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 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)

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 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.



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.



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

Social Silos

“I don’t know anyone who . . . .”

Recently, a colleague presented a workshop on nonprofit financial management to a group of board members of and volunteers for very small grassroots social service organizations. In the course of one of their discussions a participant observed, “I don’t know anyone who is not working two jobs.” My colleague’s first reaction was that this was highly atypical. The nonprofit board members many of us are used to represent money and influence or carry the title of “community volunteer”–people who have enough money and time to devote to service. In very small agencies like those participating in the workshop, the personal circumstances of board, staff (if there is any), and volunteers are not too far removed from those of their clients. Due to their life situations they do not have access to the people who are “typical” board members. The fact that they don’t individually is the principal reason they don’t collectively.

Nonprofit boards are self-perpetuating. They nominate their successors and so, human nature being what it is, boards are predisposed to homogeneity. The participant’s comment reminded my colleague (and me) of this inherent issue with respect to diversifying boards. We are all in silos of various kinds: arts, social service, political, racial/ethnic, religious, sexual identity, socioeconomic, etc., etc. For most people, it’s likely that they know few or any from outside their own inadvertent silos. We know people we know and don’t know the others. It takes extraordinary attention and effort to counteract this tendency, but if equity is important (yes it is), counteracting this has to stop being an “issue” and must become an obsession in all our work. (Thanks to Barry Hessenius for this construct.)

But merely finding “different” people to check off boxes won’t yield the desired results. Single individuals from any silo may or may not bring a diverse perspective. Plus, the toll of being a token can stymie anyone in working effectively. My work in advocating for relationship building with communities provides a solution. Build relationships with the communities you want to see represented on your board and staff and in your audiences. Put in the work to develop trust where none exists and in the process learn about those communities and their individuals. Pursue those who catch the spark of your mission and understand the value you can bring to their circle of friends.

This is not the work of the typical nominating committee that puts together a slate of names the month before the board election. (Although that model is almost uselessly ineffective even without taking issues of diversity into account.) It is the work of the whole board to be building those relationships and, out of that, identifying individuals who can add value to the function of the board.



Photo: Attribution Some rights reserved by dsearls

AftA Thoughts 2015: Self-Perpetuating Boards

DWEM_BoardThis is the third in a series of posts reflecting on last June’s Americans for the Arts convention in Chicago. In the context of serious discussions of equity and diversity, it was inevitable that my thoughts would turn to boards of directors and trustees.

I’ve written several times recently about the conundrum that “fundraising boards” represent in the nonprofit arts world. (Give or Get, Can’t Buy Me Love) Specifically in discussions of diversity, the truism that “you know who you know” leads to boards populating themselves with people who look like them. Even with the best of intentions, if you don’t know any [fill in the blank] you can’t suggest them for board slots. Self-perpetuating boards, the largely default status of nonprofit boards in the U.S., nominate and elect their own successors. Sounds crazy, but it’s the norm in organizations that are not membership based; and, admittedly, there are not a lot of good alternatives out there. This is a big, if not the biggest, issue in diversifying our boards.

Some time ago I cited here the hopefully apocryphal story of a board, desiring Hispanic representation, placing an ad in the Hispanic newspaper. (They didn’t know anyone?!?!) In order to address board diversity, we need to realize that not knowing appropriate diverse candidates is our issue, not theirs.

An interesting new criterion for annual board member evaluations could be something like “How many people unlike yourself have you developed relationships with this year?”



Photo:AttributionShare Alike Some rights reserved by sludgegulper

Engage Now!

EngageNowCoverFinalIt has been some time since I first hinted that another book was coming out. And I am happy, nay ecstatic, to say, it’s here. Engage Now! A Guide to Making the Arts Indispensable is now available in paperback. The ebook version will be out very soon.

It’s wonderful to have this completed. Two years in the making is a pretty long gestation period. Regular readers of Engaging Matters have seen a good deal of it in draft form in this location.

I’m tremendously gratified to have gotten so many kind words from field leaders I deeply respect. (See quotes below.) The promotional material follows this opening. And, of course, here’s the skinny on sales:

Engage Now!

A Guide to Making the Arts Indispensable

For some, the arts as indispensable is a preposterous idea, yet nearly every stakeholder in the industry believes the arts’ value to be unquestionable. That gap accounts for most of the challenges arts organizations face. As long as the arts are seen as an amenity (at best), they will struggle in a world that only has time for that which is necessary. “Mere” relevance will not suffice. To compete in the marketplace of public value the required standard is indispensability.

Engage Now! is a “how to” manual for the arts organization seeking to become invaluable. It

  • Presents basic principles and practices of effective community engagement,
  • Provides guidance for achieving systemic focus on engagement, and
  • Outlines a process for becoming a universally recognized community asset.

This book is intended for anyone with a vested interest in the arts. Since the arts are essential for healthy individuals and healthy communities, it is for everyone. However, far too few people are aware of their “vested interest.” That makes Engage Now! important for us all.

Arts organizations cannot long survive
without earning impassioned support from the communities they serve.

 Communities cannot reach their full potential
without the benefits the arts can provide.

Part I: The Mission of Arts Organizations
Chapter One: Systemic Challenges and Internal Issues
Chapter Two: What Is the Arts Business?
Chapter Three: The Way Forward: New Understanding of Mission
Part II: A Community Engagement Primer
Chapter Four: Engagement Essentials
The Practice of Engagement
Chapter Five: The Engagement Process: Principles and Practice
Chapter Six: Engaged Arts: Organizations
Chapter Seven: Engaged Arts: Artists (Entrepreneurship
Chapter Eight: The Engagement Process: An Operational Blueprint
A Benediction: It’s Not Easy

Online Excerpts

What they’re saying:

A playbook for arts organizations to become as indispensable as the corner store
Jamie Bennett, Executive Director, ArtPlace America

An eloquent and persuasive voice in a global conversation
about the power of the arts to transform our society
Simon Brault, author, No Culture, No Future
Director and CEO, Canada Council for the Arts

Great advice about engaging more of the population, growing your organization and
increasing opportunity for successful operations and artistic expression
Janet Brown, President & CEO, Grantmakers in the Arts

Inspiring advice about how the arts sector can play a more powerful role in the public life of our communities
Ra Joy, Executive Director, Arts Alliance Illinois

A distinctively valuable guide for how to integrate
arts management and community development
Jonathan Katz, former CEO, National Assembly of State Arts Agencies

Borwick probes arts organizations to evaluate their relationship with their community and provides action steps to building a stronger, more sustainable connection with the people [we] serve
Robert Lynch, President & CEO, Americans for the Arts

A guiding light for nonprofit arts organizations seeking to be relevant, responsive, and
indispensable to the communities we exist to benefit
Josephine Ramirez, Arts Program Director, James Irvine Foundation

Borwick leaves no question unasked, proving why he is the authority on community engagement work
Alan Salzenstein, President, Association of Arts Administration Educators and
Professor of Performing Arts Management/Arts Leadership, DePaul University

A clear guide to taking on the necessary efforts to broaden our missions,
serve our communities and increase the impact of the arts
Marc A. Scorca, President & CEO, OPERA America