Intended Customers Aren’t The Only Targets Of Customer-Centric Efforts

I wanted to brag a bit on my staff today. For about a year now I have been talking about making our promotional materials and operational habits focused more toward attendees rather than inwardly focused. As a result, staff has helped collect images of audiences enjoying themselves and gather stories about what engages and interests them both about our venue and programming, but also the greater community.

One of my staff members took this to heart and expanded on the concept to include our volunteers. For me this reinforced the concept that the target of customer-centric efforts aren’t just the people we hope will show up. More about that later.

One of the things our staff member does is conduct “Let’s Make A Deal” style quizzes about safety procedures before every performance. If a volunteer answers correctly, they get to choose a box with prizes under them. Some are fun white elephant type prizes.

For a recent training sessions we held for all volunteers, she sent out a Raiders of the Lost Ark themed invitation that invited volunteers to submit stories and pictures about current and past adventures, share something they are proud of, funny stories and their favorite thing about volunteering. They were also asked if they wanted to bring in an artifact to share.

About half of the 40 people who attended submitted stories, images and artifacts which we put on display across three walls of a lobby alcove.

She carried the same Raiders of the Lost Ark theme through the training Powerpoint with images from the movies which were spot on with the topic.

You can probably see the obvious link between volunteers feeling engaged with an organization and the willingness and energy they can bring to helping audiences feel welcomed. Who is in the lobby greeting people as they arrive is just as important as the faces and stories that appear on stage or on the walls/display in the space.

The customers in a customer centered approach aren’t just the primary targets of your efforts, whether it as a paid or unpaid attendance environment, volunteers and other constituencies, including infrequent or non-attendees are part of the mix. The impression everyone in the greater community has about your organization and the experience you offer gets communicated to a greater or lesser extent. Volunteers are definitely a primary point of contact for audiences, but non-attendees who feel their quality of life is improved by having an entity like yours available have just as big a role to play so having them feel engaged, if only in a tangential manner, is valuable.

Don’t Break Up With Volunteers Over Email

I recently saw an article about the Portland Art Museum essentially firing all their volunteer docents by email in favor of paid students with a suggestion that the docents weren’t diverse enough. I felt a sense of deja vu and couldn’t figure out why until I saw a brief mention of the Art Institute of Chicago doing something similar.  Sure enough, I had linked to posts Drew McManus and Lee Rosenbaum had made in November 2021 about the Art Institute’s firing of docents by email in favor of paid staff due to the docents not being as diverse as the organization wanted.

Drew suggested the Art Institute had created a PR crisis by fumbling the process pretty soundly. I haven’t seen a similar uproar about Portland’s decision to do the same thing. The media landscape has certainly changed in many ways since November 2021.

While working aggressively to achieve diversity goals are absolutely laudable, as Drew pointed out the Art Institute had established qualifications for docents that pretty much only wealthy, older individuals could fulfill. It appeared they both jettisoned the structure of the docent program and the participants without any thought of a gradual integration or transition to a new model that would parlay their experienced volunteers.

“Once the news went public, there was a good bit of blow back, especially after the docent group’s spokesperson said the organization’s membership supports reaching diversity goals. What they wanted to know is why they were tossed to the curb without a replacement program ready to implement nor a plan to aggressively diversify over the period of a few years.

Given that volunteers were required to maintain eighteen months of twice-a-week training to qualify as a docent and five additional years of continual research along with a laundry list of other requirements, it’s not difficult to see why there would be concern.”

The Portland docents are being encouraged to join a new program where they can act as educators, greeters and coat-check helpers. Some of the docents had already had a sense that this was going to be the direction of things and feel a bit betrayed by how the transition was being handled.

One former docent, who declined to be named, didn’t feel blindsided like Dacklin did by changes to the council. Based on what happened to the docents in Chicago and all the equity consultants PAM brought in, she had felt the “foreboding” for a couple of years. She laughed at the idea of going back to PAM as a volunteer educator: “They burned their bridge.”

Dacklin feels similarly alienated. “I’m heartbroken,” she says, her voice brimming with emotion. “Will I go back to the museum and volunteer? I don’t know anyone that’s going to do it. But I don’t know everyone.”

Non-Profits Didn’t Volunteer For Mandatory Volunteerism

It is likely you haven’t been able to avoid the seemingly incessant discussion about the negotiations to raise the debt limit. If you haven’t been able to muster the zen-like state of letting the details of those negotiations pass through one ear and out the other, you may recall that work requirements for those receiving financial aid some some sort has been one of the sticking points.

In a post on the For Purpose Law Group blog, Linda J. Rosenthal writes about how mandatory volunteerism is a bad idea. In her piece, which contains dozens of links to studies and opinion pieces on the topic, she applies this sentiment not only to government mandates, but graduation requirements for students as well.

Of all the pieces to which she links, a statement by the National Council of Non-profits provides the most succinct summation about why this is such a bad policy. (my emphasis)

Mandatory volunteerism is harmful because the policy imposes increased costs, burdens, and liabilities on nonprofits by an influx of coerced individuals. Few if any of the mandatory volunteerism bill sponsors ever ask whether nonprofits in their communities can handle an onslaught of hundreds or thousands of individuals showing up on nonprofit doorsteps for the purpose of doing time rather than doing good.

They go on to say that they oppose any efforts that tie receipt of benefits to a requirement to volunteer because they “impose increased costs, burdens, and liabilities on nonprofits by an influx of coerced individuals.”

A number of the articles linked by Rosenthal also address the oxymoronic nature of “mandatory volunteerism,” especially in the name of trying to engender a sense of civic mindness and charity in students by refusing to let them graduate if they don’t complete their hours.

Welcoming and Belonging For All

Last week I received an email from Arts Midwest noting that September 9-18 is Welcoming Week, an international effort to provide a welcoming experience at all levels. This includes government and social policy and action to make communities more welcoming to organizational efforts to provide a sense of belonging in workplaces and other social interactions.

The concept of creating more metaphorical doors through which people can engage with arts and cultural organizations is a frequent topic here so I wanted to call attention to the effort and some of the resources that are available. In addition to the Welcoming America website, Arts Midwest created a page of resources focuses on how arts organizations can create that sense of belonging for employees and community members with whom they interact.

Arts Midwest is also hosting a webinar on Wednesday, September 14 4 pm EDT/3 pm CDT/1 pm PDT on the topic with a focus on “how arts can transform, deepen, and enrich immigrant inclusion work. ”   Sign up if you would like to learn more.