Engagement at the Core

This is the last of a series, introduced in Baby Steps, about arts organizations’ initial efforts in community engagement. For details about the premises upon which these posts are based, see below. The essence is that simple, inexpensive initial steps offer the best way to embark upon community engagement.

Engagement at the Core: Early Efforts
As I said in Baby Steps, the key to successful engagement “is as simple, inexpensive, and excruciatingly difficult as changing habits of mind. The essential transition is to stop seeing our work as delivering a product that should be consumed by a nameless, faceless public and to view it instead as a valuable resource for specific individuals and communities whom we know (or are getting to know).” This applies equally to early efforts and mature ones.

In addition to what has been said to this point concerning community relationships, programming, and marketing, I would suggest that in the beginning all internal stakeholders in an arts organization continue their work as is and simply imagine how a commitment to relationship building might affect and improve their results. In other words, keep it simple.

Fundraising
Fundraising is (or should be) about relationship building and so is a natural fit for community engagement. And a community engagement focus vastly improves funding prospects–not because there is so much money out there for engagement work (there is not) but because of a seldom spoken truth about arts funding. There is a finite universe of potential arts funds. Arts-friendly individuals, foundations, corporations, and government agencies represent at tiny (and, arguably, shrinking) sliver of the funding world. This is why arts organizations are so loath to share donor lists or funding source information. However, when arts organizations begin to expand their focus beyond artcentric programming and address the interests of communities, the range of legitimate funding opportunities expands exponentially. (See More Pies)

Governance
Boards are rightly understood as resource generators, although it is a profound mistake to see them as only that. Yet even here, money is not the only resource board members bring to the table. Each one has expertise and a variety of relationships. Challenging them to assist with building bridges into the many communities of which they are members could, in some cases, be even more valuable than their financial contributions. In addition, if one criteria for board membership were community connections, this might expand the pool of talent beyond the “usual suspects” and provide access to new communities. The respect a board member has in a community could carry over to “benefit of the doubt” for the arts organization, a resource money can’t buy. (See The Board as Engagers and A Board of Engagers)

Volunteers
Volunteers working directly with the public are ideally positioned to support engagement work. Docents (see Docents as Engagers), box office support, even ushers can be trained to interact with people in a way that supports relationship building processes. Asking questions and reporting back on what is heard can provide valuable insight to support engagement.

While this does not cover all aspects of arts administration, it should be sufficiently illustrative to point the way. (As one more example, altering marketing focus group meetings to become more two-way dialogues is a simple switch that can elicit both the essential marketing information and support relationships between the attendees–and the communities of which they are a part–and the organization.) Again, early work in engagement should begin with a new habit of mind applied to current practices and see where that leads.

Engage!

Doug

Photo Attribution Some rights reserved by Got Credit

The premises of this blog series are twofold. First, since relationship building is the core of community engagement, attempting to do too much too fast (before the relationship is established) will likely not be productive and, in fact, may be counter-productive. Second, there are many things that can be done to support engagement that do not require new personnel or new budgets. Simply re-imagining (and perhaps slightly re-tooling) things that are already being done can support engagement in very effective ways.

It should go without saying that the core of all engagement work is a strong (even if not unanimous) desire on the part of the organization to make connections with new communities.If the will to do so is lacking, the work will be at best minimally successful.

Community Knowledge

It’s no secret that I advocate for arts organizations addressing community interests. (Well, duh!) And, in order to do that, we have to know what those interests are. (Again, duh!) On my website I address some of the ways we can start to discover those interests. (Community Learning) Of course, the simple answer is to talk to members of those communities. And we absolutely should do so.

But if this is so important, here’s another thing we could do to keep community interests uppermost in our minds. At each board meeting, at each staff meeting devote time to a discussion of “what’s happening in the community.” We cannot credibly respond to things going on “out there” if we don’t know what those things are.

In the consultation I do around organizational planning I suggest that a portion of each board meeting be devoted to a discussion of one of the strategic issues facing the organization. (And if not at every meeting, at least frequently enough that the topic is recognized as significant.) If community engagement has been identified as a central focus of the organization, discussion of community issues (and how the organization might address them) is a perfectly logical step. And, since some of the opportunities that community interests raise might be operational or tactical, it also makes sense for staff meetings to have these discussions as well.

This would have the further impact of keeping engagement on everyone’s mental “front burner.” Worth considering.

Engage!

Doug

Photo: AttributionNo Derivative Works Some rights reserved by Michigan Municipal League (MML)

The Board’s Role in Community Engagement: II

Last time I presented the first part of a discussion about the potential for boards as positive resources for community engagement. Here is the rest of the text.

Getting to Yes
Since the inertial tendency of a nonprofit arts board may be ambivalent (or worse) toward community engagement, it is important to develop a strategy for developing enthusiastic support. The first step is to identify and then enter into preliminary discussions with current board members who are either already in favor of stronger community ties or seem willing to consider the position. (This is also the first step when considering a similar effort with arts organization staff members.) When ready, these board members will be able to provide guidance and to lead the process of educating the full board.

Advocating for community engagement should begin with clear explanations of what community engagement is and addressing misconceptions about it. Beyond that, the board needs to understand the rationale for an arts organization pursuing a community engagement agenda. Generally, the reasons fall in one of two categories: fostering sustainability and achieving far greater relevance. The former addresses the social and economic challenges that demand broadening the organization’s reach into the community; the latter the potential for significantly increased support. Since these could be construed as “sticks” and “carrots” arguments, as much focus as possible should be placed on the “carrots”–the excitement and expanded influence that community engagement can generate. In addition, reassurance that the entire organization will not be radically changed overnight is critical. The process of effectively developing relationships with new communities demands time and programming necessarily follows that process. As a result, best practice in community engagement demands slow, incremental change.

When the majority of the board has become convinced of the value of community engagement, it is important for there to be a public commitment to engagement. When new communities meet representatives of arts organizations they often assume the sole intent of the organization is to get them to buy tickets or make donations. That is many people’s experience with the arts. Successful community engagement needs to be based on mutual benefit. An official statement of the organization’s reasons for engaging and a commitment to mutuality can be a starting point for building trust. Sample wording for such a statement can be found here.

The Vision Thing
Articulating organizational values, vision, and mission is one of the most important responsibilities of nonprofit boards. It is an aspect of board governance that has the potential to energize every member and galvanize them into passionate commitment that spills over into all board functions. Enlisting the board in establishing community engagement as a strategic priority for the organization has the potential not just to support engagement but to make the board more effective in everything it does.

Partners in Engagement
Finally, it is valuable to include the board as partners in the ongoing process of engagement. Members should have input into the plans and be utilized as relationship builders. Where they have their own community connections they can lead. In other cases they can assist in developing and maintaining relationships with new communities. This is particularly important since staff members do not have the time to do much more than (at best) coordinate such work.

The board of directors is a legally required element of nonprofit organization management. It can be viewed as an obstacle to ignore or work around or it can become a resource to employ in the service of mission of the organization. It will be far better for the health of the nonprofit and the work of community engagement if its members are enlisted in the service of engagement. They represent great potential in relationship building. Indeed, given the time-intensive nature of working with communities, they may be among the most important assets to employ.

Engage!

Doug

Photo: AttributionNo Derivative Works Some rights reserved by Michigan Municipal League (MML)

The full text of this essay can be found here.

The Board’s Role in Community Engagement: I

The board of directors of a nonprofit arts organization can and should play an important role in planning for and adopting community engagement as a crucial mission strategy. There is a tendency on the part of some (I have been guilty of this myself) to view the board as an obstacle to be overcome in this work. Yet the board’s potential as a resource for furthering the work of community engagement is considerable and we owe it to ourselves to find productive means of tapping it.

Basic Board Governance
However, the board’s potential for supporting community engagement can be limited if it does not have a clear understanding of and commitment to its more general roles and responsibilities. Boards certainly have a fiduciary responsibility, including ensuring (through participation in fundraising) that the organization has the necessary financial resources. They also have more wide-ranging internal responsibility for the health and welfare of the organization (e.g., maintaining faithfulness to mission, ensuring adherence to laws and regulations, and setting values and vision) as well as external responsibility to make certain the organization furthers the public good.

Unfortunately, too many boards are not aware of these (and many other) responsibilities and are thus ineffective in supporting the work of the organization. In some senses this should not be surprising. Outside the nonprofit world, there is very little understanding of the nature and function of 501(c)(3) organizations. As a result, few people come to nonprofit board service with a clear view of the nature of the work. Further, in an effort to secure board members, expectations are sometimes minimized while training is limited or haphazard. And for too many, board service consists of boring meetings that have little purpose or meaning and of tasks that are not challenging or interesting. This can be made worse by a chief executive’s lack of enthusiasm for the board’s input.

Since boards are a required fact of nonprofit life, it is in the interest of the organization to take advantage of their potential. The keys to doing so are effective recruitment and training processes; creation of a culture in which meetings are productive, meaningful, and even fun; and establishment of a mechanism for board evaluation–annual evaluation of the board as a whole and of members individually.

A board can participate in the development and implementation of an arts organization’s community engagement plan without being a fully functioning board. However, the chances of success in doing so are limited to its overall level of competence.

Status Quo
Board members serve arts organization because they like things the way they are. While, on reflection, this seems obvious, it is often a surprise to people that boards are not anxious to embrace change. This is not simply a reflection of the inherent conservatism of institutions; it is a manifestation of the fact that individual members do not, for themselves, see a need for change. Acknowledging this at the outset will help in developing a plan for educating the board about the need for and value of community engagement.

Beyond Buy-In
Some community engagement activists hope that, at best, the board will not actively oppose community-oriented planning and programs. Given the importance of the board’s role in the organization and the forms of significant support it can provide, I now believe that the board “not standing in the way” is far too low a goal. We need to work with our boards to develop in them enthusiasm for the relevance, vibrancy, and sustainability that community engagement can offer.

Board as Resource Engines
Certainly, boards of directors have long been seen as vehicles for providing financial support. They have also been understood to be valuable for the power connections (political, corporate, social) they have. However, in engaging with communities with which an organization has little history and few personal relationships, individuals who have community connections with the groups the organization is trying to reach are priceless assets. Not infrequently those communities have only vague (or sometimes even negative) impressions of the arts organization. A board member with “street cred” can provide a foundation on which trust can be built between the organization and the community. There is no amount of money that can accomplish that; it’s a resource as least as valuable as a large donation. So, when an organization commits to engagement, consideration should be given to recruiting board members who are passionate about the art and who are respected by the communities the organization is seeking to reach.  

Next time: Getting to Yes and the Board as Partner in Community Engagement

Engage!

Doug

Photo: AttributionNo Derivative Works Some rights reserved by Michigan Municipal League (MML)