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.



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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.