Thursday, May 19, 2016

10 Ways to Build a Better Community Brainstorming Meeting

You're planning a new exhibition. Considering a new strategic direction. Designing a new program. And you've decided that you want to integrate community feedback into the development process.

Awesome. Admirable. Now how the heck do you do it?

Here are ten things I've learned about making these kinds of community input meetings successful. Please add your own ideas in the comments too.


1. Consider whether you want a bonded group (people who are like each other) or a bridged group (people who are different from each other). 

Bonded groups are useful if you want to understand people's existing attitudes and impressions. Focus group participants will be more forthcoming and honest if they feel like they are "among friends." Bonded groups exhibit groupthink--but sometimes that's the best way to really understand the concerns of a specific group of people. For example, when we held community meetings about the development of a new creative town square next to our museum, a group of middle/upper-class moms talked about not feeling safe downtown. When I've talked with those same folks in bridged groups, they use more circumspect language (i.e. not feeling "welcome") or don't mention their safety concerns at all. But those concerns are real. Not surprisingly, a different focus group of social service providers and homeless adults had a very different set of concerns about downtown. Bringing these different communities together in the same space might not have created safe space for the true issues of each group to emerge.

Bridged groups are useful if you want people to collaborate on a more inclusive vision of the future. If you are building something new and want people's ideas, go for bridging. When you are doing creative work together (making, building, brainstorming), it's catalytic to work with people who see things in a whole different way. In creative brainstorming, groupthink is a killer. The more diverse perspectives in the room, the better. We're much more capable of empathy when co-imagining the future than we are when thinking about the present.

2. Find trusted leaders in communities of interest with whom to partner and recruit participants.

Want to hold a meeting with people from worlds where you don't spend much time? Great. But if you have no credibility in someone else's community, your invitation may fall right into the trash can. Better to establish a relationship with a leader in their community--someone with whom you are building reciprocal value--and ask them to help be your ambassador. It doesn't matter what incentives you offer to participate or how attractive the invitation is if the recipient doesn't know or trust you as a host.

3. Respect and value people's time. 

If you're asking for community input, what are you offering in return? This could be financial; some organizations pay people to participate in community meetings. But it could also be something else that demonstrates appreciation and value. Snacks. Child care. Networking opportunities. Free tickets. You should have a credible and understandable offer, alongside your ask of their time, experience, and expertise.

4. Overcommunicate.

I use a simple rule of contacting participants the week before, the day before, and the day after a meeting. Communication should be clear and motivating. Especially if you don't meet with these people frequently, you can't remind them enough. You also can't thank them/follow up quickly enough.


5. Create a structure that values peoples' participation. 

There are a million ways to run a community meeting--different depending on what you are trying to achieve. The best book I've read on the topic is Facilitators Guide to Participatory Decision-Making by Sam Kaner. It's an incredible compendium of specific meeting formats for different kinds of participant engagement.

In general, I find it is useful to:
  • Honor everyone's contributions and ability to contribute at the top. 
  • Include a mix of individual activities (often writing or drawing), partner/small group work, and whole group discussion. Different people thrive in different levels of social intensity. I recommend spending as little time together as a whole group as possible because it can be intimidating and unproductively slow. Spend just enough time as a whole group to get people motivated and connected to each other (and reconnected at the end).
  • Ensure that you as convenor are talking for a very small amount of the time--ideally just to frame, contextualize, provide clear instructions, and keep people moving.
  • Build on their existing expertise/experience/perspective as opposed to asking them to comment on yours. Participants' stories are often more valuable than their opinions. 
  • Use unorthodox activities to inspire fresh thinking. Movement, making, and imaginative projects are all good for shaking new ideas loose. We use the Pop Up Museum--inviting small groups to build artifacts from the future--in many of our community meetings.
  • Close with a rallying activity, ideally one that invites people to continue conversations with each other.
6. Be honest and clear about the opportunity at hand. 

Share where you are clearly and concisely. Explain the opportunity to participate and what is and isn't on the table, so people don't get frustrated. Don't overpromise.

7. Provide snacks and drinks and a bit of time at the top to enjoy them. 

A little socializing and sugar can go a long way. We almost always use nametags with a playful prompt on them ("what superhero would you be?," "what's your favorite local place to relax?" etc.) to get the conversation started.

8. Inspire people to stay involved.

There's a big difference between a meeting that feels like a chore and one that generates energy. When participants get excited by the experience--whether because of the content, the other people in the room, the format, the invitation--they are more likely to seek opportunities to go further. Note that for most participants, the content is NOT the most important part of this calculation. Good content cannot succeed if delivered poorly, or in a group context that feels dull or unsafe. But ambiguous content in a room full of enthused people doing fun activities can thrive.


9. Follow up.

If the meeting was successful, you now have a whole crew of people who are interested and rooting for your project to shine. While you don't have to continue the level of engagement present at the meeting, it's poor form to drop them entirely. At my institution, we (embarrassingly) did this for a long time. People would come participate in a meeting and then we wouldn't even add them to the weekly mailing list. Part of this is rooted in a legitimate desire not to spam people. But imagine how you would feel if you were invited to someone's house once and never again. You'd assume that something hadn't gone well. We're now inviting participants to get more involved--both broadly in the world of our organization and specifically in activities that build on their experience and expertise.

Followup is important on the individual level too. Most community meetings are short. Catalytic. You hear an intriguing 20-second snippet. You see someone light up at something you didn't expect. Most of the value you will get from participants comes when you follow up to say, "hey, I'd love to hear more about X. Can I buy you a cup of coffee and hear more?"

10. Use their input.

This is the most important part. It's why you held the meeting, right?

The worst way to disrespect participants is to ignore the advice, experience, and expertise that you asked them to provide. You don't need to involve them in every step forward of the project. But you should use their input to guide and shape where you take it. You should--bonus points--reach out to individuals to acknowledge how they influenced your direction. You should--double bonus points--let the whole crew know where their input took the project. But most of all, you should use the input. Community meetings should never be a "check the box" activity. They're too much work--and offer too much value--to tokenize.

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Friday, May 06, 2016

Year Five as a Museum Director: Good to Grow

Five years ago, I left the consulting world to take the helm at the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History (MAH) at a time of crisis and change. We went through a dramatic turnaround. We started bootstrapping growth. Now, we're on the doorstep of a major expansion. It's exciting and tiring and rewarding as ever.

As I did at the one-year and three-year mark, here are some of the things I'm most proud of, mistakes I've made, and questions on my mind as we head into the next five years.

  • Building a rigorous strategic framework under our creative, community-based work. In my first few years, it was all about getting the programming moving, experimenting, and exploring the possibilities with our community. Three years ago, we decided to put in the work to create foundational documents--a new mission statement, values, engagement goals, survey methodology, and most importantly, a theory of change--to ground our work in shared language and priorities. The theory of change has been invaluable as a "playbook" that we use to guide programming decisions, evaluation protocols, and marketing messages about our impact. We're finally able to systematically make data-driven decisions, rooted in a shared understanding of our intended outcomes and impact... and it feels amazing. 
  • Leading a successful capital campaign for an expansion that will fundamentally change our organization. We have spent the past three years planning and raising money for a project to build a creative town square for our city on the front porch of the museum. Abbott Square will include free outdoor public seating, a public food market, and several areas for free art and cultural activities. I'm excited about Abbott Square for a million reasons, but I'm PROUD that our supporters and our board especially embraced the idea that growth means going beyond our walls and bringing art and history to the streets. 
  • Working with amazing colleagues, trustees, and community partners to make our institution more inclusive. My first few years, we focused on increasing attendance. Over the past two years, we've focused instead on how we can ensure that people of all walks of life in our community feel welcomed and included at the MAH. We're investing in cultural competency and board and staff development. Learning more about the specific cultural assets and needs of underrepresented groups in our community. Inviting those groups into partnership and leadership in our programming, exhibitions, staff & volunteer team, and institutional decision-making. Tracking and adapting to our successes and failures. We see the change happening--our visitors are now representative of the age and income diversity of the County, and we've made significant advances in terms of ethnic/racial diversity. We still have a long way to go and a lot to learn. But we are on the path. 
  • Going big with our board and community partners. For the first couple years at the MAH, I honestly didn't understand how valuable a board can be. I understood their basic responsibilities, but I didn't understand the possibilities of how they could contribute. That has changed. The more ambitious we've become as an organization, the more I value the ways board members' experience and expertise extends our capabilities. I turn to trustees to help make tough decisions. I depend on them to push us further. The same is true of our community partners. We've increased the diversity and depth of ways that creative collaborators help guide our work. The bigger our goals, the more important it is that we learn how to identify and recruit talented partners, volunteers, and supporters, and engage them to their maximum potential.

  • Not communicating clarity as often as I should. I'm someone who is more comfortable communicating energy than clarity. My base personality is a cheerleader waving pom poms in multiple directions. A lot of my missteps with colleagues over the past couple years--ones that sent people in the wrong direction, sowed confusion, or exhausted people--were due to my lack of discipline about staying on message. I've learned that I have to stick to the same cheer--and share it with others--longer and with more consistency than is my inclination. The more clarity I provide as the leader, the more everyone can move forward together with confidence.
  • Resisting change that worked for others but not for me. As the MAH grew, colleagues started asking for more structure: clearer lines of reporting, more consistent processes, job descriptions that didn't change every few months. I stressed out over these changes, worrying that they would introduce bureaucratic creep to a nimble, creative organization. I now believe that these concerns were mostly my own personal fears. I bridle under too much structure. I like change. But what works for me personally is not necessarily what is best for our organization. I had to learn--slowly--not to force my personal values onto reasonable needs of our institution. I had to learn that I still belonged at the organization as it matured, and that as its director, I needed to adopt some approaches and procedures that don't come naturally to me. It's easy as the boss to mold everything in your image. It's also really stupid. I'm learning that.
  • Not understanding the full costs of a capital campaign. I thought we did a decent job setting up our campaign to cover associated staff costs along with capital costs. But now that the campaign is at its end and Abbott Square is under construction, it's clear that we have to make additional investments to meet the opportunity that this expansion affords us. While I thought a lot at the start about how we would fund the ongoing costs of operating the new town square, I didn't think enough about how that new town square would require changes to our "base" museum operation.

  • How can we intertwine community engagement and fundraising? We involve many diverse, creative, community-loving people in our work as programmatic partners and donors. The thing is, we usually separate the two groups. If you volunteer your talents to an exhibition or program, you live in community engagement-land. If you donate money, you live in fundraising-land. We're now recruiting a leader for a new department of Development and Community Relations with a goal of bringing all these talented, valuable partners together in one community of support. I'm curious and hopeful as to what kind of positive change this can create. (And if this sounds like your kind of challenge, please apply for the job!)
  • What field are we in? Over the past few years, I've shifted from spending most of my professional learning time with museum folk to spending it with people who are involved in public service and community activism--some in the arts, some not. Around the MAH office, we often struggle to figure out what conferences will be most valuable and what professional alliances to build. We seek to build a stronger, more connected community through art and history. I'm not sure how to most usefully characterize this work--community development? creative placemaking?--and how all of us those of us doing this work around the world can best ally to learn, share, advocate, and grow together.   
Thank you for continuing to be part of this journey through your comments, questions, critiques, and support as part of my professional community. I learn so much through writing and engaging with you.

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