Evaluation of any kind is a challenge for nonprofit organizations generally and for nonprofit arts organizations in particular. Resource constraints and focus on mission, sometimes at the expense of critical management issues, make evaluation a frequent afterthought if considered at all.
Evaluating community engagement is particularly difficult because it is in its infancy as a practice for arts organizations. As such, it is no surprise that techniques of evaluation specific to it are not nearly as advanced or as systematized as those available for fundraising, marketing, or other arts management functions.
In addition, there are at least two vastly dissimilar categories of evaluation that are important for community engagement practitioners. One is, of course, evaluation of the outcomes of the work. The other, however, may be as important because it determines how successful any community engagement project can be. That is the effectiveness of the engagement process itself.
Evaluating Engagement Process Effectiveness
Last spring I presented an overview of my current thinking about evaluating the effectiveness of community engagement processes. (Evaluating Engagement) It was (and is) based on four fundamental principles: strength of the relationship, mutually understood benefit to the parties involved, partnership in planning and implementation, and quality of the relationship maintenance plan. The last is extremely important because, due to the arts industry’s focus on events it is easy to move away from a newly built relationship once the originating program is over.
Evaluating Engagement Results
Our principal attention today is the evaluation of engagement results. Evaluating the community outcomes of community engagement work, while still not widely understood within the arts industry, has the advantage of being directly related to the field of community development to which a good deal of thought has been given. Based on work by Americans for the Arts’ Animating Democracy initiative and the University of Pennsylvania’s Social Impact of the Arts Project, here are some rudimentary sample categories for various kinds of engagement projects.
Evidence of relationships, for example:
- Participation by community members in discussions, surveys, events
- Press, social media mentions
- Instances of community seeking organizational assistance
Evidence of mutual benefit
- Success in community-desired outcomes, for example:
- Decreased violence
- Increased school retention
- Reduced racism
- Evidence of success in organizationally-desired outcomes, for example
- Variety of new funding sources
- Increased ticket sales
- Vibrancy in programmatic offerings–vibrancy in genres, styles–reflecting influence of the community
As with any successful evaluation project, the intended outcomes must be articulated in the planning process rather than created after the fact. They are the means by which the project should be judged.(What’s given above are simply samples. Criteria specific to the project, arts organization, and participating community must be developed as part of the planning.)
This aspect of the work demands extra time and thought on the front end and is a key reason any evaluation, not just of community engagement, is ignored or avoided in practice. The tendency to shortchange evaluation is perhaps understandable in the context of the industry’s extremely limited time and human resources, but it is also shortsighted and counterproductive. For ourselves, for our community partners, and for our funders, we need to be able to have information to improve our work and demonstrate its value.