Engaging Down To The Lesser People

I used the phrase “business community engagement” recently and was roundly chastised by a fellow arts professional for my transgression:

“We’re not here to engage with businesses. We’re nonprofit arts organizations. We’re here to engage with the community.”

When I asked what distinguished the community she was referring to from the one I was referring to, my colleague described a community made up of people from senior centers, urban schools, ethnic minorities and other marginal groups, all of whom occupied social positions well below hers or those of her colleagues in the cultural sector. In her nonprofit worldview, ‘community’ meant lesser people whose lives might be improved by art, and the intended recipients of her charity bore little resemblance to the folks who had traditionally sustained her arts organization.

I’ve had this conversation often enough to know that when the arts talk about community, we’re usually talking about a subset of the population from which traditional buyers and donors are conspicuously absent. Our core sustaining audiences are affluent, educated, culturally aware consumers who work in businesses and professions and who align themselves with social circles and affinity groups that are consistent with their status. But these are rarely the people or the groups we think about when we set out to engage. ‘Community’ in the arts means people at the lower end of the social ladder and engagement is a benevolent gesture offered to raise them up.

There’s nothing wrong with the charitable mentality that encourages nonprofits to make art available to marginal communities, but applying this thinking to engagement in hopes of building dependable future audiences is counterproductive and fiscally irresponsible. Engagement for charity is a zero sum game. If we keep losing audiences while investing precious resources in populations that lack the potential to replace our customary support systems, we’ll die.

This may be a hard pill to swallow for some, but if your organization expects its community engagement efforts to grow sustaining audiences, those efforts must be directed toward the community members who are most likely to buy tickets. Engagers who want to influence audience development have a fundamental responsibility to identify and isolate their most promising sub-communities, in advance, and focus their engagement efforts where they’ll deliver the strongest ROI.

Marketers do this every day. Marketers have limited resources that must be used in the most responsible way, so they concentrate on the most likely ticket buyers. Engagers, who have even fewer resources, can’t afford to squander them on relationships that offer no useful return. It may sound callous, but arts organizations can’t afford to function as charities when their audiences are shrinking and their own survival is in question.

Of course any arts organization can do engagement for engagement’s sake, but this has to be paid for by funders and it can’t be counted as audience development.

Or, arts organizations can engage productively with potential ticket buyers, create mutually beneficial community relationships AND deliver a reasonable return on their investment.

Some may believe that it’s possible to do both, but anyone who tries it will need a precise set of metrics to determine exactly what the programs cost, how much they’re projected to return and who’s going to cover the losses. Trust me. If you launch engagement programs for charitable reasons and expect them to generate revenue, there will be losses.

So what’s the alternative? Try something like this: If you’re an arts administrator whose job description includes engagement, plan and propose a relationship-building program for your local legal community. Organize an event with a thematic tie-in for an upcoming show. Invite a prominent guest host who’s well known in legal circles and solicit the help of a handful of influential judges to lend their names to the invitation. Get key board members involved and encourage them to invite legal professionals in their social circles. Make it a fun, interactive program designed to better connect your organization’s staff and artists to a promising new audience of affluent, educated community members. And design the event’s messaging to promote long-term participatory relationships between your guests and your organization with an emphasis on ease-of-access to quality ticket inventory.

I know. Heads exploding all over the conference room. “You want to do what?”

Here’s the ultimate question: Are these lawyers any less deserving of engagement than the rest of the community? I have a lawyer friend who’s smart, curious and culturally literate, but a regular Joe for the most part. He doesn’t go to the theatre or attend classical concerts or dance events very often, but there’s no reason he wouldn’t find them rewarding if he did. And there’s every reason to expect that he would if, through his professional circles, he discovered a personal connection to some of the rich cultural offerings in his city.

Why on earth wouldn’t we engage with people like him?

Linking community engagement to audience development is a dangerous business. If engagement is about growing audiences, nonprofit engagers have an unmistakable fiscal duty to use resources in the most prudent manner possible, which means there must be a measurable, predictable financial benefit to the organization. Otherwise, nonprofit arts organizations become pass-through charities with well-intentioned but finite futures.

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2 thoughts on “Engaging Down To The Lesser People

  1. It will come as no surprise that I agree with you completely. As a matter of fact I want to steal (with attribution) your paragraph about engaging with lawyers. (Substitute almost any community and the outline is a great one.) Community engagement ≠ charity. It’s about expanding our reach in many ways. The charitable impulse is good but it’s not the total of CE. In this context “community” simply means a group of people with something in common.

    • Steal away, Doug.

      I like your “group of people with something in common” idea. I’m convinced that affinity groups offer the most potential for productive engagement by arts organizations, but these are typically left to moribund “group” sales departments where they are essentially forgotten.

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