An occasionally expressed concern about community engagement is that current stakeholders will be driven away by imagined precipitous changes to the organization and/or its offerings. There are a couple of responses to this that should be comforting. First, community engagement should begin with the community that is your core constituents. Getting their feedback on plans and involving them in the process of making your organization indispensable to the larger community can make of them allies and cheerleaders in all engagement processes. (Also, as I’ll discuss next time, any initial changes should be gradual anyway.)
However, the thing on my mind here is that in successful engagement work no change should happen quickly. As I pointed out some time ago in Develop Allies:
Just as important will be reassurance that it is possible to begin engagement work incrementally. That is, the next show/season will not suddenly consist of work foreign to the current staff and support base. Indeed, relationship building is time-consuming work so the results of engagement with new communities should not be immediate or pervasive. This is one place where the lengthy process of engagement is a benefit.
We in the arts have an understandable desire to rush to action. Ours is an event production business. We exist to do. In community engagement work, though, this instinct is almost inevitably counter-productive. We cannot present–or even suggest–meaningful work until we have a reasonable understanding of the interests of the community with which we want to engage. Careening into production prematurely is usually at best off-putting and at worst offensive. Give the relationship time to reveal how best to partner with a new community.