Voice of the Community

My son is an IT consultant and over the years we have often discovered commonalities between our work. He was the one who first put me on to the concept of UX Design (UX = User Experience). The fact that we kept finding themes relevant to both our professions used to surprise me. Now I realize that he works with professionals in a complicated specialty who have to work with/communicate with end users who have no understanding of the vocabulary or practice of the discipline. Sounds familiar.

I recently was lamenting to my son an epic fail of customer relations on the part of the company that provides my business’s CRM database. (They implemented a change, with no warning, that moved significant quantities of data to a big pile of “Additional Information.”) The reasons for doing so made some sense from their point of view but the lack of consideration of what it would mean to the customer and the utter lack of communication in advance was stunning. [While no physical injury was involved, I am reminded of the tweet from Ron Evans, an arts marketing consultant, about the United Airlines “Doc off a plane” fiasco: “So nobody @ #united ever mapped out the user experience for passengers who refuse involuntary bump and said ‘yeah, that’s not a good idea.'”?]

John told me about a concept in IT development called Voice of the Customer. The idea is sometimes limited to what one might call in-depth market research, but he said it is also sometimes taken literally in product development meetings: someone is designated to represent the customer’s point of view as ideas are considered.

The implications for community engagement could be huge. Imagine, at a minimum, someone who is charged with keeping at the front of their minds “How would the people we are trying to reach respond to this?” The first, and obvious, objection should be “How would you know?” And that leads to the teachable moment. At the very least you need to talk with them; at best, include them in the conversation.

Regular readers of this blog know that I am uncomfortable with the distancing that is created by words like audience and customer. We need to build personal relationships and those words do not help that. So, I would advocate for a dedicated “Voice of the Community”–however the role is defined in an organization–to be included in all discussions of programming, from design to implementation.

And even if you don’t implement this, thinking that it might be a good idea could improve decision making processes.



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Essential Gradualism

An occasionally expressed concern about community engagement is that current stakeholders will be driven away by imagined precipitous changes to the organization and/or its offerings. There are a couple of responses to this that should be comforting. First, community engagement should begin with the community that is your core constituents. Getting their feedback on plans and involving them in the process of making your organization indispensable to the larger community can make of them allies and cheerleaders in all engagement processes. (Also, as I’ll discuss next time, any initial changes should be gradual anyway.)

However, the thing on my mind here is that in successful engagement work no change should happen quickly. As I pointed out some time ago in Develop Allies:

Just as important will be reassurance that it is possible to begin engagement work incrementally. That is, the next show/season will not suddenly consist of work foreign to the current staff and support base. Indeed, relationship building is time-consuming work so the results of engagement with new communities should not be immediate or pervasive. This is one place where the lengthy process of engagement is a benefit.

We in the arts have an understandable desire to rush to action. Ours is an event production business. We exist to do. In community engagement work, though, this instinct is almost inevitably counter-productive. We cannot present–or even suggest–meaningful work until we have a reasonable understanding of the interests of the community with which we want to engage. Careening into production prematurely is usually at best off-putting and at worst offensive. Give the relationship time to reveal how best to partner with a new community.



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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



Learning to Be Local

YouAreHerePlateAs discussed in my last post, an essential element of community engagement is being “of” the community. In order to do that, it is necessary to understand the true character, the essence of that community. There is, of course, no monolithic essence in any geographical community, but there may be commonalities that bind many of the communities in a region. Spending the time to learn these things is important and is, at least to some extent, separate from discovering the needs and aspirations of individual communities.

Sara Lutman’s meditation upon being “Minnesotan” (presented in Being Local) suggested what could be elements of core identity in the upper Midwest. Core identity naturally skews toward that of majority populations. Therefore only those things that are as universal as possible should be considered. A region’s geography, climate, history, cultural expression, and, yes, athletic teams offer such opportunities. With respect to history and cultural heritage, however, it must be remembered that different subgroups may have profoundly different attitudes. In the South, for instance, the slave, poor white, and slave owner experiences have created, in their descendants, vastly divergent views of the region’s history.

The answers to the questions below are but one sampling of things that might be addressed in efforts to become more locally oriented.

When you think of our [city, state, region] what are the most important things that come to mind about:

Regional History and Historic Events
Cultural Expression and Heritage
Creative Legacy (e.g., artists and inventors)
Food and Drink
Character of the people
Athletic Teams

Creating listening sessions in which an organization asks such questions serves to obtain the answers and demonstrate to the community that the organization is serious about deepening its commitment to community focus. The ways such knowledge can be put to use in programming decisions are as numerous as the communities of which the questions are asked and the types of organizations that might ask them. The only real limits are the imagination and will of those doing the programming.



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Engagement Working Group

PenguinConspiracyThis is part of my continuing series on “How” to build a community-focused arts organization. An early step is organizing a group of “believers” who can work to generate enthusiasm and support for a transition. For lack of a better term, I call this an engagement working group. The means by which potential members of such a group “find” each other can be as varied as are organizations. Some individuals probably already are aware of like-minded colleagues. Others can be identified by sharing short articles or examples and gauging the enthusiasm with which their peers respond.

Once organized, this group can spend time becoming more familiar with the principles and practice of engagement as well as with examples of success. Over time, plans for opening dialogue about the merits of community engagement among the rest of the staff and, eventually, the board can be developed.

A valuable starting place in those considerations is assessing the readiness of each constituency. As discussed in Yep, We Do That, there are often conflicting assumptions about the actual depth of commitment to engagement in arts organizations. That post contained questions to raise as an aid in understanding that community engagement demands a deeper restructuring of thought and decision-making processes than some imagine.

For these purposes, it can be helpful to become more fully aware of the attitudes of principal players. Creating a chart in which the internal stakeholders (CEO, administrative staff, artistic director, artistic staff, and board) are rated as being negative, skeptical, ambivalent, interested, or enthusiastic about community engagement can aid planning for approaches to use with each. (In chart form this can be graphically illuminating.)

It is essential, however, to understand that the ratings need to be based on serious understanding of engagement, not simply lip service to an abstract (and poorly understood) concept. In other words, the ratings should not be those that would be self-reported by each individual or category. They must reflect the actual commitment to substantive engagement long-time readers of Engaging Matters will recognize. This form of knowledge is an important early step in becoming an “engaged” organization. Once this has been done, it is possible to develop plans for developing allies, increasing the number of stakeholders committed to truly valuing a focus on community.



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