Targets and Timeframes

I have recently found myself concerned with issues related to measuring community engagement, particularly its benefits to arts organizations. (Two-Phase Engagement; Reach and Frequency) There is a tendency among some to know that community engagement is a good thing and, therefore, to resist attempts to measure it’s impact. If I’m honest, I may sometimes find myself in that group. There are others who assume that community engagement is at best “nice” and are dismissive of its potential to yield practical benefits for the organization.

To be sustainable, community engagement must benefit the arts organization in tangible ways. To be supported institutionally, the path to ticket sales (via increased reach), funding (via money from donors, corporations, and foundations who will never support the arts status quo), and public policy (via broad-based public enthusiasm for the impact of the arts on people’s lives) must be articulated and tracked.

A principal difficulty in this is that in order to accomplish these gains we must do work in marketing, funding, and advocacy that we’ve almost never done before. That is, we must lay groundwork among people who are not already pre-disposed to value the arts. (If you believe that a viable future for arts organizations exists without reaching new communities and new funders you may stop reading now.)

As I have pointed out on numerous occasions, immediate improvements in sales, funding, and public policy are impossible when you are approaching new people who are either apathetic about or hostile to the arts. First, we must build trust and, while doing so, measure indicators of improving relationships–for example, willingness to meet, willingness to introduce others, and (eventually) willingness to work together. Clearly, that is at least a one- or two-year project. Only after the foundation is built can we begin to set goals for the more traditional measures of institutional benefit.

Don’t have the resources to devote to this? What’s your alternative? Let’s reconvene in forty years and see who is still in business.



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One Wo/Man Band

I am frequently asked whether an arts organization can successfully engage communities with just one person assigned the responsibility for “engaging.” One answer, given with considerable trepidation is, “It depends.” If it’s a small organization, if community engagement is represented/honored in all decision-making processes, if everyone in the organization maintains a commitment to engagement in all of their work, then “Maybe.” If not, the answer is “No.” Communities can easily sense when interest in working with them is limited. It is also true that engagement is demanding and can easily exhaust a person, mentally if not physically. Spreading the load is always a good idea.

But there is another, practical reason that the one-person show is unwise. Community engagement is relationship building, and relationships are, inescapably, personal. Especially in the early years, if there is only one person working on the relationship, the community’s trust is in that person, not the organization. If that person leaves it is frequently the case that all, or nearly all, of the work put in will be lost. Indeed, if there is any suspicion that the person’s departure represents a step away from the community on the part of the organization, the relationship may end up being worse than if the engagement work had never been started.

So, for a wide variety of reasons, it’s important that there be more than one face from the organization involved in engaging with communities–new relationships as well as long-time ones. This could certainly include volunteers or board members. Not all contact has to be through staff members. But the contact must be spread among multiple people. Otherwise, the efforts at engagement may fall apart with the loss of the “designated engager.”



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Evaluating Engagement: Outcomes

Evaluation of any kind is a challenge for nonprofit organizations generally and for nonprofit arts organizations in particular. Resource constraints and focus on mission, sometimes at the expense of critical management issues, make evaluation a frequent afterthought if considered at all.

Evaluating community engagement is particularly difficult because it is in its infancy as a practice for arts organizations. As such, it is no surprise that techniques of evaluation specific to it are not nearly as advanced or as systematized as those available for fundraising, marketing, or other arts management functions.

In addition, there are at least two vastly dissimilar categories of evaluation that are important for community engagement practitioners. One is, of course, evaluation of the outcomes of the work. The other, however, may be as important because it determines how successful any community engagement project can be. That is the effectiveness of the engagement process itself.

Evaluating Engagement Process Effectiveness
Last spring I presented an overview of my current thinking about evaluating the effectiveness of community engagement processes. (Evaluating Engagement) It was (and is) based on four fundamental principles: strength of the relationship, mutually understood benefit to the parties involved, partnership in planning and implementation, and quality of the relationship maintenance plan. The last is extremely important because, due to the arts industry’s focus on events it is easy to move away from a newly built relationship once the originating program is over.

Evaluating Engagement Results
Our principal attention today is the evaluation of engagement results. Evaluating the community outcomes of community engagement work, while still not widely understood within the arts industry, has the advantage of being directly related to the field of community development to which a good deal of thought has been given. Based on work by Americans for the Arts’ Animating Democracy initiative and the University of Pennsylvania’s Social Impact of the Arts Project, here are some rudimentary sample categories for various kinds of engagement projects.

Evidence of relationships, for example:

  • Participation by community members in discussions, surveys, events
  • Press, social media mentions
  • Instances of community seeking organizational assistance

Evidence of mutual benefit

  • Success in community-desired outcomes, for example:
    • Decreased violence
    • Increased school retention
    • Reduced racism
  • Evidence of success in organizationally-desired outcomes, for example
    • Variety of new funding sources
    • Increased ticket sales
    • Vibrancy in programmatic offerings–vibrancy in genres, styles–reflecting influence of the community

As with any successful evaluation project, the intended outcomes must be articulated in the planning process rather than created after the fact. They are the means by which the project should be judged.(What’s given above are simply samples. Criteria specific to the project, arts organization, and participating community must be developed as part of the planning.)

This aspect of the work demands extra time and thought on the front end and is a key reason any evaluation, not just of community engagement, is ignored or avoided in practice. The tendency to shortchange evaluation is perhaps understandable in the context of the industry’s extremely limited time and human resources, but it is also shortsighted and counterproductive. For ourselves, for our community partners, and for our funders, we need to be able to have information to improve our work and demonstrate its value.



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What You Can Leave Out

JazzPianoHandsIn April I attended the Charlotte Jazz Festival (a new festival with a considerable amount of promise). On the first evening I heard an ensemble performance in which the pianist doubled on harmonica. In a particularly lively number he would frequently have to move back and forth between the two instruments. On one occasion he had considerable difficulty getting the harmonica out of his hand so he could attend, with both hands, to the demands of the piano part. While extricating himself from the harmonica he did what all good jazz pianists do, played the essential notes with his other hand until both were available. This is not particularly unusual, especially in jazz piano. What made it stand out in my mind was that he was clearly not prepared for the extra difficulty he was having. Nevertheless, he made it work for the ensemble and I doubt if many who could not see his hands knew what was going on.

Knowing what’s essential as opposed to valuable or even “nice” is a critical skill in jazz. While I am a deep lover of jazz, lack of this ability is one of the things that kept me from being a better than marginally adequate trumpeter all those years ago. I was hopelessly glued to the score in front of me.

Organizational function often demands spontaneous improvisation in the face of change or unforeseen emergencies. At such moments, an awareness of what’s essential–what the fundamental priorities are–will guide decisions about what to keep after and what to let go (temporarily) and keep things afloat. Doing so demands planning ahead of time to identify what must be done. The to-do list is not an undifferentiated whole. All planning should include identification of the one, two, or three things that are non-optional. Moments of crisis also demand the ability to let things slide temporarily while keeping the music going. And, of course, if the temporary becomes the long-term, it’s time to go back to the planning drawing board.



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The Ethics of Engagement

Last week I had the privilege of participating in a conference presentation at TCG’s (Theatre Communications Group) Audience (R)Evolution Convening addressing the Ethics of Engagement. I was one member of a panel of four including Martha Lavey, Artistic Director, Steppenwolf Theatre Company; Seema Sueko, Associate Artistic Director, Pasadena Playhouse; and Shay Wafer, Executive Director, 651 Arts. Facilitator Michael Rohd, Founding Artistic Director of Sojourn Theatre, devised a brilliantly concise format that allowed numerous participants at the Convening to contribute. What follows are some reflections on the topic.


Before considering the ethics of engagement it’s valuable to highlight a few relevant good practices in engagement. First, “engagement” implies relationship building. The best metaphor is that of developing friendships. If in doubt about what to do, ask yourself how you would approach the situation if you were trying to make friends (or maintain a friendship) with an individual.

Second, effective engagement needs to serve mutual interests. The arts organization (and art itself) needs to benefit from the relationship. The community needs to benefit as well, in ways that they recognize as benefit to them. (Being “enriched” is not such a benefit if enrichment is not viewed by the “enrichee” as a benefit.)

Third, engagement is not charity work. If an organization views it as such (consciously or unconsciously) it will not connect. It will appear to be (and it will be) paternalistic. This does not mean that charity work is unworthy. It is simply not engagement.

Finally, it is important to remember that there are divisions of expertise to bear in mind. Arts organizations are expert in art and the artistic process. Communities are expert in their interests and what works (and doesn’t) in their environment. Community engagement is not “giving people what they want.” It is developing a sufficient understanding of their interests to be able to suggest work from the cultural canon that will speak to them or to assist in the creation of new work that does so.

With that introduction, here is the basic outline of my thoughts about ethical issues around engagement.

Ethical Principles
The nonprofit arts industry is the beneficiary of a huge outlay of societal resources to develop and support its infrastructure. As a result there is a moral obligation to utilize that investment in ways that maximize the impact of our work in people’s lives–far more than is the case currently. (As our political demographics change dramatically over the next generation this is a “chicken that will come home to roost” sooner rather than later with respect to public funding. But that is as much a pragmatic consideration as an ethical one.)

And, directly related to that historical support, the industry represents unearned privilege in the minds of almost everyone who is not on the inside of it. Using privilege for good (thanks Carmen Morgan) is an imperative for us in the arts. As a reminder, it is not necessary to feel privileged in order to be privileged.

Finally, engagement must be a two-way street based on mutual benefit and mutual respect. The concept of “with” not “for” is important. We must not attempt to inflict art upon an unsuspecting community.

Ethical Practices
With those principles in mind, we must ensure that our practices reflect them. Does our governance and management reflect equity and respect for communities? Who is “allowed” at the table? Barry Hessenius (Barry’s Blog: has said that commitment to diversity must move from being considered a “challenge” to being an obsession. This is true of both our board membership and our staffing. Does our programming reflect our growing understanding of the communities with which we engage? Importantly, what is the root of our pursuit of excellence? Is it for art’s sake? Or is it rather because the communities we serve deserve it?

On one last note, let me also observe something about a question that is often raised in considerations of engagement. When we engage with communities, how do we “exit” the relationship? Simply put, we cannot, we must not. We are an event-focused, event-driven industry. We complete one and are then compelled to move on to the next. This does not, however, fit well with engagement. Using the personal relationship metaphor again, we run the risk of leaving in our wake a series of jilted lovers, upset at what they view as our habit of “one-night stands.” We must devise methods of relationship maintenance. One option for doing so that does not involve inordinate staff resources is the identification of community ambassadors (members of the community who have developed trust in your organization who are willing to serve as on-going liaisons between you and their communities). Related to this could be the formation of a Board of Engagers, the collection of community ambassadors who together are your eyes, ears, and legs in the communities they represent.