The Chasm of Disbelief

Think you (or your organization) don’t understand the people you are trying to reach? If you are talking about people other than your current attendees/donors and their peers, you are 100% correct; and they understand you even less. (And if you don’t think you don’t understand you are probably deluding yourself.)

There is, between the general public and those of us on the “inside” of the nonprofit arts industry, a gap in perception that I think is insufficiently understood by stakeholders in the arts. Simply put, we are powerfully aware of the incredible value of the arts. The rest of the world is not. This gap makes communication extremely difficult.

The onus for breaking the logjam is on us. Who else has the motivation to try? But we can’t do so if we don’t recognize it. And even more daunting, the disconnect is deeply systemic. It is not a “simple” matter of presenting arguments about the wonderfulness of the arts. In spite of all the research and the myriad of studies demonstrating the power of the arts, people are not convinced. This always confused me until I interviewed Jonathan Katz, then CEO of the National Assembly of State Arts Agencies, for my first book (Building Communities, Not Audiences). He framed things in a way that set me back on my heels.

Neither professionals [or community leaders] in the relevant disciplines nor the general public put sufficient stock in . . . studies to alter policy. This disinclination to believe is rooted in unexamined assumptions that the arts do not touch the lives of more than a select few.

In other words, people do not believe the stories or the studies because they don’t believe they can be true. For many, the arts are so inconsequential, so void of impact on their own lives, any proof of their power is literally unbelievable.

So whether you are trying to convince people of the merit of the arts or the value of your organization or you are simply trying to get them to attend your events, there is a profound chasm of disbelief to be overcome. The way across this divide is not by words. It is action alone that will work. Being perceived as valuable must be earned by doing things that make us so. If we have to tell people we are valuable, we’re not to them.




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