Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Setting Your Mission Free in the Wild

Where are you most able to execute your mission: inside your facility, or outside of it?

There are a lot of reasons we focus on work inside our facilities. Our facilities are, ideally, spaces optimized for mission execution. Galleries purpose-made to show artwork. Performance halls perfectly tuned for the orchestra. Archives with climate control to protect artifacts.

But I'm increasingly seeing organizations (mine included) expand beyond our walls. In churches. On sidewalks. In health centers and hospitals and laundromats and housing developments. The Irvine Foundation recently published a great study on this phenomenon.

Why go out to these other spaces? We tend to focus on two reasons:
  1. It's where the people are. Or at least, it's where certain people are, people who you want to connect with but who choose not to walk through your doors. This seems to be the primary driver behind partnerships with organizations that serve specific target groups, whether those be homeless adults or preschoolers or ESL students. It's also the driver behind participation in events with huge visibility potential, such as farmer's markets or community festivals.
  2. As our missions shift, our buildings can't always keep up. The facility that was perfectly primed for the organization founded in 1920 may not fit the needs of 2015. Many organizations end up fighting their facilities--and pouring money into their operation--instead of using them as a springboard for amazing work.
I've been thinking recently more and more about a third reason for going outside: it's where the mission takes flight.

This reason is specific to taking programming outdoors, in the public sphere. Outdoor festivals, plays, and concerts have an energy that gets dampened and contained indoors. The outdoors absorbs difference comfortably; you can come or go, eat or talk, participate in different ways without alerting concern. And outdoor events proselytize themselves; anyone walking by can get a glimpse, a taste, a sensory solicitation to come take part. People share viral videos of flash mob orchestras in grocery stores and operas on the street because these events set isolated art forms free.

This isn't just true of the arts: think of an outdoor capoeria class, dog festival, or co-working meetup. When we take our interests and micro-communities into the public sphere, we bring them into the light. Yes, the space is more chaotic, less intentionally-designed--and that may mean that the experience is less intense than in purpose-built facility. The magic can be more diffuse, the audience less attentive. But the benefits of the open air, the open invitation to partake, often seem to outweigh these negatives.

Even someone walking by who doesn't participate can have his day altered by what he saw or heard. If we walk by many outdoor fitness classes, we may feel more motivated to exercise. If we walk by many public art installations, we may feel more inspired to create. If we walk by music and culture and conversations and kindness, we may feel better about ourselves and our community.

None of this contact happens if these activities are trapped inside buildings. The magic stays locked inside. Sometimes, that works--and you feel the special hum of "just us" sharing the experience. But often, the magic could go further.

How many of the best things you're doing are locked behind doors? How might things change if you could do them out on the street?

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