The most productive way for insiders to learn more about new communities is to engage a guide. As in any good tour, the guide doesn’t just give you an entry pass. They fill you in on customs and culture, secrets and stories, along the way.
For many institutions, these guides take the form of diverse board members, staff members, or some kind of community advisory group.
Ultimately, if you intend to invest in long-term relevance to a particular community, recruiting trustees and staff from that community is critical. They are the people who can lead change for your institution.
But if you are just starting out and learning about new communities, a community advisory group may be a faster way to get moving. A community advisory group is a collection of guides—from the same community or different ones—who can help you learn more about what parts of your room are most compelling, which are problematic, and where and how new doors might invite people in. They may be engaged for a single focus group session, or for months or years as a cohort of guides.
Advisory groups are only as valuable as your ability to recruit them from the outside. The people who you already know, the ones who are most likely to immediately sign on as advisors—to some extent, they are already in the door. They already think what you do is relevant. While they may be connected to outsiders, they are not outsiders themselves. They may not be the guides you need.
There are two alternatives—or corollaries—to the community advisory group that I have seen work well. The first is research. You can pay someone to recruit outsiders—real outsiders—and talk with them about their experiences. Rigorous research can yield important insights about outsiders that can help you start to understand what matters most to them.
The other option is to change the role of the community advisory group. Instead of thinking of advisors strictly as people who can help you—defining the relevance of the group on your terms—find a way to make the advisory experience one that serves their needs and interests, too.
There are several models for what this can look like. Science Gallery Dublin hosts the Leonardo Group–75 creative individuals who get together four times per year to provide input on programming. The Yerba Buena Center for the Arts creates “creative ecosystems”—groups of people who are invited to convene around an evocative topic, like “the future of soul,” over several months of shared inquiry. At our museum, we’ve built C3—a group of 45 diverse community leaders who make a year-long commitment to build collaborations with each other, amplifying each other’s projects to build a stronger and more connected community.
In all these cases, the participants are getting as much value as the institution. They are networking with people they might not ordinarily meet, supported by institutions that provide creative, fun alternatives to stale networking events and community brainstorms. At our museum, C3 is one of our most important programs. C3 members are diverse and committed. Members get involved with each other’s work as advocates, donors, and partners. They volunteer at each other’s events. They help each other recruit staff and solve organizational problems.
C3 builds community. It brings new partners to our programming. But most importantly, it unlocks meaning for everyone involved.
You can structure community advisory programs however you like. But you can build something special when you shift from thinking about what’s in it for your organization to considering what’s in it for everyone. That’s how you build relevance. You build commitment. You build value—both for the people involved and for your institution’s reputation as a convener in your community.