Taking a Cheap Shot at Community Engagement

In my last post I took a cheap shot at community engagement and I’d like to make amends for that here.

I began by saying that community engagement is not audience development and that arts organizations that need to sell tickets should stay focused on selling tickets. These two things are true and I stand by them 100%.

The cheap shot came when I said this:

“If you want to do engagement, leave it to outreach and education departments that don’t have to generate revenue.”

This comment was aimed at arts leaders who don’t understand engagement and who think it’s something that can be tagged onto an arts organization as a low-level administrative function (“Of course we’re doing engagement; we just hired an outreach and community engagement manager.”) or, God forbid, programmed (“Join us for a special community event!”) or, worse, dumped on the marketing team (“We’re changing the marketing director’s title to Director of Marketing and Community Engagement.”).

These things aren’t engagement, they’re amateur nonprofit foolishness, and I don’t believe for a minute that outreach or education or any other administrative department should be expected to “do” engagement.

Engagement isn’t something you do, it’s something you are, and no amount of administrative wheel spinning will compensate for an organization that hasn’t fully integrated engagement into its organizational culture – beginning at the very the top of the management hierarchy. If you’re looking for a place to put engagement on your flow chart, the appropriate spot is in the square that says CEO or Executive Director. If community engagement isn’t happening there, it is highly unlikely that it’s happening in a meaningful way anywhere further down the line.

Community engagement is the single most important idea being discussed in the cultural sector today. Arts organizations that don’t endeavor to fully understand it, embrace it, absorb it into their operations, and allow it to change the way they relate to their support systems are virtually guaranteeing that they won’t survive this audience crisis. Arts organizations can’t exist without the support of their communities, and the people who comprise those communities won’t support arts organizations to which they have no relevant personal connections.

If your organization still isn’t quite sure what engagement is, or you’re doing engagementy things without the participation of fully engaged leaders, or you’re making frivolous engagement-like noises because funders have been browbeating you into “doing” engagement, you owe it to yourself and your community to go back to square one and start over.

126.The_Prophet_EzekielAnd if you’re not sure how to do that, you might want to talk to Doug Borwick, who is a saint and possibly even a prophet. Doug has been thinking, writing and talking about engagement for a long time. But more importantly, he’s been in the field helping organizations become more successful engagers. He knows what engagement is and he knows how to help organizations make it work. In a time of great uncertainty, when so many traditional arts organizations are destined to fail, Doug is holding up a beacon in the darkness and pointing the way toward salvation. Those who intend to survive would do well to follow his lead.

I’m happy to call Doug a prophet because at the heart of his message is an idea that prophets have been sharing for millennia. It’s both simple and profound and it goes like this:

Love and be loved in return.

If your ailing arts organization is demanding love from an increasingly indifferent community, it’s probably time to venture out into that community and share some love with the people on whom your survival depends.

Or as Doug Borwick would say: Engage!

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2 thoughts on “Taking a Cheap Shot at Community Engagement

  1. Eegad Trevor. 🙂 Thanks for the shoutout but my word . . . . Family and peers may never let me live this down. I tweeted the post before I got to the end.

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