Axis, Ballymun – DeVos Programme Learning
Mark O’Brien and Niamh Ni Chonchubhair of Axis, Ballymun talk through their experience of New Stream Partnership with the DeVos Institute, and how it has created an opportunity to explore, challenge and develop what they do on a structural and macro level. | Interview by Chandrika Narayanan-Mohan.
Axis, based in the heart of Ballymun, is an arts venue, production company, arts development organisation, community resource centre, and is home to a number of community development organizations. It has just passed its ten-year anniversary and is delighted to be taking part in the New Stream partnership with the DeVos Institute of Arts Management at the Kennedy Center.
Axis has a longstanding relationship with North America through their touring shows, and though both Mark O’Brien and Niamh Ní Chonchubhair had knowledge of the Kennedy Centre and of the DeVos Programme previous to taking part in the DeVos Programme, it was Niamh who introduced the idea of the New Stream partnership.
“[New Strategic planning] was going to be a growth area for us regardless, because of the trajectory of the organisation and the age of the organisation, and a changing landscape of funding….what New Stream has done is given me a different lens on it.”- Niamh Ní Chonchubhair
Programmatic and Institutional Marketing have both been implemented so far at Axis. Programmatic planning has made an impact on Mark, because he feels that it helps him “plan ahead and see the strengths and weaknesses of a varied programme”. However it was the concept of Institutional Marketing that was, as Niamh says, “the big lightbulb”.
The first way that Axis has begun to implement Institutional Marketing is to first define the identity of Axis through the eyes of its own staff. Mark has begun a Testimonials project, where members of staff are asked to write a few lines about what Axis is to them. This information will then feed into the new Strategic Plan that Mark is currently working on. He believes that before advertising Axis to an external audience, it is important to sell the idea of Axis to itself, and this project will help him find out if there is “a difference between the vision and the mission” of Axis. This project is also an important way of involving the internal staff, managers and board member, ensuring that everyone is behind the DeVos programme instead of it being imposed upon them.
Another part of the DeVos Programme is the Incremental Funding aspect, which is being explored through a new Friends scheme being developed by Mark and Niamh. Previously their Friends scheme had no fee, but now they are working on the idea of building a family and transitioning with them as donors, and New Stream has helped them to begin that process. This aspect of the programme, according to Mark, is important because it “takes away the idea of the passive recipient, and puts the organisation and the investor on the level of equals.”
One of the main challenges so far has been the adaptation of certain aspects of the programme that are created to specifically suit the American fundraising model, where there is a culture of philanthropy, tax breaks and a governance structure where board members invest in the organisation. However, Mark feels that this issue is also an opportunity, as it invites an organisation to challenge accepted truths about its sector and to think critically about what fits and what works in Ireland. Niamh felt that this was initially a struggle but then found a way to implement one aspect of it. Instead of asking for investment, she asked one of the board members if she would like to be involved with one of the events, and she was very happy to participate. This was a step towards strengthening their relationship with board members, involving them more closely with upcoming projects and fundraising initiatives.
The one change that Mark and Niamh both feel that they would benefit from is to have more opportunities to meet with the other participating Irish organisations to compare and contrast their experience so far with the DeVos programme. This would also help them situate the programme more solidly in an Irish context.
Concerning the partnerships related to the programme, both Mark and Niamh believe that the different entities bring something new to the table. With regards to Bank of America Merrill Lynch, Mark thinks that it is great to see a sponsor that is funding developmental ideas; regarding the DeVos Institute of Arts Management, Niamh believes that “it is the leading institution for Arts Management in the world”; and both agree that Business to Arts was “the right organisation to make this happen”, as they feel that Business to Arts is the ideal gateway between the art and business world, and works on a partnership model that is valued by Axis, and the DeVos programme itself.
In general, Mark feels that these new learnings from the DeVos Programme have allowed Axis to “create a strong framework of planning and identity while streamlining the strategic process.” He thinks that they have benefited from the systematic organisation of the programme itself, the opportunity to reflect and challenge the existing strategy of Axis, the opportunity to compare and contrast the American and Irish fundraising model, and the knowledge and expertise available to them through the programme. Overall, the experience so far has been challenging but rewarding for Niamh and Mark.
“Am I happy that we signed up to do it? Absolutely. Is it challenging on a workload basis? Absolutely. Do I question whether I should have ticked all the boxes? Absolutely! But would I change it? No.”- Mark O’Brien