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At the beginning of April, Counting What Counts (CWC) launched the updated version of the Impact & Insight Toolkit (Toolkit) to support the National Portfolio Organisation (NPO) cohort in evaluating their work for the 2023-26 Arts Council England (ACE) funding period. As part of this update, we have included a new step called ‘Articulating Ambitions’ which is about choosing the dimensions (standardised questions) that an organisation wants to measure. For more information on this, please see the guidance here.

Since this step is new, we wanted to get some feedback from NPOs on making the process work in practice. So, on 17th April 2023, we hosted a small pilot event with NPOs at the London Canal Museum titled ‘Ambition and Quality: Putting it into Practice’.

In this blogpost we:

  1. Give an overview of the event
  2. List some of the feedback that was provided to us during the activity
  3. Highlight the key lessons for us and all the NPOs we work with


Event Summary

The event was attended by 36 people from 30 different organisations. The attendees were grouped together on different tables, where each table was assigned a pretend organisation with a vision statement, mission statement and objectives. They also had printouts of the Dimensions Framework and of a few programmed events for their pretend organisation.

We opened with some introduction to the concept of articulating ambitions (open a copy of the slides here) and then went into the planned activity for the day. The activity had two stages:

Stage 1

Each group was asked to run through the articulating ambitions process as if they were the board of the arts organisation, selecting a set of 15 dimensions which were a good reflection of the mission of their pretend organisation.

Stage 2

Each group then went through the 3 events for their pretend organisation, and was asked to choose a set of 6 dimensions that were a good fit for each event, choosing from the set of 15 in the previous step.


Throughout the activity we took breaks to discuss and answer questions from the participants.


Key Learnings

Engaging boards can take time

In our guidance for articulating ambitions, we suggest that this process should ideally be carried out by the board of the organisation. There are a couple of reasons for this:

  • Having the board complete this first step involves them in the evaluation process from the outset, and will make the data and reporting outputs that are produced and included in board papers more relevant. Having useful and comprehensible board papers will aid the shaping of ongoing decisions and priorities.
  • ACE has specifically named the board as being accountable for monitoring and reporting on the progress being made to achieve the targets and success measures on which the funding agreement is based.

We appreciated that involving the board to do this wouldn’t be easy, and that it would likely require advocacy, time and planning.

However, feedback from those in attendance at the workshop made it clear that both the amount of work required to articulate ambitions for an organisation from scratch, and the implied timeframe for immediate board involvement, means that it is not always feasible for NPO Boards to lead the articulating ambitions process.  Some examples of the feedback we were given is shown below:

“It requires a lot of work and time and a certain mindset to get into this stuff [selecting dimensions]. There are good people on the board but it’s a lot to get their head around. If you had a day’s workshop that might work, but we don’t get that amount of time; every board has 5 minutes on each agenda item.”

“It comes back to the timeline – being asked to do something by a particular time and involving the board. We needed to be asked a year ago and do it in bitesize chunks. You can’t just expect people to suddenly understand it when there’s a new process.”

“It’s fair for us [the attendees at the workshop] to be further down the path in terms of understanding this process, but, if it takes a year for us to be fully involved, we can’t expect our trustees to be further ahead than we are.”

We heard these messages loudly and clearly, and we will be thinking about ways to make this process easier.  We will work with NPOs to share best practice on how boards have delegated responsibility for these activities whilst preserving oversight and accountability.


Articulating ambitions could be made simpler

In our guidance, the process we recommend is that organisations select up to 15 dimensions to represent their overall vision, and select up to 6 dimensions from their set of 15 for each event or type of work.

Whilst this works fine for some, participants in the workshop were asking whether there are different ways of articulating ambitions, depending on the size of the organisation and how they are thinking about their objectives.

For example, one idea was to select a smaller number of core dimensions (4 or 5) which you would use to evaluate every piece of work they deliver, adding only 1 or 2 extra dimensions to customise the evaluation for its specific purpose.

This is a great idea, and there is no reason why this wouldn’t give an organisation a good way of assessing and reporting on the quality and outcomes of their work.

The challenge, and opportunity, for CWC and NPOs, is that there isn’t a ‘correct’ way of approaching this that will work for every organisation. In planning and writing about using the Toolkit, we have provided ideas for what a best practice approach might look like, whilst also stressing that you are free to use the tools we provide in whatever way works best for you.

The features in the Culture Counts platform which allow the practical application of these ideas can support a variety of different approaches, so there aren’t technical constraints preventing organisations from doing it their way. Our lesson here was that we should give more examples of how it could be used to make it easier for organisations to discover what will work best for them.


What next?

We’ve said that we are going to be updating our recommendations considering what we’ve learned, but what does that mean in practice?

Specifically, we have updated the articulating ambitions step in our comprehensive Evaluation Guide with new and simpler options, addressing these two key lessons we’ve discussed above.

So, have a read!



Featured image: Jud Mackrill on Unsplash

4 people chatting and looking at a laptop screen, working together