We in the arts are frequently enjoined to ask ourselves what value we have in the community and whether we would be missed or the community would be worse off if we closed.
The subtext, at least when I hear and read this, is that arts organizations better make sure they are providing some service their community views as valuable whether it is shows, classes, outreach events, providing expertise and resources to others–whatever the case may be.
I think this is driven by a final grant report/justify your government based funding mentality. The concern that you aren’t doing enough to be of value to your community could easily be a matter of lack of data collection rather than lack of doing on the arts organization’s part.
Basically, it is the “It’s A Wonderful Life” problem. George Bailey doesn’t realize what a positive impact he has had on the community until he gets to see what life would be like if he weren’t around. He lacked knowledge of what sort of impact his presence had in Bedford Falls.
No one can ever really know the full repercussions of their presence or lack thereof without the help of an angel interpreting cause and effect. If you had asked the residents of the depressed Bedford Falls if their lots would have been better with a George Bailey around, they wouldn’t have had any concept of the extensive differences between the two timelines.
Still, people do have some idea of what would have happened had they not had certain opportunities available to them. George never asked and was never told how important his building and loan was to the community.
Well, at least not until the end of the movie which results in a scene very familiar to many arts organizations– People in the community react to the imminent closure of their beloved organization and donate a large amount of money in the hopes of staving off disaster.
Optimally you don’t want to wait until a crisis to find out how much your organization really means to the community. Gathering the responses from a wide range of people is required, asking those who don’t participate as well as those who do. It is often suggested that those who don’t attend or participate be queried so that you can figure out how to better serve them.
While this is true and important, there are people who will never attend or participate in your programs. However, they may still value the presence of your organization in the community. For example, I don’t participate in Habitat for Humanity construction projects, but I certainly know that life in the community would be worse if they weren’t around.
What I don’t know is what are the best questions to ask. The things that immediately pop to mind are reminiscent of high school kids trying to find out if that other person likes them too. My impression is that the questions need to investigate what people value in the cultural ecology and how your organization fits in to it rather than “what do you like about us? what is it that we do that you would miss if we stopped doing it?”
My other impression is that this is the sort of questioning that has to be done in person rather than in a written survey because a conversation can force deeper consideration than an opportunity to jot down a response. Engaging in deeper consideration will probably cause the respondent’s feelings on the matter to acquire a deeper resonance as well.
Despite this being a labor intensive process, since you are collecting the data to assess the perception of your organization in the community and not to provide results by a deadline for a grant report or to decide whether to being a new initiative, it is possible to conduct this process in a relatively informal way.
The purpose is to get a sense of whether people would miss your organization if it closed so you are constantly asking your questions and paying close attention to the responses. The process never ends.
It occurs to me that if you are being honest and asking both those who support you and those you don’t, you can end up identifying non-participants you will want to formally survey to find out if there is something you can do to serve their needs.