Understanding Engagement

ArtsEngaged is pleased to introduce a new resource for engagement practitioners. We are making available the content of Understanding Engagement, Unit 1 of our Community Engagement Training course. The Unit is divided into two sections. The first concentrates on definitions and principles of effective community engagement practice. The second addresses objections to community engagement, some of the reasons it is so important to the future of our industry, and how a community engagement focus can realign the mission of arts organizations for a sustainable future without losing any of the essence of our work.

We encourage people to use this resource freely and to share it with colleagues. It would be particularly appropriate for study groups or as a means to introduce people to the basic concepts critical to community engagement.

If you do make use of it, we would love to hear from you about how you used it, questions/suggestions, and observations about the application of the material and the concepts to your work. To do so, email us at CET@artsengaged.com.



Reach and Frequency

I always proceed with fear and trembling when I venture into the topic of marketing. As I have said in the past, I am not a marketer. Nevertheless, there continue to be numerous valuable lessons from marketing that should support our work in and understanding of community engagement.

Stick with me. This will get a tad “wonky.”

“Reach” and “frequency” are marketing terms that have much application to the discussion of various types of engagement–specifically here, audience engagement and community engagement. To put things too simply: Frequency is the measure of the average number of times a member of a particular group takes advantage of an organization’s offerings. Reach is the percentage of a given population that takes any advantage of those offerings.

Audience engagement, as we understand it at ArtsEngaged, is designed to deepen relationships with current stakeholders. The purpose is, over time, to improve retention, increase frequency, and expand reach through stakeholder networks. (The reach expansion is a secondary element of audience engagement.) Community engagement is designed to build deep relationships between the organization and the communities in which it operates for the purpose of achieving mutual benefit.

So, in broad terms, a prime goal of audience engagement is increasing frequency. (Retention is, of course, the foundation of that.) It is through community engagement that we have the greatest opportunity to increase reach. (And remember that community engagement can be about any community that is not taking full advantage of what the arts have to offer, not “just” historically marginalized ones.)

All of this is important in two of ways. First, increases in frequency can (and should) occur much more rapidly than increases in reach because you are beginning with people who already value the product. The time frames for results are necessarily quite different. Organizations need to acknowledge this in setting results targets for each. Second, the economic realities of our industry demand significant increases in reach to yield the income growth required. This might not be true if the current reach of individual nonprofit arts organizations was greater than the 2-8% studies have shown it to be. Therefore, while it is important to increase frequency it is absolutely vital to expand reach. Community engagement is the most direct path toward that end. I would be prone to argue that it is about the only means available to have a significant impact on reach.

For any arts organization hoping to exist, let alone be a vital force in its community, two or three decades from now, it needs to re-think community engagement’s role in its planning and activities. Community engagement is not just a worthy or an admirable effort to pursue at the margins. It is critical to the future of individual arts organizations and to our industry as a whole.



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The Problem of “Engagement”

In March I had the privilege of participating in the Intersections Summit hosted by Milwaukee Repertory Theater. It was a heady gathering of community engagement practitioners from theaters (mostly) across the U.S. As frequently happens, the conference sparked a number of thoughts. One has to do with the essence of the convening, the word “engagement.”

Engagement is a problematic word; the way it gets used frequently prevents people from appreciating the potential it offers. Simply put, when we use–or see/hear–it we need to be aware of what meaning is implied. Simply put, “Who is doing what with whom to what end?”

As I have mentioned before in this blog (Artcentric Engagement), I have seen “engagement” used to mean providing members of the community the opportunity to engage with an arts organization. In other words, in that use, the obligation is upon people outside the arts organization to come to it. That may not technically be an incorrect use of the word, but this meaning does little (or nothing) to expand the reach of arts organizations. Only the “already convinced” would respond.

Similarly, uses of the word where the arts organization is “engaging” with communities primarily for its own benefit–to increase ticket sales or donations–do nothing to make the organization more important to the life of the community. Indeed, many communities, observing such efforts, will conclude that the organization has no real interest in them. While both of these uses of the word are valid in a grammatical sense, I have long argued that the value of engagement lies in a deeper commitment to communities. What I’ve been advocating is effective engagement, engagement that serves to make an arts organization’s future more viable. The essence of such engagement rests in relationship building with new communities (since the “already convinced” do not represent a huge new pool of prospects) and the non-negotiable foundation for this is pursuit of mutual benefit and inclusion of those communities in the design and implementation of projects. (And, once again, not giving them what we think they want, but knowing them well enough to make suggestions of programs that might serve their interests.)



Photo: AttributionNoncommercialNo Derivative Works Some rights reserved by Ben Terrett

Systemic Privilege Revisited

In Systemically Privileged, I floated an idea. I discussed the difficulty I’ve had over the years in describing the kind of nonprofit arts organization most in need of developing authentic community connections. My suggestion to myself went as follows:

Recently I have begun to experiment with a new label. The issue here is the historic preference given to presenters of a particular cultural tradition in the context of a rapidly diversifying society. Eurocentric arts organizations receive (and have received) the lion’s share of resources (financial, human, “infrastructural”). The system favors these institutions. “Systemically privileged” reflects that preferential treatment. It also names the issue in a fairly straightforward way. So, for the time being, I’m going to give this a whirl: systemically privileged arts organizations.

The post was fairly widely read and elicited a couple of very thoughtful responses. One, from a frequent contributor, Carter Gilles, questioned me on the difference between a label and a description. He buys “SP” as a descriptor but not as a label. He says, “The danger with using a description as a label is that we have captured only one of … many aspects.”

Another commenter, Edward Brennan, said, “’Systematically privileged’ comes across as a desire to shame the organizations and the donors into different actions. . . . The point is, the desire for the label appears to be confrontational. You want people to confront something and you want them to change. By desiring someone to change, you are saying that something about them or their organization is currently unacceptable.”

It’s often the case that respondents point things out that I had missed. My desire for a means of referring to these institutions is almost entirely pedagogical. In a workshop setting, how do I differentiate them from others, for instance culturally specific arts organizations? So I hadn’t given any thought to the label/description question. Indeed, in looking back at the post I see that I used them interchangeably. Although, to be honest, I’m still unsure about the functional difference between them. I’ve never thought of a label as needing to incorporate every aspect of a thing. To my mind, any label is necessarily selective. Otherwise it would not be a label but a treatise. For instance, “presenting organization” does not encompass a group’s educational activities.

Whether I call it a label or a description, I’ve often found it useful to present an idea that forces rethinking of assumptions. I’ll never forget the diversity workshop where I first heard the label/description “temporarily able-bodied.” As a professor, I had in my office an “upside down map of the world.” It had the entertaining effect of disorienting students and, when they said, “That’s upside down,” I’d get to engage them on the how a cartographer’s position on the globe influenced what we think of as up and down.

In the arts, Barry Hessenius in Barry’s Blog, once observed that if there were underserved people there must also be those who are overserved. (In typing this in WordPress, underserved is accepted. Overserved is highlighted as a spelling error!) My own phrase “European aristocratic cultural tradition preservation society” similarly highlights an issue in our field. (And, yes, I know that that one is pretty highly charged. I use it sparingly.)

I suspect that for many people the real issue about “systemically privileged” is its perception as being confrontational. Mr. Brennan even suggested that its intent, among other things, was to shame organizations and donors. I guess I can see that if it’s assumed that I’m antagonistic toward these organizations. But that is by no means the case. My background makes me a passionate supporter of the potential for good these organizations represent in a rapidly changing world. In particular, my concern is their long-term viability, a viability that, in my view, can only be maintained by fairly rapidly changing perspective. I would, certainly, like them to change, in small ways at first, for their own good. In response to Mr. Brennan’s comment about my desire for change, it’s not that I think things about arts organizations are “unacceptable.” Rather, with passionate concern for their future, my belief is that things as they are are “unsustainable.”

But while I’m on the subject let me point out that for many, other labels/descriptions we use are equally confrontational–mainstream, traditional, and legacy, for instance, all suggest a centrality, a Northern-hemisphere-as-the-norm understanding of the cultural landscape. What I am willing to cop to is the thought that at this moment in time, perhaps a little discomfort is not a bad thing in moving us to consider reframing our place in the cultural ecosystem.



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Systemically Privileged

People concerned about issues related to the arts and equity (funding is just one area) have used many terms to describe the juggernaut that is the world of symphonies, ballet companies, museums, and theaters. Most of the terminology used is either offensive or absurdly complex (and/or unwieldy). “Mainstream” illustrates the former. It implies this Eurocentric world to be the standard, the “normal.” It places it at the center, marginalizing those organizations that, by use of the term, are outside the mainstream. Another descriptor, one of my favorites–European aristocratic cultural tradition preservation societies–illustrates the latter (and is also, of course, a “bit” confrontational).

For the record, I do understand that many members of the symphony/ballet/museum/ theater world do not consider themselves juggernaut-worthy. Most are painfully aware of their constant struggle for funds, recognition, etc. and cannot imagine themselves to be “big dogs.” But their perspective is from the top of the food chain. It is only those arts organizations that are profoundly under-resourced in comparison that can see this.

Recently I have begun to experiment with a new label. The issue here is the historic preference given to presenters of a particular cultural tradition in the context of a rapidly diversifying society. Eurocentric arts organizations receive (and have received) the lion’s share of resources (financial, human, “infrastructural”). The system favors these institutions. “Systemically privileged” reflects that preferential treatment. It also names the issue in a fairly straightforward way. So, for the time being, I’m going to give this a whirl: systemically privileged arts organizations. I invite–with some trepidation knowing how fraught this topic is–your thoughts. What am I missing? What invisible (to me) assumptions does this include? (I am well aware that I have many blind spots.) In other words, what are some of the ways that this is as unworkable as so many of the other labels we attempt to use? Of course, if you like it, feel free to use it yourself.

The continuation of the level of privilege these institutions enjoy is socially and politically untenable given the demographic upheaval we are experiencing. (It is also, of course, morally indefensible even if historically understandable.) But until we have good ways of naming it and discussing it we will be difficult to make any significant changes.



Photo:AttributionShare Alike Some rights reserved by Dr Stephen Dann