leaders we feel a sense of responsibility when managing money, particularly when it belongs to other people – either in the form of grant funding, or wages and pensions. We want to get things right because we realise there are real consequences for real people should we get things wrong.

However, our confidence levels are also affected by the structures and distribution of power within the organisations and wider industry we work in. The language of finance can be full of jargon and feel exclusionary, wielded like a weapon by those “in the know” against those on the outside. As creatives when it comes to talking about finance or reading financial documents often we are being asked to use a language we don’t speak. If nobody is willing to translate we can find ourselves excluded from important conversations and ultimately decision-making processes.

So if knowledge is power, we have to learn the language.

Jeremy led an illuminating exercise about terminology where we discussed financial terms we knew and could explain versus ones we’d heard but had no idea what they meant. The exercise was brilliant because it worked on two levels – it acknowledged and addressed the fact that sometimes we are too scared to say when we don’t know something so stay silent (and ignorant) instead, but often we know more than we think we do. We know or do things instinctively or because they’re common sense or because we actually do know what we’re doing but that knowledge hasn’t been recognized or validated by others.

A phrase I’ve heard before when talking about finance is that “numbers tell a story.” All of us on the Leaders of Tomorrow programme are involved in storytelling at some level – as writers, directors, designers and producers. By becoming financially literate we are learning to tell different stories in a different language to a different audience.

Presentation v Conversation

Over the last twelve months I have visited a lot of arts organisations while doing the National Theatre’s Step Change Programme and Leaders of Tomorrow. Usually these visits included a presentation about the work of the organisation where – for the majority of the time – we were talked at with maybe ten minutes at the end for questions.

What worked so well about Jeremy’s session was that it was a conversation rather than a presentation. By starting with wanting to know more about us and asking two questions:

1) What are your goals over the next 5-10 years?

2) What will you need to know about finance to make that happen?

The session was a dialogue that was responsive to the group’s individual needs and questions. We covered a huge number of topics in a few hours including tax, company structures, different types of financial documents and accounting procedures. To our surprise rather than feeling bored or overwhelmed, the session left us feeling empowered. Jeremy was generous with his knowledge and engaged with us rather than talking at us.

For the final hour we were joined by Claire Symonds, Anthony Gray and Michelle Pendergast from The Lowry who gave us a specific insight into financial operations for the organisation. The Lowry has ambitions to be a world class arts centre and the team spoke about how they balance artistic ambition with the responsibility of keeping the venue operational. While there are times they do take risks and programme a show they know will make a loss because of it’s artistic merit, risk has to be managed so it’s important they also present commercial work that makes a significant amount of money. This is an important lesson for the individual artist too as often we’re so keen to make work we devalue ourselves and work for rates that aren’t economically viable. As Claire said “Don’t apologise for wanting to make money, you need to make money so you can keep making art.”

Naomi Sumner Chan is a Manchester based playwright and dramaturg. She leads Brush Stroke Order, a new writing company which offers training, support and mentoring to those who write for live performance. Recently Naomi has been commissioned by Eclipse Theatre Company via their Slate programme to make ‘Same Same Different’ a new piece of verbatim theatre about adoption.

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