Financial sustainability Leadership Coronavirus

An enlightening experience


Pascale Nicholls, Director of Finance and Governance at Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, shares a preview of her Annual Conference presentation, explaining how finance sits at the heart of sustainability and innovation.

As for many arts organisations, the triple threat of the Covid-19 pandemic, Brexit and the climate crisis has meant that the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment (OAE) has needed to adapt its historical operating model.

As a relative new-comer to the arts sector, the myth that all high-profile, sell-out concerts generated a surplus was quickly debunked. Historically, the OAE has managed to navigate through this structural deficit due to the generosity of our funders and judicious use of reserves. Our financial strategy for long-term sustainability has three core elements:

Cost control

  • Delivering core concert activities that are cost neutral or generate modest surpluses
  • Delivering core savings through shared services, re-tendering or supplier discount negotiation

Diversification and innovation

  • Exploiting the potential market for our digital service
  • Developing other commercial offerings


  • Seeking out innovative collaboration to reduce risk and facilitate activity

So, to the how… OAE has had a Youtube presence for many years and this has continued to evolve over the past 12 months. Most recently our Rising Stars videos have received critical acclaim and become a touchpoint for career status; the recent coverage of Helen Charlston as BBC New Generation Artist relies on the OAE YouTube film as key imagery and reference. As the first wave of the pandemic subsided, the OAE had to quickly mobilise itself by:

  • Committing financial resources to content production and recording equipment
  • Allocating capacity and training of staff in content production and editing
  • Led by our Players Artistic Committee, selecting repertoire that would work in terms of suitability for audio visual recording and audience engagement
  • Seeking out unusual venues that were Covid secure and appropriate for recording (from the Old Operating Theatre in London to the Asylum Chapel)
  • Tendering for a video-hosting platform that would integrate with our current CRM and accounting systems
  • Developing new marketing and fundraising strategies for the digital offering


Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment. Photo credit: Emma-Jane Lewis


The finance team has, of course, needed to adapt so that were able to provide the best-in-class business partnering and ensure that the digital strategy had the optimal impact. We reflected on the four faces of finance and flexed our support accordingly:


  • Supporting with key stakeholder buy-in (including the Board, donors and artists)
  • Setting and communicating the vision for the evolution of the finance function


  • Advising on the OAE Player business plan
  • Preparing long-term financial models
  • Setting price points for content


  • Providing financial information to support appropriate allocation of funds and resources
  • Leading on adapting financial planning and modelling for digital activities • Implementing new financial controls


  • Ensuring compliance with both domestic and overseas digital sales tax regimes
  • Adapting our financial and impact reporting
  • Supporting video hosting platform integration

Whilst we can now reflect on the successes to date of around 100,000 subscribers on YouTube, five-star review for Digital Content (e.g. St John Passion), 400 annual subscribers, launch with over 40 digital assets), if we were speaking to our younger selves, we would give this key advice:

1 Choose a digital platform partner and not a vendor. You want to engage an organisation that will support you with resolving those tricky issues and facilitate your digital evolution

2 Get the basics right. Make sure that you are leveraging the technology that can actually deliver what you need

3 Do not set unrealistic deadlines. Set interim goals and track progress against these as opposed to having one concrete deadline

4 Do not allow the impatience to achieve business objectives to compromise quality of process or outcome. In our case the most successful film projects were those that were given sufficient time and energy. Corner cutting has not been productive.

5 In the enthusiasm to innovate do not miss the opportunity to consolidate. New activity can bring together existing areas of activity and reinforce them. In our case, we linked digital projects to live events and to educational engagement. 6 Have a hybrid approach. Do not allow your interest in a new entrepreneurial activity to become a silo. Our pay-walled digital platform OAE Player has benefitted from not being exclusive. It works in a symbiotic relationship with the free culture of YouTube and also with external partnership (e.g. Marquee TV). It is not all or nothing, it is a progressive, flexible approach that keeps an eye open for lateral opportunity.

At the CFG Annual Conference this Autumn, I am excited to share with colleagues how finance functions need to adapt to support digital transformations and to share some of the common pitfalls and risks, as well as discuss how these can be avoided. Most importantly I am relishing the opportunity to connect with colleagues from across the sector – see you there!


Book your place at CFG's unmissable 2021 Annual Conference today!

CFG Annual Conference 2021

This post was last reviewed on 7 July 2021 at 12:51
« Back to all blog posts