How to Engage

I have been spending time of late trying to figure out the best path to engagement on the part of arts organizations. I am a firm believer that systemic engagement (mainstreamed engagement) is at heart the only way that will bear much fruit. Add-on activities won’t get done. Seriously, where are the resources to do more? Or they will be marginalized internally and externally. Internal stakeholders will not see it as important; the community will realize it’s not at the core (and is probably a ploy).

So, true belief on the part of most insiders is essential. But the skills for engagement do not come with true belief. And while I would like every staff member to understand the means of transforming their work to a community engagement focus, that will be a long time coming.

When a designated community-oriented person is brought on board as a result of an organization’s collective true belief in engagement, they can be the guide for all rather than a vigorously wagging tail. (Please do not examine that mixed metaphor closely . . . or at all.) Whether they are called a community organizer, an animateur, or a community engagement specialist, if they are seen as vital to the organization both by the organization and the public, they can be a trainer in engagement thinking and practice and a builder of vital bridges with the community.

What brought this to mind was an effort to catch up on blog posts I have been saving to read when I am home from the road. The particular one that sparked this was Kevin Clark‘s ArtsBlog post Arts Organizations and Community Management. He describes how technology companies are hiring community managers to keep the staff focused on the customer. It is widely believed that IT people are excellent at IT, less so in relating to/understanding the consumers of their products and software. (Does this sound familiar to anyone?) The community manager position is designed to keep the companies focused on those they serve. It’s interesting that for-profit ventures are seeing a critical need to make sure their staff is cognizant of the public’s needs, interest, and perceptions.

Mr. Clark talks about how the specialization of our management roles forces us to focus on the details of how carry out our responsibilities, a fact that takes our eyes off the customer/consumer/audience/public. “There isn’t anyone whose job it is to focus on the people themselves, and what they need from us. All of our job descriptions are focused on selling tickets, or mailing list circulation, instead of successfully serving the community, or advancing the mission of the organization.” [Ouch on that last point!]

Mr. Clark advocates for putting all public interface functions under a community manager: fundraising, marketing, box office, etc. (At least that’s how I read his concluding paragraphs.) I’m not sure that is my ideal ultimate solution. I’d like everyone inside our organizations to have a better understanding of the public and I’d also like to include programming in this equation. But this could be a practical first step as we seek to train our staffs (and our communities) in new ways of thinking about the relationship between the arts and the wider world.


On another note, Americans for the Arts’ National Arts Marketing Project is coming up Nov. 9-12. I’m going to be there leading a roundtable (Sunday afternoon) addressing “Systemic Approaches to Community Engagement.” In other words, it’s an expansion on this post. If you are going to be there, I’d love to see you. Also, I’ll be doing a book signing on Monday morning (at 8:30!) at the end of the conference. (BTW, I understand that registration rates go up to the onsite rate at the end of this week.)



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