In the relatively near future I will be facilitating a Community Engagement Network conversation addressing the topic of “Funding Engagement.” (To join the network, click here. If you are not Facebook friendly, email us at CEN@artsengaged.com) I get questions on this topic frequently and always have to gird myself before responding. So here is what I try to bear in mind in answering the questions:
If you have to have funding before you can begin community engagement work, you are not prepared for it. At a bare minimum community engagement involves getting to know new people/communities. That is not an expensive endeavor. Begin with the basics:
- Commit: Effective community engagement demands organizational commitment. The inability to pursue it without external funding is evidence of a lack of commitment.
- Act: Exhaust the possibilities of re-imagining and partnering on current work in ways that address the interests of communities around you.
- Plan/Partner: Develop relationships with communities and explore mutual interests as a basis for project development.
- Achieve Small Wins: Implement small projects to demonstrate to your organization, your communities, and to potential funders your commitment and capacity.
After this you will be ready to pursue external sources of money.
Typical arts funders fund the arts that they typically fund. (That’s a purposely circular statement.) Often, community engagement is not part of their mandate. They can be won over on the basis of expanding access and improving an arts organization’s viability, but that can involve a long-term funder education project. Perhaps there are better ways to spend your time?
Funding for community engagement often comes from sources that do not traditionally fund the arts. Their interests are those of the communities with which you will be working.
- Success in seeking funds depends on your credibility. The “small wins” above go a long way toward demonstrating that.
- Learn what funders are concerned with the issues that are of interest to the communities with which you are partnering. Approach these partners with your partner communities.
Granted there is at least a little hyperbole in some of the above, but the essence of it all is true. And I know nothing in the arts is easy. This is especially true of community engagement. It is new to many of us and is about dealing with people with whom we are not familiar; it can be intimidating and messy. But we owe it to the future of our organizations and the well-being of our communities to enter into this work.