The Long Road

Several months ago Joe Patti of Butts In Seats blogging fame posted a reflection on advice from Seth Godin about why businesses might not be connecting with customers. While I’ve not met Mr. Patti, it seems that we not infrequently seem to be channeling each other on topics related to community engagement.

He pulled out, from Mr. Godin’s article, a list of problems that sounded way too familiar to me in my work attempting to get arts organizations to understand the long road that needs to be walked to build relationships:

  • Because the people you seek to serve don’t think they need you.
  • Because the people you seek to serve don’t trust you.
  • Because the people you seek to serve don’t talk about you, thus, you’re not remarkable.
  • Because your product doesn’t earn traction with your customers, they wouldn’t miss you if you were gone–the substitutes are easy.

That third point echoes my common observation “If you have to tell people you are important, to them you are not.” The thing to be remembered with each of these is that simply complaining does nothing to solve the problem. The arts organization is the only one with a vested interest in changing those facts. We must acknowledge the issues and–humbly, see below–figure out ways to address them. It’s our responsibility to build trust with communities. It is not theirs to discover (and come to appreciate) us.

And then there is the principal self-inflicted issue that keeps arts organizations from developing meaningful relationships with new communities:

  • Because even though you’re trying hard, you’re being selfish, focusing on your needs instead of having empathy for those you seek to serve.

Ouch! And, of course, on point. We must build trust to develop the relationships necessary to sustain ourselves. The bedrock for that trust is our humility and our respect for those we seek to reach. If you can’t muster that respect, you are doing yourself, your organization, and the people with whom you come in contact an egregious disservice.

Engage!

Doug

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  1. Ouch indeed. It’s the selfishness. It’s the lack of humility. It’s the lack of respect.

    But a lot of arts organizations were never designed to be generous, humble or egalitarian. They were designed to be insatiably needy (nonprofit) while at the same time being elitist and condescending – a formula that worked just fine when demand was strong and support was abundant.

    I’ve been watching audiences shrink and support systems dry up now for for some 35 years and have yet to see an organization – or leader for that matter – make the transition.