Wednesday, March 28, 2012

A Community-Driven Approach to Program Design

How do you develop programs that are responsive to your community in a meaningful way? How do you find out what's important to different communities, and how do you change your plans based on their needs?

At the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History (MAH), we've started experimenting with a "community first" approach to program development. We wanted to create a structure that would allow us to:
  1. internally, clearly articulate our programmatic goals and assess our plans against those goals
  2. externally, invite people with diverse backgrounds and connections throughout the County to help us understand their needs and brainstorm creative approaches to fulfilling them
  3. sensibly balance the responsibilities and time commitment of staff and community members to the development process
In many ways, #3 was most important to us. After several months of planning massively collaborative programs (a typical monthly event might involve 50 partners), we've realized that the people who are best at helping us come up with ideas are not necessarily the people who are best to help us execute them. There are many amazing community representatives from business, arts, education, and social services who connect us to powerful ideas and partners. We don't want to wear them out on standing meetings or ongoing projects that may not draw on their talents.

So we've started a new committee called C3--the Creative Community Committee. C3 is a large, diverse group that meets bi-monthly/quarterly for a highly specific brainstorming session. C3 invites people to cross-pollinate and share ideas--the most promising of which we will follow up on to plan new programs.

The C3 process is highly indebted to two sources:
  • Beck Tench's honeycomb diagram for articulating and assessing program goals (Museum of Life and Science, Durham, NC)
  • Michael John Gorman's "Leonardo group"--a large group of diverse, creative individuals that his institution pulls together on a quarterly basis to brainstorm ideas for upcoming projects (Science Gallery, Dublin, Ireland)
C3 had its first meeting last week. It was an evening meeting with beer and chips. We had about thirty participants ranging from MAH trustees to artists, educators to architects, moms to grandfathers. Here are the slides so you can see what we shared. We used Beck Tench's honeycomb format to present the six main goals for MAH community programs against which we'll assess new ideas (quickly--about the first ten minutes after introductions). 
Six goals for MAH community programs.

Then, we went honeycomb-crazy. We asked the whole group to brainstorm communities/constituencies who they thought could make a stronger connection with art, history, and culture. We picked five of those communities and split into small groups. Each small group spent fifteen minutes brainstorming the needs for that community, and then another fifteen discussing potential projects and collaborators that could help meet those needs. In the end, we came back together to share our most promising ideas. The whole meeting took 90 minutes and the majority of the time was spent really working, not sitting and listening.
Moving from community needs out to possible projects/collaborators. 
Here are a few things that I think helped make this experience valuable:
  • We started from communities' needs, not the museum's. For example, one of our groups was focused on commuters. They spent the first half of their time not even mentioning the museum--just talking about challenges that commuters face, their exhaustion and stress, and the ways that their work separates them from the community. Once that group shifted to talking about project ideas and ways the museum could connect to this constituency, they were in a whole different mindset, and the suggestions they made reflected how we can meet community needs, not just market to a particular audience.
  • We made people write things down constantly. From the very beginning of the session, we told people that we wanted to get as much as we could from them in the time allotted. We gave them a sheet of paper to use to make random notes about ideas they had--and we stopped the meeting a couple times to encourage people to write things down. We also had interns recording during the honeycomb exercise. In the end, we had lots of pieces of paper with ideas tied to specific individuals with whom we can follow up.
  • We invited lots of people who didn't know each other. There's useful energy that arises when you put a teacher, a techie, a mom, and an artist in a group and ask them to work together. I think people appreciated getting to meet new people and stretching laterally. We plan to keep adding to the list of who we invite to these meetings to keep things fresh and varied.
What happens next? The real value of these kinds of meetings is in the followup. We deliberately avoided spending too much time sharing specific suggestions so that we can measure the ideas against our program goals and chase the most promising ones. Now the trick is for us to make sure we spend the time to do that assessing and chasing and make it happen.
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