For Artists & Arts Organizations: 6 Steps to Building Your Base Through Authentic Engagement

This past Monday (Nov. 15th), I gave a talk for Women in Development, New York at El Museo del Barrio. The topic was 'Fundraising in the Age of Social Networking,' and I presented with Rebecca Krause-Hardie, of Audience Works. My portion of the program focused on content creation and engagement through social media.

This past Tuesday night (Nov. 16th), I watched a man walk into the street, carving a huge half-circle-path around a younger man who was canvasing for donations to a national charitable organization. The younger man's biggest challenge was that he, and the cause he represented, ask perfect strangers to give money and to trust him, an un-known person-on-the-street. None of us want to be the canvasser - the one people go out of their way to avoid.

To preempt a virtual reenactment of the above scenario, relationship-building must be at the center of any non-profit or hybrid project. In the age of the idea economy (a la Seth Godin), sharing information of value, and generating solution-focused conversations are the currency of fruitful collaborations. There is no easier way to join a conversation than through technology and social media.

In the words of Clay Shirky (author of Here Comes Everybody), "because of technology we have seen a shift from people who are consumers [only] to people who like to create and share... The gap is between doing anything and doing nothing. We just have to cross that gap."

Below are simple steps to cultivate authentic, long-term relationships, both internal and external to your organization, or company. None of these things should take you more than a few minutes each day - many of them you may do already. Incorporating them into your work and outreach strategy may only entail shifting your focus slightly.

The term 'engagement' is often used to mean 'asking' - for money, attendance at events, or volunteering time. I'm asking you to adhere to a different idea of engagement - one that fosters a genuine two-way interest in topics related to, but not focused on your project.

Listen: Most of us read several newspapers, blogs, trade journals, and magazines each day. Generally there is at least one article that is insightful and relevant either to the work you do or to the nature of life [as a human, in your community, or specific to your audience]. If this is not true for you, ask friends and colleagues what they are reading, and see what resonates with you. Start actively listening to the conversations that surround you.

Share: Organizations are often not very good at chatting up their support base. However, it is easy to share articles through your blog posts, newsletters, or social media platforms, like Face Book or Twitter. Just as friends and relatives often bond over information sharing (e.g. passing on a newspaper article), you can similarly build relationships through information that exists at your fingertips.

Join the Conversation: When you read something that moves you, on a blog, or other online source, leave a comment. Share your thoughts, or perhaps link to other relevant posts. Do not use this as an opportunity to promote yourself or an up-coming event, unless it is extremely relevant and benefits the larger community.

Engage Your Constituency: When sharing something that is meaningful to you or your organization, ask your base to join the conversation too. Use this as an opportunity to develop real dialogue with stakeholders. This is how life-long relationships grow.

Empower Your Base [inside and outside of your organization / company]: Now it is time to create some content of your own. You have people talking, listening, and participating. Invite friends, fans, supporters, and colleagues to co-create a blog post, video, opinion poll, or to 'donate' a favorite article, quote, fun fact, etc. around a topic related to, but not overtly tied to, your project. Make this fun and painless - for you and them.

Ask: It's finally time to ask for content, resources, time, event attendance. Decide on a specific project, time-line, and goal. Before you ask, review what you've learned from listening and interacting with your base. If you want to focus on X, but most of your stakeholders are more interested in Y, I'd suggest you meet them where they are and start with Y.

Tomorrow I will share a perfect working example of what is covered here. On Wednesday (Nov. 17th) I spoke with the new Executive Director of Ballet Hispanico, a mid-sized company working far ahead of the engagement curve and aiming even higher. (read the article here)

This article is the continuation of an on-going exploration of choices and opportunities we have to better understand and participate in: health, art, education, and our communities. I look forward to continuing the conversation.