Introduction: Idea in Brief
- Each organization resides in a unique community
- Geographic, socioeconomic and political realities of the community inform the organization’s approach
- Becoming a good organizational citizen involves both seeking out communities you don’t usually interact with and making your organization available to others
Just as each organization has a unique mission and set of values, so too is each community unique. Presenting organizations reside in communities that differ in terms of geography, socioeconomic and demographic make up and political realities. Presenters need first to open themselves to learning deeply about their communities and then making their organizations available as resources to those communities based on what they learn. In this section, the LDI cohort shares a set of tools and tactics as well as best practices that can help your organization become a “good citizen” through the building and sustaining of meaningful relationships in its community.
Tools and Tactics
Community and exemplar interviews can offer enlightening perspectives about the place of your organization within the community as well as provide an opportunity to learn about how other organizations shape their own culture of community engagement. Likewise, attending events outside of your own organization’s programs can be a positive, eye-opening experience.
Community Interviews – Collect narratives from two currently engaged community members (to be defined by each individual) and one person whom neither you nor your organization knows at all.
Sample questions include:
- When have you felt that our performing arts organization really understood our community?
- When have we successfully built relationships with and within this community?
- What should we understand about this community?
- Tell me a story about an experience you’ve had with our performing arts organization.
Attending Community Events – Go to one or more new community gatherings or events, share your interest in community engagement there, document your experience, and share back with your staff. Better yet, bring a staff member with you or try to develop a staff action that includes an element of community participation:
- Attend events that expose you to parts of your community you do not know well
- Share your interest in community engagement
- Document what happens
- Share your learning with your team
Identify an Exemplar – Find someone you think you can learn from as you work to advance your capacity to build meaningful relationships in your community. This should be someone who has demonstrated success in this area. It can be someone from a non-arts organization. Ask him or her about how they have approached understanding and building relationships with community. Record a summary of their responses that you can share back with your team.
- Find people whose capacity for community engagement you admire
- Ask them about their approach
- Document and share your learning with your team
It is essential to enter and engage your community with openness, and to deepen your understanding of it through the practice of actively serving and supporting others, starting with individual relationships. Some call this being a good local citizen; others call it “karma banking.”
- Set and communicate clear intentions free from an agenda
- Identify a number of organizations/communities and offer services or support (Also without an agenda)
- Allocate resources (in kind) toward sponsorship of other organizations/communities
- Actively engage with community: ask questions and listen
- Create a network with individuals in communities you want to engage
- Participate outside your organization (karma banking)
- Communicate/share learning
- Dedicate focused work on building relationships with honesty and integrity
How It Works in Practice – Voices from the Field
Andre Perry, Executive Director
The Englert Theatre
Iowa City, IA
Andre’s organizational atmosphere toward community engagement could be characterized as responsive, interested, and on-board. He had a hunch that enacting organizational change through small behaviors and actions could lead to larger results over time. So he created a simple, non-stressful task for staff: once a week, each staffer was asked to engage in a conversation with someone in the community, get that person’s sense of the organization’s place in the community, and bring the results of those conversations back to regular staff meetings, logging them in a shared document. At first, this request felt uncomfortable, asking staff to take on another thing, but everyone agreed to give it a try. At first, there was about 85% participation from the staff. They got some good information about what people think about the organization, some positive some negative. If the idea of relating to community was already on the minds of the staff, this was a helpful way to get concrete information.
Later, when the staff revisited the practice, some had questions; they sincerely wanted to know why the organization would still be focused on this. They talked through it and unanimously agreed it would be “great to have a collection of stories and conversations about our organization” that they (and future staffers) could refer to over time as a means of having a better perspective on our place in the community.
During the process, Andre noted: “It is becoming part of our daily motions which is nice to see — People are starting to share stories they’ve heard without prompting in a more casual way. In a sense we are making it our personal mission to be talking with folks in our community. This is something I think we’ve been doing naturally for years but now the conversations have more intent.” He observed that small/simple actions that are developed by a staff/team to address and think about community engagement can become systematic devices that improve an organization’s understanding of and approach to community engagement over time.