Your organization sucks at "community" and let me tell you why

Your organization sucks at "community" and let me tell you why

This post is part of the Customer, Client, Collaborator Series in conjunction with Doug Borwick and ArtsEngaged on developing relationships with both new communities and existing stakeholders through artistic programming, marketing and fundraising, community engagement and public policy. (Cross-post can be found at Engaging Matters.) 

Ronia Holmes

Because it isn’t central to your mission. Period.

I hear you harrumphing as mission/vision/values/beliefs and goals statements are dragged out. Sure, your organization has been around for a century or more and these statements about your commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion are barely older than the Gen-Z unpaid intern managing the Facebook account, but still, these statements are proof that your organization is committed to community.

No, they’re not. So put them down, and let’s #RealTalk about communities, new audiences, the past, and the future.

Our shallow definition of “community”

Let’s start with a bit of honesty around language. ”Community,” as a blanket term in relation to engagement and outreach efforts, is code for a set of characteristics that check boxes. The communities on which arts organizations are focusing their limited and earmarked resources are “poor,” “marginalized,” “underserved,” preferably “of color,” and possibly “at-risk.” They are communities whose phenotypical compositions will look good in photos and whose demographics will be heart-warming to funders, keeping at least one cash stream flowing.

For too many organizations, this shallow definition of community is the first hurdle to authentic relationship-building. Relationships are built with people, and not just underserved, marginalized people of color. They are also built with communities that don’t fall into those categories, and that’s ok, too. Regardless of label, organizations forget that people have context. Particularly for old and relatively well-funded organizations trying to reach new communities, that context becomes rather uncomfortable. Many organizations worried today about reaching new communities are organizations that have been in operation since a time when those same communities wouldn’t have been permitted to walk through their doors. These are organizations whose histories include blatant acts of exclusion and devaluation, and whose modern behavior, if less blatant, still reflects a foundational principle that certain cultural output is more worthy than others. Yet those same organizations are creating programs and, in some cases, entire departments devoted to getting these communities to come to them and not only partake of their cultural offerings, but continue to support them through ticket purchases and donations.

“Now we’ve got a space for you!”

And this is the second hurdle to building community relationships: the arrogance of believing that these communities want or need or should invest in those offerings.

Disinvested communities are not devoid of arts and culture. In America particularly, communities who historically have been excluded from the table have responded by building their own tables, using whatever resources could be scraped together. Marginalized communities have established organizations that don’t treat them or their cultural output as deviations from the norm to be celebrated for diversity, but as fundamental components of society. The organizations they created, and continue to create, are replete with artists, leaders, decision-makers, and workers who look like and are part of the community they serve, who share similar lived experiences, and have a deep understanding of what programming will truly resonate.

These organizations are often in a constant struggle to survive in a system that is not only structured against them in terms of funding and other resource allocation, but that delivers a consistent message that what these community-based and -built organizations do is better handled by some organization several zip codes away. An organization that looks nothing like the community they’re supposedly courting, either in terms of staff composition or artistic output, and is almost inevitably delivering messages that run the spectrum of being tone-deaf, patronizing, or just plain offensive.

Rather than grapple with these deeply ingrained failings, most organizations have opted to substitute narrative for action. They have amended their written missions and values in order to recast themselves as inclusive organizations meant for all. They turn to the community and say, “Now we’ve got a space here for you!”

And they fail to hear this critical question: “Why should we abandon our own table for a small chair at yours?”

New ≠ diverse

It is the disregarding of this question that is one of the most significant roadblocks to many organizations’ attempts to build new audiences. There is a pervasive idea that a “new” audience must be a “diverse” one, and community-building is co-opted as a tactic for patron acquisition. The hard truth is that the disinvested communities targeted by so many outreach programs simply do not have the resources to—or, frankly, the interest in—sustaining these organizations. The model of operation on which most organizations operate need constant and high influxes of cash, and the lion’s share of affluence still rests with white patrons.

The reality is that most arts organizations don’t need a “diverse” audience—they need an audience with discretionary income. Yet the almost maniacal focus on community-building keeps organizations trapped in cycles of trying to sell to—not engage with, but sell to—audiences that don’t have that resource. In the meantime, organizations are unable to concentrate fully on patron retention and loyalty, and identifying and building audiences that are able and willing to fill the funding gaps.

#RealTalk: what we’ve got to do as an industry

All that being said—I don’t think arts organizations are bad entities filled with bad people doing bad things. Individuals working in the non-profit arts world—and particularly those working in departments concerned about community—are sincere in their desire to create and nurture relationships. They really do believe in diversity, equity, and inclusion, and really do want to offer meaningful, authentic moments of connection.

The problem is that most organizations are not built to do that, and are constantly struggling with it because of expectations that they should be something they are not. Every year, organizations jump through hoops to secure restricted grants that necessitate yet another outreach program or diversity week or community partnership, hoping that if they impress the funders enough they will be given money that can be used for what the organization actually has a mission to do.

If real, authentic, genuine community building isn’t central to your mission, if it isn’t your raison d'être, then you shouldn’t be doing it. Because chances are that not only are you doing it badly, you’re doing it at the expense of your real mission. The mission of most arts organizations—the real mission—is simple: to present an art form. And that’s ok. We need organizations that prioritize preservation, development, and presentation of an art form, and I for one don’t think any organization should be penalized for it.

Now before you go burning your new-fangled mission statements and burying your head in art for art’s sake, let me address a reality: if you fail to authentically connect your mission to people, you do so at your own peril. Zero attempts at community-building are almost as detrimental to organizations as spurious ones, and stubbornly setting the organization against accepting that “times they have a-changed” is actively seeking demise. Your art form cannot exist without an audience to engage with and support it, and you cannot build and maintain an audience that your organization isn’t genuinely systematized to attract and nurture. So, get real about the audience and the community that you can authentically engage.

If you want to take on the mission of building a diverse community, you’ve got to ask yourself some tough questions. Real community-building is hard work. It’s a constant recalibration, a series of steps and missteps and endless reflective analysis of what you’ve said and done and how you’ve said and done it. It’s a balancing act between what you feel most equipped to offer and what the community is telling you they want. It’s knowing that trust can take years to earn, and ten seconds to destroy. It is a permanent investment in which the greater percentage of ROI is going to the community. It is your organization’s priority and is expected to take precedence in all things.

There is no magic bullet that will instantly improve your organization’s efforts at community building, but I would like to offer one piece of advice that may guide you to a better path.

Before you apply for another audience engagement grant, seek another community partnership, program another celebration of ethnic culture, host another panel on social issues, organize another diversity advisory board, or even sit down to assess the performance of the last time you did any of these things—ask yourself one question: “Is my organization reflective and representative of the audience that I’m trying to reach?”

If the answer is “no”—and be honest, it probably is—then you know where your community building needs to start.

Ronia Holmes

Ronia Holmes is the Assistant Director of Communications for the University of Chicago’s Arts + Public Life initiative. She has over 15 years of experience in arts marketing and communications, and has worked for Hubbard Street Dance Chicago, Madison Opera, the Pittsburgh Symphony, and Opera Theater of Pittsburgh. Holmes has been an invited presenter at the National Arts Marketing Project Conference, and has given classes and lectures throughout her career. In addition to her work in the arts, Holmes provides branding and marketing consultation through her firm, Curiouser: Designs & Branding. She has a Master’s in Arts Management from Carnegie Mellon University, and is an alumna of the Savannah College of Art & Design.


Posted November 16, 2016

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