But . . . How?

QuestionsOver two and a half years ago, I began this blog as a means of advocacy for community engagement on the part of arts organizations. While that’s not been the sole topic of the posts, it has dominated. I am now beginning a new phase of my work (to which I have alluded before) in which I will try to be somewhat more practical–focusing on the process of helping arts organizations transition to a more community-focused way of being.

When I do introductory workshops about community engagement, an extremely common response (either in Q & A sessions or more privately in one-on-one post-workshop conversations) is something along the lines of “I get this, but how can I get [fill in the blank] to buy in to this?” Another common response is “We are doing this now.” The interesting thing is that it is sometimes [fill in the blank] that says that. The disconnect on this topic inside organizations can be quite stunning. Where community engagement is understood to be a valuable thing, inertial forces in the industry tend to make people invested in “things as they are” identify what they are doing as community engagement, even when it is demonstrably not. (This is, I believe, labeled “confirmation bias.” It has also contributed to the profound confusion about what community engagement is.) There is not room in a single blog post to address this issue.

I want to reassure those who have the first question that there are things to be done to move organizations toward greater community focused efforts. I will give below a very brief outline of one way the process might work.

For organizations that do not already have a mission-based focus on engagement, engagement efforts cannot be sufficiently successful to make a difference unless there is serious, systemic commitment to it, commitment that demands change in thinking and action. The requisite work to that end is internal

  • assembling a coterie of “instigators,”
  • engaging internal stakeholders around the practical merits of engagement,
  • making and publicizing a commitment to engagement (to help demonstrate institutional credibility), and
  • preparing for engagement (training, planning, identifying partners)

When commitment to engagement is made, the external work can begin.

  • developing trusting relationships with
    • current stakeholders (including them on the journey)
    • ambassadors (key community members who can provide access to external communities)
    • external communities with which a relationship does not currently exist
  • maintaining those relationships

Simple, right? Seriously, each of these is a long, slow process consisting of many parts. Fortunately (I guess), successful engagement cannot happen quickly so the fact that each of these is time-consuming builds needed breathing space into the process. I’ll expand on these steps in future posts, particularly as I learn more working with organizations to implement them.



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  1. says

    Doug, I am thrilled that you are taking this issue on. It is real and timely as arts organizations struggle with the need to adapt to our changing demographics and presence of technology in all aspects of our lives. As we witness the closing of the San Diego Opera because of the organization’s unwillingness to become more relevant to today’s audiences, arts organizations here sense that they are being given a wake up call, but don’t quite know where they are going or what to wear once they roll out of bed! Funders are struggling with this issue as well. As we dangle the carrot of money for community engagement programs in front of organizations we aren’t offering the risk capital they need to successfully make the transition. I look forward to reading your future blogs and your coverage of all these issues that are blocking our growth.