2. Building an Organizational Culture

Introduction: Idea in Brief

  • An internal culture of engagement is essential
  • Each organization’s approach will be informed by its unique mission and core values
  • Start from where you and your organization are today

How does the internal culture of an organization affect its interaction and collaboration with the community around it? Each organization has a unique mission and set of core values that shape its internal culture. This culture, in turn, informs the organization’s level of commitment to community engagement and even its idea of what the term “engagement” means. Ultimately, it is this internal culture that informs how an organization approaches its work with its community.

While mission and values may remain constant, there are ways to foster a deeper culture of engagement within an organization to take its work with community to the next level. The following tools can be helpful for starting or deepening a conversation with staff about engaging community and moving them toward action.

Tools and Tactics

1. Conducting an Internal Audit

  • Current organizational practices of knowing/engaging community
  • Staff attitudes/values
  • Current partnerships/relationships
  • Reflection on successes/challenges

Conducting an internal audit offers an opportunity to look inward at your organization in new ways. Actively gather information on these four areas – current practices, staff attitudes and values, current partnerships, and successes and challenges – and document both what you find and what sense you make of it.

a. Current organizational practices of knowing/engaging community

Identify general categories of activities and/or strategies your organization is currently using to know and engage with your surrounding community.

Important questions to ask include:

  • Does our mission statement/strategic plan include community engagement?
  • What resources do we devote to community engagement (and evaluation of those strategies)? How can we refine/improve on our current community engagement approaches/practices?
  • To what extent and how are we including community engagement in our programming process?

b. Staff attitudes/values

Conduct brief interviews with a set of three colleagues about their understanding of the organization’s approach to community.

Questions could include:

  • When have you experienced our organization genuinely engaged with our community? What made that possible?
  • To what extent do you feel we in the organization currently understand our community?
  • Where do you think knowing and engaging our community falls in the hierarchy of priorities here?
  • What would it take for us to more effectively engage our community?

Please record the results of these interviews in summary form.

c. Current partnerships/relationships

Compile a list of current partnerships between your organization and other organizations or groups in your community.

d. Reflection on successes/challenges

Identify and reflect on a time when you have felt your organization was at its best in its relationships with community and another time when it felt challenged in its relationships with community. Compose a journal entry describing those moments, including who was involved, what the content of the work was, what strategies for connecting with community were being employed, etc. Try to answer the question: What’s working at your organization with regard to engaging community and what’s not and how do you know?

2. Shaping Internal Culture – Taking Staff Action

  • Collect feedback from your organization’s patrons on a regular basis and discuss it with staff at short, weekly meetings
  • Integrate community engagement into your mission and/or strategic plan
  • Include community engagement as a part of job descriptions
  • Engage your community via social media at least once a day

After conducting an internal organizational audit, it can be useful to develop staff actions that help your team move toward stronger community engagement. Staff actions can be big or small; the LDI members recommend keeping it simple to start.

Download the Building Your Organizational Culture Worksheet.

Best Practices

  • Maintain your organization’s unique approach
  • Involve staff
  • Include community engagement in job descriptions
  • Reflect and share learning regularly
  • Build momentum
  • Integrate into mission, vision and strategic plan
  • Use your influence

Developing a culture of engagement internally requires making building and sustaining of community relationships an institutional priority that is broadly held, resourced and enacted through simple, habitual and integrated actions. These are some best practices to insure that knowing and connecting with community becomes a regular part of your organization’s work. First, remember that each organization’s approach to building and sustaining relationships with community is as unique as the organization and communities themselves.

No two relationships are the same. Stay true to what is core for your organization as you extend its reach into its community. Second, involve staff as stakeholders. Ultimately, they will be the ones to move the talk about community engagement into action. To insure the responsibility is broadly held, include a community engagement responsibility in each job description. Then, work with the staff to set aside dedicated time at recurring meetings to address community engagement through regular reflection and shared learning. You can also use these meetings to make a simple action bucket-list and try to check something off each week/month in order to build and sustain momentum.

Once you have more experience building relationships with community, see if you can integrate community engagement into vision, mission and strategic plan. Finally, champion the cause at whatever level of influence you have.

How It Works in Practice – Voices from the Field

Liza Sacheli Lloyd, Director
Mahaney Center for the Arts, Middlebury College
Middlebury, VT:

The LDI’s collaborative inquiry corresponded with the Mahaney Center for the Arts (MCA)’s 20th anniversary year, and Liza’s first full year in a leadership role within her organization. MCA didn’t have a lot of financial resources available to mark the anniversary so the staff had to think creatively about feasible strategies that were true to their values. In lieu of a big, expensive 20th anniversary party, Liza and her staff envisioned a series of roughly 20 community engagement activities that would take place throughout the year.

Using the Wolf Brown report Making Sense of Audience Engagement as a springboard, Liza engaged her staff group in a summer retreat where they brainstormed community engagement program ideas that would add value to existing/scheduled programs. Ideas ranged from pre-performance dinners with “creative conversations;” asking audiences to post their thoughts on sticky notes in the lobby; book signings related to arts events; curtain speeches before performances, sushi-rolling demos; and more. Then the group winnowed down the list based on their institutional priorities (interdisciplinary reach; collaborative work; tying the arts to the College’s identified strengths in international concerns, environmental leadership, etc.), their interest in each idea, and their assessment of each idea’s value. Each staffer was asked to take the lead on at least one community engagement activity, so that the commitment to the community engagement concept would be broadly held throughout our organization. Asking each staffer to take on an activity also infused investment and responsibility throughout the group. Though there was some initial resistance from staff—some felt adding community engagement was asking them to pile more on an already full plate—the act of letting the staff guide the process helped them become more invested and excited. As a side benefit, these smaller-scale activities would be more manageable on a case-by-case basis, and hopefully, their frequency would make a more effective impact on the community of participants. This is an externally-oriented action, based on engaging our community.

From an internal perspective, throughout the year, the MCA staff reviewed the list of actions (and assessed and refined their plans) at weekly staff meetings. In the process, they continued to remind themselves that community engagement is their raison d’etre—and it is part of everyone’s job. Community engagement also dovetailed well with the MCA’s position within a College, emphasizing its educational mission. They staff continues to articulate their wish to inspire themselves and our audiences to be life-long learners—communicating their motives clearly has helped audiences catch their fever. These strategies have definitely encouraged deeper, more thoughtful audience engagement, asking attendees to be thoughtful and active about their arts experiences, and extending the impact of the arts experience beyond the time spent in the theater or gallery. The MCA staff have gotten getting feedback from audiences and from the academic administration that the Arts at Middlebury have turned a corner—to being more collaborative, more open, and less of a silo – that they’re “happening” and relevant.

Some observations: Community engagement can manifest itself in many ways. Big initiatives are great, but even small activities can be effective if they’re part of your normal practice. Being intentional about listening to your community and responding in thoughtful ways can change your organization’s culture, and make it a more fertile place for big actions.
Community engagement won’t be effective if it’s just a top-down idea. The culture of community engagement should be woven throughout your organizational chart, and be part of the jobs of as many artists and staff as possible. 

Sharon Fantl, Assistant Director
Redfern Arts Center, Keene State College
Keene, NH:

Sharon occupied a middle position in her organization, and found herself introducing the idea of community engagement to a staff that was still a little ambiguous about the concept. So she took a relatively simple approach at first. She “put on the lens” of community engagement as she went to other events and meetings, and initiated conversations with the concept in mind, Later she brought her reflections back to her staff group. Her approach was informal, and not intimidating; she modeled by example. She found that, over time, other staff members were open to trying it out themselves. For example, her director articulated a wish to create a visual map of where some of the personal/ community conversations were taking place. A reluctant staffer who felt vague about “putting on the lens of community engagement” later noted that he connected well with prospective students who found their way into the arts center, and with a campus locksmith who was not a usual audience member, but who responded enthusiastically to a personal invite to an event of interest.

Later Sharon attempted to go further with her staff action–to spend time in staff meetings discussing what a shift in the organizational culture (or a shift in their ways of engaging people) might look like. She shared some guiding principles about community engagement, and highlighted a few key points—particularly about small actions, and coming from places of relevance to each individual’s position. She reinforced the need to reflect and evaluate— and that by doing so simply and consistently, her staff would be working towards being able to incorporate it into future planning more easily. She was able to lead a mini-retreat about community engagement, centered on four questions:

  1. Does our mission statement/strategic plan include community engagement?
  2. What resources do we devote to community engagement (and evaluation of those strategies)?
  3. How can we refine/improve on our current community engagement approaches/practices?
  4. To what extent and how are we including community engagement in our programming process?

She arranged to reflect back on these questions—and the actions they prompted—each week at staff meeting. Though the process wasn’t always consistent—and it sometimes got bumped from the meeting agenda—she felt some incremental progress. Later she noted, “This staff meeting was interesting in that engagement was not specifically on the agenda and the conversation again was less about our individual conversations, but instead it was diffused in much of our conversation about our fall season overview, our thoughts about the spring season, plans for next year, and an unexpected gift we received from a new donor. It felt like an open brainstorming session for how to connect our programming, with our community engagement intentions- and it just felt broader, more inviting, and like a small shift in how we can approach our work and our community. So that was cool.”

LDI Methodology

APAP’s Leadership Development Institute follows a Cooperative Inquiry design. Read more ›

2012/2013 Team

Fourteen LDI team members were chosen from a cross section of US presenting organizations. Read more ›

Best Practices

LDI members developed best practices around 5 key aspects of engaging community with and through the arts. Read more ›

About LDI

Launched in 2010, the goal of the LDI is to develop the leadership, knowledge and capacity required to advance the performing arts presenting field. Read more ›

Resource Library

LDI members created a library of resource materials to guide presenters’ community building efforts. Read more ›