Making Meaningful Connections

Helicon-IrvineConnectionsReportThe Helicon Collaborative and the Irvine Foundation have partnered on a “hit it out of the park” report addressing substantive engagement. Making Meaningful Connections presents research into the most effective practices in efforts to engage with diverse communities. (I felt this way before I saw that Building Communities, Not Audiences was listed in the bibliography.) In the introduction they make the case that engaging with new communities is very like developing new friendships and involves:

  • Deciding you want to do it
  • Committing the time required
  • Cultivating trust
  • Seeking out common interests and mutual benefits
  • Respecting the others’ preferences and schedules
  • Sharing experiences and having fun

Great list! And the basis for a very good start.

They do not belabor the need for commitment to pursuing diversity, but make some fairly self-evident points, chief among them being “The lack of congruence between the participation in ‘benchmark’ nonprofit cultural institutions and the changing demographics of the country is becoming stark.” The practical need to embrace diversity should be self-evident by now.  (At the same time, let me reiterate a previous caveat: The Self-Centered Pursuit of Diversity.) The report identifies three “Core Commitments” in mission, leadership, and cultural competence and five areas of “Organizational Practice”–welcoming venues, respectful relationships, programming, analysis (collecting and utilizing data), and business model. That last is particularly important because it makes clear the fact that efforts cannot be dependent upon dedicated outside funding but must become incorporated into the total budget, often via re-tooling the use existing resources. The authors also acknowledge that there may be fallout among current supporters. (However, I would argue, as I have in the past–Develop Allies–that the essential gradualism required for effective engagement can provide the time for restructuring relationships with those supporters.) This is a good overview of essential principles for effective engagement with diverse communities. A concluding observation from the report–”The organization must make a wholehearted and institution-wide commitment to building meaningful relationships with people who reflect the diversity of its community.”–reinforces that point that success requires the efforts to spring from true belief in their merit and not external pressure or “mere” existential fear.

Thanks to the writers and the Irvine Foundation for this contribution to the work of engagement.



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  1. says

    I read this report, too, Doug and appreciated its thoughtful description of the engagement theory. And I was especially gratified to read this:

    “The organization must make a wholehearted and institution-wide commitment to building meaningful relationships with people who reflect the diversity of its community. This commitment must be evident in all aspects of the organization’s operations — from staffing and board representation, to programming and marketing, to budget allocations and assessment efforts. It requires a candid commitment to examining the assumptions and cultural biases baked into previous practices, and continuous efforts to build organization-wide competence in dealing with cultural differences. This is a serious undertaking and cannot be achieved on the cheap.” [Emphasis mine.]

    Unfortunately, this part of the message doesn’t seem to be getting out. Arts organizations are applying engagement practices in a piecemeal fashion or relegating them to narrow, low-level administrative channels where they can’t hope to influence institution-wide change. I see so many organizations assuming that engagement is just another marketing fad or an industry trend they have to pay lip service to in order to stay in the funding community’s good graces. Sadly, because they’re not embracing engagement as a holistic enterprise, organizations are wasting valuable time and money on something that, because it is being improperly administered, is unlikely to have a positive long-term impact.

    If engagement theory proponents are serious about wanting to benefit all arts institutions and not just small, narrowly focused, low-budget, community organizations, they should make it loud and clear, upfront, where everyone will get the message, that this is an all-or-nothing proposition and that applying the theory in bits and pieces is not only unhelpful, but that it will divert resources from more important functions and can thus do serious damage to vulnerable organizations. They might also accept some responsibility for the damage that’s being done to organizations that are getting the wrong messages and using engagement in counterproductive ways.

    I love this engagement theory and I believe it has the power to one day prove itself in actual practice. But if the people who are selling engagement allow it to be poorly applied, it will become just another fad in a long line of arts industry fads that academics and policy wonks talk about at conferences, but that make no meaningful difference in the real world.

  2. says

    The report cited mentions the word “engagement over 30 times” yet who know who is engaged by who, by what means, to what ends? But it sure is made to sound valuable.

  3. says

    Thanks for the post, Doug!

    Your observation about the “self-centeredness” of some diversity efforts is particularly thought-provoking. It is an interesting conundrum, isn’t it? Appealing to self-interest has, for better or for worse, been a primary way that those of us who are interested in deeper community engagement have tried to recruit converts, but it can be a double-edged sword when it leads to a superficial approach to audience diversification rather than true engagement. The fact that demographic trends are becoming impossible to ignore provides an easy and obvious answer to the question of “what’s in it for me?” and lends some urgency to something that has in fact needed action for a long time. Of course, the hope is that even if the initial interest in diversifying is motivated by self-interest, it can lead to a genuine, authentic commitment to engagement with one’s community (which we know is not always the case). In some of Helicon’s other research (a not-yet-published follow up to our Bright Spots in the Pacific Northwest report that focuses specifically on community engagement), we did find that the line between self-centered interest and community-centered interest isn’t always so clear. In fact, many organizations who are deeply engaged with their communities see the well-being and thriving of the whole community as an integral part of their own well-being. They are actually acting out of what they see as self-interest, it is just that they have a much bigger view of what this means.

    • says

      Yep. I was simply cautioning against ignoring that aspect. I’m a big supporter of “doing well by doing good.” I think, in the long run, this can be a great example of that. We just need to be aware of what we’re doing and acknowledge that this is a very late date to be getting serious on the issue.