Outreach ≠ Community Engagement

NotEqualI  sometimes hear people equate outreach with community engagement. In my ongoing effort to clarify the language we use about these matters, I’d like to differentiate between these two terms. For me, the simplest distinction is that outreach is (at best) done “for,” community engagement is done “with.”  Outreach, as the word implies, keeps the “outreacher” at the center. The “targets” of the outreach are outsiders. The entire center of gravity as well as most of the concern is with the arts organization.

Community engagement is rooted in relationship building. The “what” that is the art grows out of the relationship, factoring in the interests and needs of the community. This is not simply a semantic distinction. The frame of reference of the arts organization impacts the quality (or even the existence) of the relationship. It will also affect the nature of the work presented. If  the art does not bear evidence of community involvement, the work is not a result of community engagement.

Outreach can be more accurately equated with audience engagement-the effort to deepen relationships with current stakeholders and to extend an organization’s reach.  Audience engagement is, properly, self-focused and somewhat more immediately concerned with butts-in-seats/eyes-on-walls results. (Audience development is, of course most immediately concerned with those things.) Some common examples of outreach efforts are:

  • Artists meet audiences (one-way presentation and answers from artists)
  • New population centers (under-served towns, etc.)
  • New Venues (neighborhood centers, construction sites, public parks)
  • Relatable cultural idioms; Familiar/popular forms (often new work)

To me, understanding distinctions between outreach (and audience engagement) and community engagement is helpful in that it supports a broader palette of potential in the service of both organizational sustainability and community service.

Engage!

Doug

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Comments

  1. Habeas says

    Given the distinction you’re trying to draw, how can a presenting company engage in community engagement work, if no artistic creation directly within the local community is taking place? What kind of “evidence” can a presenting company draw on? or is it impossible for presenters to engage their communities, with this definition?

    I am thinking this through, and I think I disagree that outreach is done “for”, unless you consider ALL attempts at education to be “done for” rather than “done with” (especially in the case of playwriting classes, I’m having a hard time imagining how that’s not “done with” ). But I’d like to hear your clarification first.

    • says

      While presenters do not produce artistic product, they do curate it. They have options about what to present. They can and should have deep ties to their community that can inform their choice of what to bring in. The presenter knowing that their community is dealing with issues related to an influx of Southeast Asian immigrants could book a Vietnamese dance troupe and create opportunities for community dialogue around the event.

      We may need to work on the definition of outreach to address your second point. And, of course, some work that gets labeled outreach may spring from existing relationships, taking the interests and expertise of the community–as learned directly from that community, not assumed by the arts organization–into account. In general though, the word outreach seems to imply “from me to you.” If a project is jointly designed, partnership strikes me as a better word. Specifically regarding education, if education professionals are guiding the creation of programming, it is a partnership. Also, in my experience, outreach is often primarily seen as a means of expanding reach, serving the marketing (and even more immediately, sales) interests of the organization.

      • Habeas says

        I’m hammering away at the first point, for the moment. It seems there is a subtler distinction you’re trying to make between work that benefits a company in monetary/ butts-in-seats ways, and work that doesn’t. For a presenting company, selecting a show that meets the interest of a segment of our community–say, a play that raises ethical questions about science for a community with a concentration of science researchers–is taking into account the “needs and interests of our community.” But I think you would perceive that as “outreach” precisely because it is company-serving: it puts patrons with disposable income in range of our company’s work, thus $ and butts in seats, because they’re interested in our subject matter.

        Given your example, it might take a deeper knowledge of a cultural segment than our organization has, first to identify community issues of which we’re unaware as curators, and second to be able to program either a Vietnamese dance troupe or find local experts to facilitate community dialogue. I take your point that as curators we’re responsible for being connected within our locales so we know what’s going on, and I follow you that far.

        However, presenters run the risk of going off-mission pretty quickly if they chase after community segments based on current events and personal relationships, rather than building core audiences over time. Another way of putting this is: If the framework for engagement efforts is intensely project-specific, why would the last project’s audience keep being engaged in our company’s work over time?

        • says

          1. “[W]ork that benefits a company in monetary/ butts-in-seats ways, and work that doesn’t.” The issue is not either/or. Community engagement will put “butts in seats” in the long term. That’s wonderful; it doesn’t make it not engagement. Indeed, that’s exactly the outcome for which I advocate.
          2. I am not talking about “chasing after” anything. Engaged communities can become core audiences. If an organization embeds itself in its community, that is a way to expand reach significantly, creating a much bigger core audience.
          3. Effective relationship building must be maintained. It does not stop when an arts event is over. The event is either a beginning or one step of many in an engagement continuum.
          4. The key lies in transitioning our self-understanding as serving art exclusively to serving our communities via the art we have to offer.

  2. Nicole Vasconi says

    Thanks for such an interesting post! Since you define community engagement and outreach as two separate things, are audience participation and community engagement two unequal elements as well? I can imagine that community engagement would result in audience participation, attracting people from the community to attend a certain event at the arts organizations.

    But at the same time, is “audience participation” a label for more general, or even popular, programming, while “community engagement” is meant to be a special type of programming introduced by the arts organizations only sometimes? Do you have to be, or should you be, selective when choosing when, how, and which issues you want your arts organization to engage in? (granted that you’re always following the mission of the organization and that your project makes sense to the community)

    • says

      I’ve not really thought about this before. So, off the top of my head . . . . Audience participation is something that happens in the context of an arts event. Community engagement is the relationship building process that gets them connected to you and, ultimately, to come to your events. I would probably say, on a first pass, that audience participation is most related to audience engagement.

  3. Joyce Bonomini says

    I am thrilled with this Blog. I have worked in the arts education and community arts field for 30+ years and have advocated the distinction between community arts programs (community engagement, and outreach programs for the past 20+. For me it is simple, one is based on a philosophy of long term commitment and relationship building and yes that for me is community arts/engagement programming. The other is programs that are developed by artists and arts organizations to fulfill a service component of their mission. They do not necessarily build “relationship’ nor is that the intent it certainly serves a purpose of exposure and connection but not ‘change’ catalyst for community building and value that community arts/engagement programming develops. I think your definition is one of the best I have read.

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