Wednesday, September 24, 2014

What are Your Engagement Goals?

Two weeks ago, I wrote about the use of the word "quality" in the arts and its many forms. A commenter, Stacy Peterson, responded by turning my exploration back on itself:
Quality makes sense but engagement is more open to interpretation. "Engagement? What do you mean by engagement? There are many different forms of engagement with many different outcomes depending on your goals, your project, or your institution."
Touché. I believe in transparency in all language use--whether the words are familiar or new. Inspired by Stacy, I wanted to share some of the work we are doing at the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History to clarify what we mean by engagement.

This is a big year for us in naming and evaluating our work. In early 2014, we developed a set of five engagement goals: Relevant, Sustainable, Bridging, Participatory, Igniting. We use these goals to evaluate our current engagement strategies, assess new proposed strategies, and guide productive discussions about how to improve our work.

We developed these goals through a series of all-staff workshops. We moved from pre-existing department-specific goals upwards, trying to write broad goals that make sense across our diverse work. Then, we applied the filter of our mission statement to finalize the five goals.

We wanted goals that are specific to our organization while applicable across it (archives, exhibitions, historic sites, events, fundraising, school tours, online). I don't think these goals are universal by any means to the museum or arts field. They are idiosyncratic to our institution, our mission, and our community. That said, our process and goals may be useful examples for others.

Here's a short description of each engagement goal:
  • RELEVANT: Connected to compelling needs, assets, and interests in Santa Cruz County. Connected to our core content of contemporary art and regional history. 
  • SUSTAINABLE: Provides important resources to help the MAH thrive financially and organizationally. 
  • BRIDGING: Brings community members together across differences. Celebrates diversity and encourages unexpected connections. 
  • PARTICIPATORY: Invites diverse community members to make meaningful contributions as co-creators, collaborators, and energized constituents. 
  • IGNITING: Inspires excitement and curiosity about art and history. Expands opportunities for deeper engagement beyond the museum. 
For each of these goals, we wrote a single page explaining what the goal is and listing clear examples of what "high," "average," and "low" execution of the goal looks like. If you are interested in the specifics, you can check out this 6-page document about our engagement goals.

Focusing on these five goals forced us to be specific about what success looks like for us. For example:
  • We chose to include "bridging" but not "bonding" because our primary social goal is to connect strangers, not to deepen existing relationships. While we are pleased when people bond with their friends and family here, it's not our primary goal. Excessive bonding can lead to cliques and exclusion. Excessive bridging, on the other hand, builds a more open and connected community.
  • By focusing on "igniting" rather than "deepening," we own our limited role as a spark for interest and learning. We focus on introducing people to lots of things and giving them tools and opportunities to pursue deeper engagement on their own. For us, that empowering spark is more important than the long-term learning.
  • By including "sustainable," we acknowledge that every engagement strategy must be manageable in terms of time and money. This has prompted more conversations about workload, scheduling, and financing for projects. We haven't cracked the sustainability code for every engagement strategy. But just naming it encourages us to talk about it.
Since we wrote these goals in the spring, we've started baking them into our work and program evaluation in different ways. We are:
  • writing an "engagement handbook," which has a one-page description of each engagement strategy at the museum, how it works, and its connection to each of the engagement goals. Already, this document-in-process has helped us orient new trustees and staff. It helps connect the dots in a diverse organization with lots going on.
  • using engagement goals as part of new standardized evaluation templates for projects. Right now, staff members evaluate goal achievement based on the "low," "average," "high" criteria set forth in our goals document. This fall, we are exploring ways to collect this data from participants in addition to making a judgment call from our perspective.
  • talking about the goals and using them whenever we are planning or reviewing engagement activities. This includes brainstorming ideas for programmatic tie-ins to exhibitions, reviewing what was good and bad about a recent event, and evaluating potential collaborators for a project.
This is very much a work-in-progress. I'd love to hear what you are doing in your own organization to bring clarity, specificity, and measurability to the many qualities of engagement--or success. 

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