Why?As I’ve mentioned before, I’m in the process of developing training options for arts organizations seeking a unified approach to community engagement–systemic, mainstreamed, and involving every facet of the work. Part of that, a relatively simple one to be sure, has been drafting descriptions of it. Several early comments suggested the need for including the rationale for community engagement. A first pass yielded the following:

  • Fundraising: When the arts connect with communities around issues beyond the arts, a wider range of funding options become available. Funders–individual, corporate, and foundation–that do not fund the arts will support projects that address, for example, civic improvement, education, healthcare, or social services.
  • Sales: When new communities see an arts organization cares about them, they are more open to participating in its programming, especially when that programming speaks directly to their concerns.
  • Programming: High quality work that inspires the passions of a community energizes the presenter. Art rooted in diverse cultural expressions enriches both the organization and the industry.
  • Public Policy: When arts organizations visibly serve the public good, the voting population comes to support them. This translates into more beneficial policies and greater potential for governmental appropriations.

One friend, a prominent figure in a national arts service organization, was concerned by the pragmatic tone of the list. Their point was that these arguments seem self-serving. These reasons have an inward focus (OK, I’ll use the word yet again–artcentricity) and if that is the motivation it will not, in the end, be successful. My colleague said the important reason for engagement was that the arts are a vital resource for individuals and communities; engagement should be essential because of the mission (not to mention the legal requirements inherent in 501(c)(3) status).

That stopped me in my tracks because I’ve always believed that what I call “the moral argument” is the most important one. I’ve just reviewed some of my earlier posts and was reminded that I’ve discussed this before. I’ve cited the practical reasons for engagement but cautioned that they can be distractions from the business of building relationships. In An Engagement Continuum, I even said, “Cynics might call this [pursuing the practical benefits of engagement] Machiavellian: serving self-interest under cover of a benevolent façade. I prefer to frame it as doing well by doing good.”

Yet, I have found that inertia and vested interests almost demand highlighting the practical benefits of engagement. Even on a personal note, it is the difficulties the nonprofit arts industry faces as a result of the lack of engagement that first prompted my thinking about the whole topic. But this is an important element for me to remember in following through on engagement training. There will, eventually, be practical benefits, but the focus cannot be on them. Effective engagement requires belief in its centrality to the true mission of arts organizations.



Photo: Attribution Some rights reserved by Editor B

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  1. says

    Here’s how I think about this:

    The WHY to do it is all about mission.
    But the initial metrics of success have to be cast in terms that are familiar.

    If you can show that your new engagement approach increases participation, funding, and or positive media, you do two things:
    1. You show that your approach is legitimate in their eyes (whoever they is).
    2. You create enough cover and breathing room to keep going and push it further.

    In my experience, the longer this positive feedback cycle continues, the more buy-in “they” have, and the more opportunity grows.