Engagement’s Great, But Can Development Departments Handle The Workload?

Like many arts professionals, I’m watching the funding community’s pro-engagement push with great interest. I agree that community engagement is where we’re heading and that funders should be stimulating more engagement-oriented activity on the part of arts organizations, but I’m having trouble seeing how all those development departments will handle the added workload.

At first glance, it makes perfect sense that engagement will fall under the development umbrella. Development professionals are unusually adept at initiating, nurturing and sustaining relationships with community members so the fit is ideal: Engagement is merely an extension of the work that development departments already do. And since engagement doesn’t generate earned revenue, it makes sense that the people who will be seeking funding for engagement activities are the ones who execute those activities. The closer the relationship between the engagers and the funders who pay for their work, the more efficient their endeavors will be. But ultimately, engagement is about building networks of future donor/supporters so it makes sense to have the development staff out in the community creating the relationships that will generate long-term monetary returns. The development/engagement symbiosis is unmistakable and their pairing is as natural and appropriate as wine and cheese.

But at the same time, engagement takes a lot of work. Programming and promoting engagement activities takes time and resources, and sustaining meaningful relationships with community members requires huge personal investments on the part of the development staffers who will be asked to undertake the work. It will be interesting to see how development managers will keep the sustaining revenue flowing in while attempting to forge more meaningful, dynamic, person-to-person relationships between their organizations the the communities they exist to serve. Asking development to be the link between the community and the organization may be obvious, but will they be able to do it without adding more staff or having to raise a lot more money?

I’ve heard no discussions to date about how these new engagement endeavors will impact development departments, and frankly I’m surprised that more development directors haven’t spoken up about the increased burden (maybe they’re worried about offending their foundation contacts?). Development executives are under a lot of pressure these days and adding an entirely new layer of administrative responsibility seems like a lot to ask. It would be a shame if these new expectations pushed already stressed development pros to the limit and caused them to seek private sector gigs with more realistic job descriptions. The cultural sector can ill-afford to alienate professionals who are responsible for bringing so much revenue into their organizations.

I’m aware that the days of creaky old tent pole organizations that offer passive arts products are numbered, and that more nimble, hands-on, interactive arts organizations are where the foundation money will be going, but I believe that a lot of stable, mid-sized, traditional arts organizations still have a lot to offer and, with the right level of support, could find ways to remain viable, productive and valuable to their communities for many years to come.

So I’m curious to know how development departments in those organizations are preparing for their new engagement responsibilities and whether any fundraising pros out there are nervous about what’s coming down the pike. My perspective is that of a marketer and, while I can’t speak for all marketers, I’m confident that development professionals will have the support of their marketing colleagues. Our plates may be full with earned revenue-oriented work, but we’re happy to support you in your new engagement responsibilities whenever we can.


8 thoughts on “Engagement’s Great, But Can Development Departments Handle The Workload?

  1. I’d suggest that organizations need to develop and embrace an engagement culture across everything they do. We need to break the silo mentality. Meaningful engagement is everyone’s job, from staff to board members. Every interaction with a customer/ticket buyer/donor/artist is an opportunity to deepen that relationship. If engagement is an embedded part of the organization’s culture, it shouldn’t be an added burden, but simply the way we do business. When you study companies who deeply value first rate customer service, I wonder if their employees argue about who’s job it is to engage the customer.

  2. How about this idea: Give Community Engagement the status it needs and deserves to be successful. Make it a separate department that reports directly to the ED and give it a meaningful budget. Trying to roll it into already overworked development or marketing departments won’t cut it. Although development is a better fit than the marketing department, the work will fall to the bottom of the pile, like planned giving often does, because there is no immediate impact to the bottom line. Until we take this initiative seriously, and stop trying to shove it into a corner, nothing is going to change.

  3. I agree with Christy, it would be best if engagement is a part of everyone’s job. We all interact with people and it is about time we all engage too. Also, I would like to add, that it is good that you brought up the capacity issue, although, aside from a team effort, there is something else that can be done to free up time and energy. Evaluate what is working and what is not working, and get rid of all the tasks and budget lines that are tied to what is not working. You would not believe how this can free up enough energy to apply to engagement, which has proven to be in the what works column.

  4. Hello Trevor … I’m not sure I agree with your linking of engagement and development. For me, engagement encompasses the whole audience/brand experience. It’s not about raising money … its about delivering on mission.

    • Lisa, you get at something very important: mission. Engagement shouldn’t be seen as a branch of development – and certainly not as an activity undertaken to attract funding – but as an organic outgrowth of the organization’s purpose and goals. For some groups, creating effective and meaningful engagement may require significant re-thinking of their mission and strategies. My concern is for those that don’t carefully define what “engagement” means for their organizations and plan accordingly, which could easily lead to mission creep.

  5. I agree with Christy too. I remember going on a tour fifteen years ago at the National Gallery in DC, and it was actually given by the director of the museum at the time, it was one of the things he said it was one of the things he did to remain engaged with those who went to the museum.

    I also recently went to Disney world and had a wonderful discussion with one of the janitorial staff about the purchase of the Star Wars franchise by Disney, something he was very positive about.

    Yes, it is more central to some jobs than others, but integrating engagement in seems to be the way. Because engagement is a two way street, there is nothing worse than when an organization puts it in a silo. I think about questionnaires which ask for input from visitors, but give nothing directly back in conversation. No two way street.

  6. I agree that it would be wonderful to have engagement ingrained in every aspect of an arts organization, but the reality is that in many arts organizations if it’s everyone’s responsibility, it’s nobody’s responsibility. That is why I suggest a senior level manager with a budget and measurable goals to lead the initiative.

  7. Perhaps engagement could be the purview of those who are either already good at it or who volunteer because they want to learn it. In my former orchestra I voluntarily began an effort to meet weekly with our telemarketing group. They were on the frontlines doing a job we musicians couldn’t do. I wanted to thank and help our salespeople understand what an orchestra does and why it might matter. They all wanted to understand this too and always had a lot of turnover. So I’d play for them and interact with them and bring in other members to do the same. I learned to articulate better, speak louder and feel more comfortable at public-speaking. I even picked up some valuable sales advice. It was win-win. Yes, engagement should be organization-wide, but only those who love it will be most successful.

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