Consultancy: Opera given a hand to put its house in order: Senior executives are lending expertise to the arts

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The Independent Online
IN GLASGOW, Malcolm McDonald, a globe-trotting executive from BP Exploration, is helping Scottish Opera get its house in order and shape up for the future.

Meanwhile, Peter Lyster, a Stock Exchange team leader, is in Soho helping Union Dance Company, a small multi-cultural contemporary dance group, promote itself to a wider audience.

Both men are giving their expertise free of charge under a placement scheme run by Business in the Arts, a private sector organisation.

The scheme, which has doubled its intake each year since its 1988 launch, matches the needs of arts organisations with the skills of volunteers.

Three hundred professionals, from information technology specialists to accountants, PR specialists and business planners, are now giving their time and skills to arts organisations. Blue-chip companies such as IBM, Arthur Andersen and Marks and Spencer are among those encouraging staff to volunteer.

An average placement takes two to three hours per fortnight over a three- to four- month period, though some placements can last more than a year, depending on the scale of the problem to be addressed.

Strategic thinking is the keynote to helping the theatre troupe/mime combo/picture gallery achieve its goals. Last year, Scottish Opera was saved from running up a deficit by two pounds 500,000 grants. Richard Jarman, its new managing director, has drawn on the skills of Mr McDonald to help revamp the company's fortunes and image.

Mr McDonald is playing an advisory role in drawing up a medium-term business plan and a long-term strategy. Hiring his skills on a consultancy basis would have been 'quite out of the question', said Mr Jarman, who relishes the working relationship. 'Malcolm was someone I could throw ideas around with to help us focus on what we want to achieve.'

So what do the volunteers get out of the placement scheme? For Mr Lyster, the challenge of working with a small organisation and attempting to solve problems on a very limited budget has brought its own satisfactions. 'The group can't throw money at the problem; they have to focus on what they want to achieve. My task is to help them do that.'

Mr Lyster, a 33-year-old marketing manager, has invested emotional commitment as well as time in the company. He readily acknowledges that he stands to gain from the placement. 'Union deserves to thrive. If I get it right, it will be good for the group and good for me in terms of career development. If it's not a success for them, it won't be a success for me.'

For Mr McDonald, the chance to 'give something back' to Scotland was the main motivation. For such a senior executive, he has been unstintingly generous with his time. He recently travelled back overnight from a business trip in the US to make it to a strategy meeting.

BP has now closed its Glasgow office, so Mr McDonald will be moving south. But his enthusiasm for the Business in the Arts scheme is undiminished. 'Business has a lot to offer and individuals who take part a lot to gain. It has certainly opened my eyes.'

While his formal relationship with Scottish Opera will end soon, it is a fair bet it will not be long before Mr McDonald is volunteering his business skills to another arts organisation grappling with change - and encouraging others to follow suit.

(Photograph omitted)