Community engagement is essential in creating a framework for arts, culture, and community development that is relevant to and inclusive of the broader populations in a particular locale. While sometimes seen as a way to elicit thoughts and opinions, deep community engagement can act as a pathway to building connections and relationships among residents, artists, local businesses, cultural nonprofits, municipalities, and other civic entities, creating multiple channels of access that help support local programming and decision-making.
As the largest grassroots arts and culture network in the nation, Mass Cultural Council’s Local Cultural Councils (LCCs) are conduits of community-based knowledge and cultural expressions, both of which are critical to ensuring that programs supported at the local and state levels are representative and meaningful to our community members. Additionally, LCC members are responsible for distributing public dollars, which further raises the importance of community voices being represented in grant making decisions. Most LCCs receive more requests than can be funded, and strong council priorities based on community input can help guide grant making decisions. Knowledge of resources, interests, and needs can help LCCs make difficult decisions and encourage community-responsive proposals.
All LCCs are required to conduct an annual community input process.
Through community engagement, LCCs should have conversations with members of their community to collect diverse viewpoints about the community’s resources, interests, and needs.
- Are you familiar with all of the cultural organizations in your area?
- Are you aware of the types of programs offered through local schools, senior centers, libraries, or other community centers?
- Are you acquainted with the individual artists working locally?
- Have you identified current and potential partners involved in arts, culture, and community development?
LCC Community Engagement Webinar Recording (September 2020)
LCC Community Engagement Presentation – September 2020 (PDF)
- What types of programming are residents interested in seeing more of?
- In what cultural traditions do residents participate?
- For example, is there a strong interest in education-related projects in your city/town?
- Is there a need for programs that serve certain groups such as seniors, youth, BIPOC creatives, or emerging artists?
- Do the current cultural offerings reflect the diversity of people in your community?
- Do people with disabilities participate in local programs?
There are some tried and true strategies that LCCs can use to collect this information that are included in this section. But there are also many everyday ways that LCCs can stay connected with, and talk to, their community.
LCC members can engage people that they meet through work, other volunteer assignments, or everyday routines. For instance, do some members have children in school? They can talk to teachers, other parents, and PTA members to find out how your LCC might better serve young people. If LCC members sit on a neighborhood council, they can share information and also ask questions on what neighborhood civic activists would like to see related to arts and culture.
LCC members should be the “eyes and ears” of the LCC. They should look for new opportunities where grants could make an impact. In addition to improving grants, community engagement often helps an LCC:
- Establish LCC funding priorities that will achieve the greatest community benefit
- Gain additional visibility within the community
- Reach a community sector the LCC believes has been underserved
- Encourage new initiatives or collaborations among potential applicants
- Identify potential new applicants and LCC members
- Get feedback and support for a council program
There are many creative ways to gather public input about how your community would like their LCC dollars spent. To reach the most people, many LCCs make use of a number of methods to gather community.
Community Engagement: Meetings
Community meetings can be powerful forums for sharing ideas, airing concerns, and bringing new people into the LCC process. But unless people have a compelling personal reason to do so, most will not be inspired to attend a public meeting.
Some strategies for organizing, promoting, and increasing attendance include:
- Involving a local public figure to participate in the meeting, such as the mayor or a select board member, principal, notable community service volunteer, or executive
- Inviting local and state elected officials and providing an opportunity for them to share their comments and address participants
- Partnering with a municipal department (e.g. Parks and Recreation) or community-based organization (e.g. YMCA) to co-host a broader conversation on arts, culture, and community
- Incorporating an arts event into your meeting, such as an exhibit or mini performance by a local artist or group of teens; or having an artist facilitate a brainstorming session
- Offering community-wide asset-mapping as a way to draw people into an activity that identifies assets and elicits discussions on the cultural assets of your community
- Soliciting a donated prize from a local business which can be entered in a drawing for attendees
- Soliciting donated snacks or desserts from a local restaurant for attendees
Planning a Community Engagement Meeting
- LCCs should hold their community engagement meeting at the best time for the community; however holding it in the spring or summer will provide enough time to revise council priorities based on the information gathered, which must be publicized by September 1.
- If it is not possible to meet in the spring or summer, fall meetings can be combined with grant workshops for potential applicants. The disadvantage is that there will not be time to adapt and communicate any changes to LCC policies or grants criteria until the next year’s grant cycle.
- Identify the time of day that works best in the community to avoid the most common scheduling conflicts from work, religious commitments, sports, and family.
- Allow at least an hour for the meeting; more if there is an included artistic or social event.
- By law, the meeting must be held in a public, physically-accessible location. Note this in all meeting announcements. Libraries, schools, town halls, and community centers are usually good possibilities.
- Prepare a meeting agenda organized around questions about community cultural needs. Feel free to use and edit the sample community input meeting agenda.
- Identify a facilitator to manage the meeting. It need not be the chair or even an LCC member. Pick someone who can be objective, move the meeting along on time and on topic and engage people in discussions. The facilitator could be an artist or community organizer.
- Consider handing out a written survey to gather feedback on specific questions and ask audience members to turn in the forms as they leave. More information about creating a survey can be found below.
- Invite a broad spectrum of the community. Consider reaching out to applicants (both successful and unsuccessful), local artists, educators, the local chamber of commerce, library, historical commission, local/regional tourism office, art instructors, civic, business and clerical leaders, senior centers, cultural and other non-profit organizations, etc. Consider asking people on this list to bring another person whose opinion they respect. Promote the meeting in areas where local people hang out, such as coffee shops, restaurants, town dump, etc.
Managing a Community Engagement Meeting
- Respect people’s time by starting and ending on time.
- Introduce LCC members and invite meeting participants to introduce themselves.
- State the meeting’s purpose in simple terms, e.g., “We’re here for three reasons: 1) To explain our program and priorities, 2) To hear about what community needs you observe and how you think we should spend our limited funds and 3) To hear how you imagine and understand the cultural assets of this community.”
- Devote most of the meeting to posing questions and listening to answers about needs and potential funding priorities.
- Record comments in writing – have a volunteer record key points on a white board while another takes more detailed notes on a notepad or laptop.
- Close the meeting by summarizing key ideas. Thank people for their input and time, and let them know how their suggestions will be used.
Community Engagement: Surveys
Surveys are especially useful when evaluating council priorities prior to the grant cycle. Consider handing out surveys at town meetings, cultural events, town celebrations, or conducting an online survey as a way of gathering data or answering specific questions. Provide additional incentive for respondents by raffling off donated gifts to those who complete the survey.
Postcards are small and easily portable, ensure brevity, and can be mailed in to the LCC by those who complete it, or gathered at the end of an event. Surveys could also be published in the local newspaper, administered on the street by LCC members or interns, or mailed out to members of the community. You may use your administrative funds to pay for the cost of printing postcards, as well as covering the cost of postage.
The Medford Arts Council was particularly successful engaging local artists and the public through their community input process by hosting a postcard competition. They wrote a helpful “how to” postcard guide for other LCCs who are interested in pursuing the idea.
Online surveys allow LCCs to collect responses over time, and easily review survey results without having to do a lot of data entry. SurveyMonkey is a low-cost and easy-to-use online survey provider that makes creating an online survey more accessible to those with limited web skills. Some LCCs also use Google Forms.
Municipalities may also be willing to help with creating and posting the survey. Once created, promote the survey through local media, by emailing the survey link to LCC contacts and listservs, social media, and by word of mouth. LCCs may use administrative funds to pay for these kinds of resources.
Feel free to tailor these sample surveys for your purposes:
Record the results:
- Note what engagement methods were used, when, where, and how many people participated for your LCC’s records.
- Enter the date of a community engagement was gathered in your annual reporting to Mass Cultural Council.
Review the responses:
- It can help to take the survey responses and create a summary report using graphs or charts to identify trends more easily. See an example of a summary report. If you need help manipulating the data or creating graphs, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Convene LCC members to discuss what you have learned.
Create or update council priorities:
- If the LCC has funding priorities in place, review them considering community recommendations.
- If the LCC has not yet developed priorities, use community engagement information to do so.
Share the results:
- Publicize the results in social media or on your web site. Share how they influenced council priorities.
- Post the LCC’s new priorities and promote them within the community and to applicants.
- Provide a copy of the community engagement results and council priorities to elected officials to show how your LCC is serving the community.
Consider a council program:
- If the community input surfaces an unmet community need, the LCC can utilize up to 15% of its state allocation on council programs.