8 Tips for a Successful Arts Based Community Engagement Program

The nation’s top arts organizations are increasingly thinking about how to better serve their community. At Colburn, we are in a unique position. Our mission is to provide music education at the highest level, but we are also a presenting organization, providing countless professional level performances for the greater Los Angeles Community. The Colburn Community Engagement office was formed five years ago to deepen our relationship with the surrounding community and I’d like to share with you eight tips to consider as you develop your own engagement programs.

  1. Be Flexible! Community engagement work can be messy.  External forces beyond your control such as leadership changes within partner organizations, standardized testing, and shifting needs in the community you support can alter the best made plans. Unlike working towards a jury or a ticketed performance, where internal plans are set months in advance, community engagement programs often need to be changed in order to ensure programmatic success. Be prepared to modify, change, adjust, alter, and/or circle back continuously to bring the best program to life.
  2. Give your Community Engagement team time. Thankfully, I had an entire year to explore the LA arts education scene before I had to make decisions about Colburn’s community engagement program. Give staff as much time as possible to figure out what is needed in the community AND what will work within your institution.
  3. Listen to the needs of your community. We created the Jumpstart Young Musicians Program (JYMP) for middle-school students after conversations with our 15 partner schools revealed that providing access to hands-on, sequential arts learning would create the most value for the students in our local community. If you want to truly engage, listen.

    The Jumpstart Young Musicians program meets over 9 hours a week and meets the needs of our immediate community.
  4. Know who’s doing what in the community. After the economic downturn in 2008, many arts organizations went into self-preservation mode, creating in-house community engagement programs that align with their own mission. Take note of what other organizations are doing before you start a new program in order to avoid duplication of efforts and possibly find a good programmatic partner.
  5. Understand your institutional strengths. Are your programmatic offerings better suited for broad or deep engagement? At Colburn, sequential learning is our institutional strength so our engagement programs provide deep access to training for our students. Your community engagement program strengths should align with your institutional strengths.
  6. Integrate your programming. In the above mentioned JYMP program, we developed a plan that fully integrates the students who finish the program into the Colburn Community School.  Integration cuts down on costs, it builds internal support for programming that may be seen as ancillary, and it provides quality control because you have the same programmatic expectations as you would for other parts of your program. Design your community engagement programs so they can be integrated into pre-existing programs at your institution.
  7. Create a board level advisory committee. Nonprofit boards are often a collection of passionate individuals who identify with your mission. If you speak with the 30 members of your board, you’ll often find 30 different reasons for why they serve. An advisory committee in community engagement will help you identify individuals who value your work and provide a much needed voice at the board level.
  8. Develop your mission. With the above points in mind, it is important to develop a clear mission statement describing who you serve, the size and scope of the work, why your work is important, and the intended outcomes for the programming. Here’s our mission:

The Colburn Community Engagement Office helps high need, high potential children in Los Angeles live happier and more enriching lives by providing access to sequential arts learning, a viable path for improved general learning skills, strengthened self-respect, and a lifelong appreciation for the arts. Each year, the program offers over one million dollars in financial support to provide private lessons, group lessons, ensemble work, and access to enrichment concerts for over 5,000 children.

How are your community engagement programs going? Do you have any advice/tips to share with other program directors?  Please share your thoughts below.

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Nate Zeisler is the Dean for Community Initiatives at the Colburn School in Los Angeles. He envisions a world where students majoring in the arts have a clear path to a sustainable career, where creative minds are empowered and inspired to rule the workforce, and where access to the arts is not just for the privileged few, but for all.

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