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.

Community Knowledge

It’s no secret that I advocate for arts organizations addressing community interests. (Well, duh!) And, in order to do that, we have to know what those interests are. (Again, duh!) On my website I address some of the ways we can start to discover those interests. (Community Learning) Of course, the simple answer is to talk to members of those communities. And we absolutely should do so.

But if this is so important, here’s another thing we could do to keep community interests uppermost in our minds. At each board meeting, at each staff meeting devote time to a discussion of “what’s happening in the community.” We cannot credibly respond to things going on “out there” if we don’t know what those things are.

In the consultation I do around organizational planning I suggest that a portion of each board meeting be devoted to a discussion of one of the strategic issues facing the organization. (And if not at every meeting, at least frequently enough that the topic is recognized as significant.) If community engagement has been identified as a central focus of the organization, discussion of community issues (and how the organization might address them) is a perfectly logical step. And, since some of the opportunities that community interests raise might be operational or tactical, it also makes sense for staff meetings to have these discussions as well.

This would have the further impact of keeping engagement on everyone’s mental “front burner.” Worth considering.



Photo: AttributionNo Derivative Works Some rights reserved by Michigan Municipal League (MML)

Keep It Simple


In speeches, presentations, and workshops, I frequently get to the Q&A session and find myself faced with not a few perplexed expressions. In general, people understand the importance of community engagement. However, staff members of arts organizations in which substantive CE (as opposed to re-titled audience development) is a newish concept have difficulty getting their heads around what to do.

My first response is to assure them that the compulsion to do something immediately is misguided (though entirely understandable). The production of arts experiences that will be the expression of community engagement must come out of a relationship building process. That process must happen first, so nothing should be put on the boards or on the walls immediately.

My second response is that initial efforts will not/should not be time-consuming or expensive. Things will move as habits of mind change. When arts organization staff members (all departments) see a portion of their work as serving the interests of external communities, they will begin to rethink the things they are already doing with budgets that already exist.

But it has been my experience that too many people simply cannot believe me, even when they are polite enough not to vent their frustration. It has taken me several years to tumble to the pedagogical problem I have created for myself. In my zeal to show how cool successful community engagement can be, I present examples ranging from the very simple all the way to the bells and whistles stories of commissioned operas, multi-city story-capturing and -telling efforts, and cities transformed by multi-year dance company projects. The bells and whistles stories are almost all the culmination of years of community relationship building and herculean funding efforts. Unfortunately it can be only those stories that people hear and take away with them, shaking their heads about the impossibility of pursuing community engagement.

So I now realize I must retool my presentations. Except where everyone (or almost everyone) in the room is well on the path, I need to focus on the simple: the realization that West Side Story is about (among other things) immigration and gang violence; that Vivaldi’s Spring can be an expression of environmental awareness; that Renaissance music inspired by the Plague is about a deadly public health crisis; and that virtually every work of art we would be programming anyway in some way or other reflects issues of importance to people today. In addition, the work of each department of an arts organization outside of programming (those big enough and lucky enough to have departments) can be refocused in simple ways to support community engagement efforts. (One example: marketing focus groups can add a few questions to aid development of two-way relationships between the participants and the organization rather than the traditional one-way information gathering.)

Blockbuster community engagement projects are thrilling to examine and can serve as prods to greater efforts. However, especially at the beginning, they can also inspire despair (and, if I am going to be honest, confirm the dark–if subconscious–hopes of some) that change is impossible.

Lesson learned.



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Fifth Anniversary Highlights: Transformative Engagement

FiveCandlesDuring the month of August, Engaging Matters is republishing some of the most widely read articles from the five years this blog has been in existence. In a post from last December (Transformative Engagement), I introduced a new stage in my thinking about engagement. Engagement is a funny word. Among other things, we have to consider who is engaging with whom toward what end. Ultimately, though, if the work does not lead to some change in the organization, the “engagement” is self-focused and almost certainly ineffective.

In Artcentric Engagement I discussed a kind of engagement in which an arts organization is attempting to bring people to it. As I said there, nothing is wrong with that; it’s simply not the goal toward which I and many others in the arts who are deeply committed to community engagement are working. Upon a very little reflection, it becomes clear that the engagement about which I write and speak is intended to change the organization or at least some of what it does or thinks. And so, I’m beginning to experiment with the concept of “transformative engagement” as the descriptor of this type of relationship building.

The root of such engagement is community learning. By that I mean learning about the needs, interests, even personality of the community the arts organization is attempting to engage. Applying that understanding to the work of an arts organization will at a minimum allow different kinds of thoughts about artistic content and new ways of imagining organizational functions. For example, if sales, fundraising, and engagement are all based on building relationships, maybe they could work together more or we might re-think some of what we do. If sales needs to be more closely tied to relationship formation and maintenance, how might that change the sales process? (One possibility would be not to leave it solely in the hands of some of the lowest-paid staff members–box office employees. Train them better, pay them better?)

If an organization is not doing anything differently as a result of its engagement efforts, it’s not focused on the community. It’s focused on itself. And it is only transformative engagement that builds an arts organization’s relevance. And without relevance, indispensability is a pipe dream.



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Relationships All the Way Down

This is the last of a series of blog posts in conjunction with TRG Arts on the interrelationships among marketing, development, fundraising, and community engagement. (Cross-post can be found at Analysis from TRG Arts.)

StackedTurtlesTwo months ago, Jill Robinson and Amelia Nothrup-Simpson of TRG Arts and I (OK: the commercial–of ArtsEngaged) began exploring the fact that almost every important facet of arts administration is (or should be) rooted in developing and maintaining relationships with external constituencies, what I would call “communities.” This post brings that series to a close. However, see the note at the end about what the future holds.

In the meantime, the following is an excerpt from my second book, Engage Now! A Guide to Making the Arts Indispensable that can serve as a benediction for the series.

Stephen Hawking’s 1988 book A Brief History of Time, begins with the following story:

A well-known scientist . . . once gave a public lecture on astronomy. He described how the earth orbits around the sun and how the sun, in turn, orbits around the center of a vast collection of stars called our galaxy. At the end of the lecture, a little old lady at the back of the room got up and said: “What you have told us is rubbish. The world is really a flat plate supported on the back of a giant tortoise.” The scientist gave a superior smile before replying, “What is the tortoise standing on?” “You’re very clever, young man, very clever,” said the old lady. “But it’s tortoises all the way down!”

In some versions of this story the punchline does not come until after a series of tortoises has been identified, each supporting the one before it, but the essence is the same. When the story is cited in discussions of cosmology or philosophy the point, of course, is the fallacy of basing arguments on an unverifiable “first principle.” In the context of the arts and community engagement, however, it can serve another purpose. The story is a reminder that to achieve success the focus in every aspect of the arts organization’s work must be on developing and maintaining ties with others—individuals, informal groups, and organizations. The first principle in and foundation for everything is engagement; “it’s relationships all the way down.”

An awareness of the need to establish connections outside the organization must be central to the mindset of every person that cares about its health and every functional unit must understand it has a role (and stake) in engagement.

At the macro level, attention must be paid to being of the community, supporting its organizations, informal groups, and individuals. At the unit level, each function and program needs to examine and pursue its work with an engagement perspective, addressing the questions, “How can we help?” and “How can we nurture relationships?”

So far we’ve heard from a few responders to this series. In the spring we are hoping to have more people provide insight into the importance of relationships from a variety of perspectives. We’ve been in touch with a few people to see if they will be willing to prime the pump. We are interested in hearing from others who might want to weigh in on the importance of relationship building to their work. And, of course, if you disagree with the premise, we’d like to see you make your case. If you want to participate in a more extended conversation in the spring, contact me at doug.borwick@artsengaged.com.

For those who missed any of this series (and want to look at them), here’s the list, with links:



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