Do Funders Think Engagement Will Replace Marketing?

I filled out a municipal grant application not too long ago for a choir that sang mostly classical works from European sacred music traditions. The application kept asking how I planned to allocate marketing resources toward under-served communities and I kept saying that I wouldn’t be doing that because the role of marketing is to maximize revenue/participation by spending where the yield will be greatest. To do otherwise in a small nonprofit with severely limited marketing resources would be fiscally irresponsible – and you wouldn’t want us to be fiscally irresponsible with taxpayer money now, would you?

I didn’t say it quite like that but my tone may have implied it.

We didn’t get the grant.

I was reminded of this recently while reading a series of interesting blog posts by Clayton Lord, Diane Ragsdale, Nina Simon, Barry Hessenius, Jim Canales and others (read their posts and and follow additional links). They’ve been talking about how funders encourage grant recipients to support diversity and it made me realize that my experience may not have been unusual.

I’m a marketer so I’m not going to wade into the deep end on this one, but I will say that funders who intend to broaden arts participation through giving would do well to understand the difference between community engagement and marketing. They’re two very different things and to conflate them could have devastating consequences.

Nonprofit marketers have a fiscal responsibility to get the most out of their limited resources by allocating them narrowly and aiming them where they will earn the best return – irrespective of the cultural affiliations of the people who buy the product. Any dollar or work hour that’s diverted from this objective not only diminishes the potential return, but diminishes the long-term impact of the marketing effort and thus the health and viability of the organization. With shrinking audiences and dwindling resources, marketers have enough on their plates without being asked to socially engineer the makeup of their audiences by diverting resources to less productive targets. It’s a straightforward matter of bang-for-the-buck survival.

A healthy community engagement strategy, meanwhile, because it is supported by contributed income, can define its objectives with greater freedom and reach out to culturally diverse communities as determined by the organization’s mission rather than its bottom line. There may be certain resource limitations and performance expectations that serve to focus the effort, but success is measured using a broad range of long-term qualitative criteria, not daily wraps, nightly box office statements or the ability to meet next week’s payroll.

The problem comes, of course, when folks start talking about engagement in terms of audience development. There is little evidence to suggest that engagement strategies can support paid participation at sustainable levels in traditional, earned revenue-dependent organizations, but that’s seldom part of the pro-engagement discussion. Given the nature of the discourse to date, I sense that there’s a belief among funders that traditional organizations can be encouraged to retool their audience development models and become more engagement oriented by shifting the focus of the grants.

And this belief could turn out to be true if engagement and marketing are allowed to work independently, side by side, until the engagement approach proves itself capable of driving sufficient paid participation. But I’m not sure that’s where we’re heading. My guess is that many grant recipients, especially those that fall into the middle area between grass roots and tent pole organizations, will be expected to absorb experimental engagement practices into their existing structures without additional financial support. And when that happens, executive leaders will assume that engagement responsibilities should fall naturally under the audience development, a.k.a. marketing, umbrella.

If I were a marketing director in a midsize arts organization and my ED said to me, “Oh, by the way, you’re going to be responsible for expanding participation from a broader cross section of the community with the same budget and dollar goals,” I’d walk out the door. The scenario may sound overly dramatic, but I’ve worked in the nonprofit world long enough to know just how vigorously the grant application tail wags the organizational dog, and how vulnerable marketing can be to management’s grant-hungry “mission oriented” expectations.

Nina Simon took the liberty in her post of offering recommendations to the James Irvine Foundation, which is at the forefront of this movement, and I’d like to add a few marketing related points for funders who hope to move the industry in a more engagement oriented direction:

1. Define marketing as it relates to engagement using professional marketing expertise from both inside and outside the industry. Make a concerted effort to know in advance exactly what role marketing must play in the industry’s future and where engagement and marketing can safely and productively overlap. If engagement is expected to eventually supplant marketing, project when that will happen and plan to support marketing-dependent organizations during the interval.

2. If engagement strategies are expected to influence paid participation, define exactly how that will work, what the bottom line goals will be, how long it will take for engagement to begin producing measurable results, and how engagement and marketing will balance their respective roles and goals as they work together to grow and sustain audiences.

3. Don’t offer grants that tempt struggling organizations to choose between engagement and marketing or that expect them to carry out both functions in the same space. What most of these organizations need is more professional, more efficient, better focused, quantitative marketing operations.

I’m in full agreement with the direction in which the funding community is moving, but I think it has the potential to turn the reasons for the change of direction into a self-fulfilling prophesy. Some arts organizations aren’t going to survive this transition. We all know that. But it would be a tragedy if funders began presenting options that caused otherwise healthy organizations to falter by forcing them to grasp at inappropriate opportunities.


2 thoughts on “Do Funders Think Engagement Will Replace Marketing?

  1. In following these discussions from outside the arts policy sphere one question continues to pop up over and over. That being, who and what is it that the “funders” are funding and who and what is it the ” grant recipients” are applying to funders for? Another similar question to you Trevor would be, ‘who’ is it that is making the thing that you end up marketing?
    The NEA, our leading public funder, has a 1500 word program description for it’s top initiative, it’s OUR TOWN grant program. The word artists is only used 5 times in that description. Four of those five times the word is used rather insignificantly in listing ‘artists” behind other more prominent groupings such as “communities”, “art organizations”, “governmental and private sectors”, “state and local governments”, and “foundations.” The most notable use of the word is when the program description states that grants are not available to artists that are “not integral to a broader civic development strategy.”
    The artist, the producer of our culture, is becoming more and more invisible in the discussion regarding engagement, participation, funding and arts organizations.
    What is it you are marketing?

  2. I said I wasn’t going to wade into the deep end on this one, Richard, but I appreciate your questions. My job is to sell the art – whatever that happens to be – and to keep the organizations I work for healthy and sustainable. Personally, I believe my roll is to create the closest possible connection between art and audience and I agree that the interests of both are all too often peripheral to the discussion.

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