Two-Phase Engagement

Community engagement practitioners are frequently asked to justify their work using traditional arts marketing/development metrics: ticket sales and donations. Don’t get ahead of me. This is not a touchy-feely objection to practical outcomes. Ticket sales and donations as well as grants from “unusual suspects” and friendlier public policy for the arts are all results of effective community engagement . . . eventually. However, when anyone in any field is attempting to sell things to a new group, if that group does not have any relationship with the seller or does not see any way it benefits from the product, sales can only come after considerable effort is put in to establishing a relationship, getting to know the people, and demonstrating to them (not simply telling them) the value of that product. In the arts, with at least some groups, this process is made more difficult by our being identified with “the 1%.” It’s not simply that we’re an unknown. It’s that we are seen as representatives of a power structure in which they have no trust.

So, with many, if not most, new groups, phase 1 of engagement is establishing trust and demonstrating value. The indicators of success are not (yet) sales and donations. Instead, this is the phase where relationship benchmarks are crucial. Are people willing to meet with representatives of your organization? Do they tell their friends and invite them to discussions? Do they begin to ask in what ways they might work together with you? Do other groups start to come to you based on what they’ve heard about your work with the first group?

The answers to these questions (and many more that can be tailored to your particular situation) demonstrate the depth of the relationship. The impulse to push too soon either in programming or sales/development is understandable. It is also almost inevitably counter-productive. We don’t ask strangers or brand new friends to lend us money. And we don’t try to build a house until after the foundation is poured. Early in the relationship building process what is important from a management point of view is making certain that trust and understanding (on both sides) is growing.

When that is established, phase 2, the exploration of programming ideas (demonstration of benefit) and results closer to the “bottom line” become more reasonable.

I am aware that there are objections to anything that does not yield immediate results. We as an industry are stretched thin both in terms of personnel and finances. However, for there to be any future for our work, we must drastically expand our reach. An expensive, labor intensive industry cannot long survive with the support of only small percentages of the total population. Community engagement–targeted relationship building–is one of the only practical ways of achieving this end.

Engage!

Doug

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  1. I liked this phrasing especially. It points to how mistaken it is to put the cart before the horse.

    “The impulse to push too soon either in programming or sales/development is understandable. It is also almost inevitably counter-productive. We don’t ask strangers or brand new friends to lend us money. And we don’t try to build a house until after the foundation is poured. Early in the relationship building process what is important from a management point of view is making certain that trust and understanding (on both sides) is growing.”

    It also reminds me of the the advice often attributed to Antoine de Saint-Exupery:

    “If you want to build a ship, don’t summon people to buy wood, prepare tools, distribute jobs, and organize the work; teach people the yearning for the wide, boundless ocean.”

    The kind of relationship that gets built depends on where we start. What motivates us? People summoned to “buy wood, prepare tools” won’t necessarily see why the ‘ship’ matters. But if you yearn for the boundless ocean you will always have a reason. If you belong to the sea you won’t even need a reason. To have trust is to fully belong somewhere.

    Which also reminds me of a story I once heard:

    “A traveler came upon three men working. He asked the first man what he was doing and the man said he was laying bricks. He asked the second man the same question and he said he was putting up a wall. When he got to the third man and asked him what he was doing he said he was building a cathedral.”

    The point is the difference between having a job, having a career and having a calling. A job is what we do as one part of our lives, but not a commitment necessarily. A career is a commitment, but it is not necessarily what we would do if we had other choices. A calling is what we do because it isn’t a choice. Rather, it is who we are. And we come to that place only by yearning for the boundless ocean and through our desire to build cathedrals.

    From a certain perspective it can be easy to get caught up in the short view of things like immediate results. Our attention gets focused on ‘laying bricks’. On ‘building walls’ only if we are lucky. What is harder to perceive and harder to cultivate is ‘building a cathedral’. The measure for that is only internal to the people themselves, and the true evidence for it can only be seen long term. This is precisely where unquestioned and lasting trust is located. Our short term views too often put the cart before this horse.

  2. Thanks for this. It reminds me of one of the best pieces of advice i had about fundraising: “The organization doesn’t have needs. The community has needs.” We will only be successful if we understand those needs and build on them.