Have You Hugged Your Grant Panelist?

Short post today because I just returned home after serving on a grant review panel for the state arts council.

The deputy director of the council was reminiscing about the days in the not so distant past when the review process for the main grant program took three days. Even though the panelists reviewed the applications in advance, they would spend time reviewing VHS tapes, etc as a group and discussing final thoughts on the grants across those three days.

Now it is possible to review and pre-score the grants online and likewise review videos, recordings, webpages, etc online and in advance as well. The stacks of applications for each grant program are distributed between different groups so that no group of reviewers has to spend more than a day at the arts council offices deciding on final scoring.

However….

It is still a big job to serve on the panels and potential reviewers are busy.

A month ago a colleague told me she had been asked to serve on a panel for another program, but felt some trepidation about having enough time amidst all her other commitments to review the 45 proposals that had been assigned to her group.

There was a member of my panel today whose background and expertise I felt was much needed because it aligned with the non-arts field components found in five of the grant proposals. She also expressed reservations about serving again due to the time commitment required to preview the 45 proposals.

I should note the actual time we spent reviewing the grants today was about 6 hours. That is about an appropriate number of proposals to assign a group to review for a day. But it was also only possible thanks to 25-30 hours of preparation.

The moral of my little story here is to encourage everyone to volunteer to serve on your state arts council (or NEA) grant panels when asked.

Failing that, give your panel participants a hug in thanks.

Heck, definitely give your arts council staff a hug. They vet many multiples of proposals for basic qualifications and prepare them for the grant panels. Not to mention organizing and providing orientations to the panelists in the first place.

You Have To Know How They Define Community Before You Can Tell Their Story

I don’t know what inspired me to do so, but last week I visited ProPublica’s website and learned that Free Street Theater and ProPublica Illinois were teaming up to offer theater-journalism workshops across the Illinois.

What caught my eye was that they put out a call for invitations to communities in manner reminiscent of the process Marc Folk said The Arts Commission of Toledo employed when soliciting feedback from different n eighborhoods of that city.

In addition to going to Toulon, IL, Free Street and ProPublica Illinois will be visiting Urbana, Carbondale/Jackson County, Rock Island/Quad Cities, and Rockford during May. So if you live in or near any of those places, check it out.

They did a trial run at the end of March in Chicago and have posted some of their reflections already. One of the things they recognized immediately was a need to do a better job of making people aware that they were having these workshops.

In the course of playing various games, they discovered that the terms people use to define their community, including how they defined community, had some bearing on how they composed the narrative about themselves.

We played a game in which we were asked to line up according to how strongly we agreed with various statements, from “We are living in a war zone” to “I love ice cream.” You’d be surprised at how many interpretations there are of what a war zone is, and how many people have strong feelings about ice cream.

In small groups, we talked about a time we each felt misrepresented in a news story, and how that directly affected us and our communities. It led to revealing conversations about how we each defined “community.”

[…]

At the end of the night, we returned to the sticky notes to ask: What do we want the story of our community to be? This is an important question — for us and for this project — that journalists rarely ask. But they should. If journalists don’t know how a community views itself, journalists don’t know what that community has at stake when it is represented or misrepresented.

If we never bother to ask — in real, concrete ways — it can seem like we don’t care. Journalists know how to fact-check names and statistics. But how often do journalists fact-check the underlying narrative of a community?

Since there is an ongoing conversation in the arts about how people want to see themselves and their stories depicted in performances and other forms of creative expression, these reflections by ProPublica reporter Natalie Escobar should pretty much be shared by those identifying with the arts and culture community.

Creating Connections To “Why Didn’t I Think Of That”

Last week Arts Midwest held a webinar to provide some examples of the way in which different arts organizations were putting the Creating Connection messaging and research into practice. They had representatives of the Eugene Symphony and two arts organizations from Klamath Falls, OR present talk about some of the successes they have seen.

Each of the organization links above will take you to pages with examples of brochures, videos, social media campaigns, letters and other pieces each of the organizations used.

There were a couple programs that stuck out for me as I was watching last week. One of the biggest “duh” moments for me was the Eugene Symphony’s use of a white board in the lobby to collect feedback from audiences. All those times we have tried to figure out how to get better response rate on surveys, something like this never occurred to us. So many grant applications ask for summaries of the feedback you have collected from the audience. It can’t hurt to have pictures of people enthusiastically participating in writing on white boards.

The people from the Eugene Symphony also spoke about how they shifted the focus of their fundraising efforts. At their gala auction, they placed fewer items up for auction and spent more time on storytelling about creating connections. In their donor appeal letter, they changed the message away from “support our excellence.” Instead, when deciding what to include in the solicitation letter, they ask themselves, “Is this going to be the story of their growth, their voice, their well-being or their happiness?” The repeated “their” being the letter recipient.

The images in their publications are focused on the experience the audience will have rather than on the organization. The “Meet The Conductor” video only shows Music Director & Conductor Francesco Lecce-Chong in the concert hall or in the process of conducting for a few seconds. Most of the video is him hugging people at picnics and while walking down the street, chatting at ballparks and sidewalk cafes.

Social marketing consultant Crystal Muno talked about work she did with the Ross Ragland Theater and Linkville Players in Klamath Falls, OR.  She said the Ross Ragland had been faced with the perception of being elitist. To combat that, they worked on messaging that presented the theater as a “kooky, enthusiastic, maybe a little eccentric aunt.”

One of the things I liked was that they used the image of a stick figure hugging the silhouette of the theater for all of their giving programs – donations, volunteer solicitations or asking people to join their guild. Depicting volunteers as loving the organization in the same way as large donors do has a certain appeal.

Crystal also spoke about how the Linkville Playhouse’s Little Linkville program, a group of adults who do shows for kids, started having kids usher the shows and design posters as a way of improving the connection with their core constituency.  She also talked about how their costume and prop philosophy was that they could only use and wear things that could be found around the house so that if the kids wanted to go home and replicate what they saw on stage, there would be few barriers to doing just that.

 

Repetition & Establishing Good Habits

I was recently involved with a strategic planning session for a non-arts group where  staff and representatives of community constituencies  were intermingled at different tables.

When we were asked to brain storm solutions to serve a greater segment of the community, I mentioned the need to go out and learn about the unfulfilled needs of the community rather than focusing on the quality and range of services the organization wanted to offer. I suggested possibly conducting community listening sessions.

People at the table thought it was a great idea and wrote it down on the paper on the easel. When it came time to report out, that idea wasn’t mentioned but we only had a couple minutes so it was no big deal.

But as the other tables repeatedly mentioned going out to new areas to talk about all the great programs the organization had to offer without ever mentioning making an effort to learn if any of the programs were relevant to community needs, something inside me started to rebel and protest.

That is when I realized I had really started to internalize the ideas that research, different advocacy and policy groups, and individuals like Trevor O’Donnell have been communicating for awhile now.  I have mentioned this before – The focus can’t entirely be on your organization and how great you and the stuff you do are. It has to be about how what you do fulfills expectations your potential patron/participants have about a product or experience.

In the case of this blog’s readers, that experience is related to arts and culture.

While I have written about this idea a fair number of times now, I will freely admit my practice in implementing this concept is far from ideal.  Still, I see the fact that I bridled internally upon hearing proposals that ran counter to this concept as a positive step.

The experience has also reinforced for me that making progress is probably going to be a long term process of repetition –both to myself and aloud to others as I had in the strategic planning meeting.

Intellectually, we know repetition helps to establish good habits, but it is easy to forget this when faced with tepid progress. Lack of immediate investment by others isn’t necessarily an indication that the idea isn’t good. Merely that the presentation wasn’t effective and needs to be refined or that the people listening haven’t heard or considered the idea enough times for it to make sense as a valuable course of action.

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