Customer, Client, Collaborator?


In January, Doug McLennan published a post Is Earning Making Money The New Audience-Building Strategy? In a comparison of for-profit and not-for-profit enterprise, he began to intrigue me when, addressing the former, he said “More than ever consumers are about relationships – the kinds of relationships that non-profits have worked on for years.” He then went on to consider whether crowd-funding, which began as simply a way to raise money might be morphing into a relationship-building mechanism. He really started to intrigue me when he titled that section “Crowdfunding: Raising Money Or Building Audience?” However, he riveted me when he said, “But how many arts organizations make their communities feel like investors?

Indeed. Last fall, TRG Arts and I collaborated on a series of blog posts addressing the centrality of relationship building in development, marketing, and community engagement (see bottom of post for links). This year, in a highly occasional series (we are asking for volunteers so we’ll take things as we get them!), we will look for others to weigh in on the following questions:

How does the need to deepen relationships with current stakeholders and build relationships with new audiences and new communities affect your work in the arts? What future changes in your work might be necessary/helpful due to that need?

In reading Mr. McLennan’s post it occurred to me that much of this work revolves around how we think about the public with which we are attempting to engage. This can be deeply unconscious but illuminated by the word(s) we use to describe them. Like customer, client, collaborator. The exchange with a customer is largely arms-length. We provide something, they buy it. End of story. With a client there is a relationship, but they still come to us for the “product” we create and are selling. We may tailor it to their particular interests but we are in charge of the “supply.”  A collaborator is a partner (like Mr. McLennan’s “investor”), suggesting a mutuality of benefit and of participation. Collaborating with an architect does not mean I can insist on a design that is structurally impossible. I have to respect the experience and training of the professional. However, it does mean that I have conversations with them about my interests and needs and they provide options about how to address them. Or, they may simply say, sorry, can’t be done.

Successful community engagement, as I say in mantra-like fashion, is a partnership entered into for mutual benefit, based on mutual respect, and honoring the expertise of both parties. Successful fundraising, marketing, public policy, etc., etc. can and should be similarly rooted.



Photo:Attribution Some rights reserved by Didriks

This post is part of a series sponsored jointly by ArtsEngaged and TRG Arts on developing relationships with both new communities and existing stakeholders through artistic programming, marketing and fundraising, community engagement and public policy. (Cross-post can be found at Analysis from TRG Arts.)