Thoughts on how to serve your community.

As artists, we often feel a calling to serve the community in which we live. Showing up to serve can be, and is some of, the most fulfilling and rewarding work we can do. This can be incredibly difficult as we balance family/friends, work, and the constant pursuit of perfection in our art.

For the past fifteen years, I have been passionately working with individuals and organizations to help them identify a strategy to serve their community. Here are three rules of engagement to help you as you consider how to serve your community:

  1. Show Up — In order to serve, you have to be willing to physically and mentally show up in a place and commit to serving a cause that is way bigger than you. There are a multitude of areas in which to get involved, your job is to pick one (only one) cause and dive in. Tip: Before you commit to helping an organization or a cause, take several months to explore the different service organizations that inspire you. There are likely local, regional, national and international organizations that serve each cause so you want to figure out what feels right. It’s also important to note that many organizations do similar work within each service sector so once you figure out the specific cause in which you’d like to engage (serving individuals experiencing homelessness, serving our veterans, etc) take a second step and identify five organizations doing similar work and get to know them as well. You may be surprised in the subtle differences each organization has to offer. 
  2. Listen — During the exploratory phase of your work, you have one job. Listen. Listen to the various service providers who passionately lead their organizations, listen to those individuals being served by the organization, and read up/research the organizations. Tip: This is not about you, this is about how you fit on a personal/philosophical level with a specific cause. 
  3. Stay — The most important thing to remember when it comes to serving a community/cause is that when you make a commitment, you keep it. Organizations often suffer from Volunteer Fatigue. Put simply, they are reticent to having volunteers because they come and go so quickly, which makes it difficult for organizations to rely on individuals wishing to give their time. Tip: When you make the decision to serve, make an additional commitment in writing of how much you intend to serve. I like to say something like “I’d like to serve this cause for three hours a week for the next three months and reevaluate the relationship.” Giving a specific timeline and commitment amount allows you and the service provider to think about how to engage in the work. 

Here are some thoughts about ways you can roll up your sleeves and serve your community.

What to do……..

  • If you want to serve but don’t have the time — This is the biggest reason people don’t serve a cause they care about. Here are three quick suggestions to help you carve out time to get involved:
    1. Incorporate work that you’re already doing into an initiative. For example, if you perform in a chamber music series, consider donating all proceeds for a specific performance to a local charity.
    2. Block off time in your calendar to serve — Instead of thinking about your service as an ongoing thing, commit to two weeks a year of intensive work for an organization, let them know your intent to serve, and show up. The trick is to schedule it ahead of time and keep the time sacred.
    3. Consider other types of service to an organization — The clearest substitution to giving of your time is giving of your money. Donating to an organization can create a huge impact on the cause because, in doing so, you raise awareness about the organization. A donation at ANY level helps and is money most causes/non-profits don’t expect. Don’t be shy about giving.
  • If you want to launch a service based program in your community — For those of you seeking to launch your own service based program/organization for a cause in your community, thank you! You are about to, and in may cases already are, providing an incredible service to your community. Three bits of advice:
    1. Start Small — Whatever cause you endeavor to serve, make certain you start small. Many service organizations start out of one person’s passion to make the world a better place. That same person often ends up doing the work of 3-5 people in the early years. If you over stretch yourself by developing programs that are too big for you to run, you will burn out and not be able to achieve the change that drove you to do the work in the first place.
    2. Be Flexible — Because you are engaging with a community that is likely not your own, your original idea to help will likely need to change over the first months and years of your program. If you are open to that change, you’ll have a much bigger shot at success in the long run.
    3. Look for partners — One of the biggest things I see overlooked when someone launches a new initiative is that they fail to identify partners that are doing similar work.  Don’t feel like you need to do this work on your own and take the time to see if you can possibly connect with another service provider before you launch your own initiative. When answering the call to serve, it’s about the cause, not about the individual.

I hope these suggestions help and please share your thoughts about how to launch a successful arts service organization 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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