Frank Discussion About Outreach, New Audiences Efforts In The Community

A couple of good articles on the influence non-profits in the community came out this week. CityLab noted that in some communities, non-profits were exhibiting greater influence and leadership than politicians that represented those districts.

Based on his observations, he argues in the journal American Sociological Review, the role of nonprofits in disadvantaged city neighborhood has been changing. They’re no longer just extensions of the state or representatives of a few interest groups. They’re “legitimate representatives of poor urban neighborhoods,” and in many cases, “supersede” elected officials.


What’s happening now is that these organizations are directly negotiating for resources from public and private sector entities that hold the proverbial purse strings. Community organizations are now authoritative voices at the table, and often regarded by both private companies and bureaucrats as more invested and deeply knowledgable representatives of the neighborhoods. In Boston, “district-based elected officials, by contrast, attended ribbon cuttings and groundbreakings but were largely absent from substantive discussions of redevelopment planning,” Levine writes.

When I read this earlier this week, I thought it was interesting but didn’t think most arts organizations were deeply involved enough in their communities to wield this type of influence.

As luck would have it, I didn’t have to think too long about how I might express this in a blog post because Ronia Holmes does it so well in a post that came out today on TRG Arts’ blog.

Her post, “Your organization sucks at “community” and let me tell you why” is a must read if your arts organization conducts outreach activities or talks about attracting new audiences. I plan to distribute it to my board and partners in other arts organizations.

She makes some very frank statements which may be uncomfortable to read, but they are reasonable and empathize with the position in which arts organizations find themselves.

Almost too much to quote but I will try to keep it brief:

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.

Referring to arts organizations which are not native to these disinvested communities:

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?

The following about seeking new audiences really grabbed my attention:

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.


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.

As much as I quoted here, there is a lot I left out. Even though I probably flirted with tl;dnr eight paragraphs ago, I hope this sample is enough to make you want to read more of what she said.

While it is not the final word on the subject, I think we probably recognize the truth in what she says about outreach efforts. The futility of grant chasing has been acknowledged for quite awhile. These are ideas that need continued discussion.

While we would like to be in a position where our organizations are viewed as leaders in the community like those in the CityLab article, most arts organizations really lack the resources and mission to fulfill that role.

About Joe Patti

I have been writing Butts in the Seats (BitS) on topics of arts and cultural administration since 2004 (yikes!). Given the ever evolving concerns facing the sector, I have yet to exhaust the available subject matter. In addition to BitS, I am a founding contributor to the ArtsHacker ( website where I focus on topics related to boards, law, governance, policy and practice.

I am also an evangelist for the effort to Build Public Will For Arts and Culture being helmed by Arts Midwest and the Metropolitan Group. (

My most recent role was as Executive Director of the Grand Opera House in Macon, GA.

Among the things I am most proud are having produced an opera in the Hawaiian language and a dance drama about Hawaii's snow goddess Poli'ahu while working as a Theater Manager in Hawaii. Though there are many more highlights than there is space here to list.


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