threw down the other day: Try things.
I don't actually pretend to have all the answers here. There are some excellent organizations that are paving the way and excellent ideas to share, but there is no one miracle answer. In fact, opening your organization's doors up to participation is, by nature, an individual experience based entirely on what works with your specific audience group.
This is why the solutions I tend to recommend are process-oriented in nature. They anticipate that some things will fail, and that that is ok. Failing is not a sin, not trying is. Failure is just something that happens on the way to success.
Our artists already know this. That's what the rehearsal period is all about. Trying, failing, succeeding, finding what works and what doesn't, and taking it from the small, safe audience of the other artists invested in the work that are in that rehearsal room to the big stage when it's been through that process and (hopefully) ready for mass consumption.
What does this all suggest then? Here's a basic process I might set up:
1. Engagement groups: I've argued before in favor of forming non-board-of-trustee groups and young professional councils and so forth. This is one of the areas where they really come in handy. This is your opportunity to listen to what they want and develop programs out of their feedback, and your opportunity to take your own ideas to them and test them out on that intimate, invested group that will give you honest feedback. Set something like this up in your organization and start engaging with them on innovative projects.
2. Testing: Work the kinks out of your idea by inviting small test audiences for whatever your idea is. Integrate the people from your engagement groups above with other targeted groups that you think would respond to whatever the project is. Ask those in the engagement groups to invite friends to an exclusive test. Evaluate their experiences and adjust as necessary.
3. Metrics: Based on what you're hearing, now is the time to set definitive metrics by which to measure the impact of your project. They might not be the same as what you originally thought they'd be. An education project can sometimes become a new audience feature or vice versa. Figure out what you are going to track to measure success, and capture that data, both before and after implementing the new project.
4. Rollout: Now is when you can bring this idea to the masses if it survives the first two stages. Announce it to the press and see what they have to say. Tell your patrons. Continue to talk to audiences. Take surveys. Watch your metrics. Look for unexpected results.
5. Evaluate: Did it do what you wanted? Did it do something else that's worthwhile? Has it somehow improved the experiences of your customers, patrons, donors, and/or advocates? Figure out if you want to keep the project going, change it, or scrap it.
6. Share: Take it back to your engagement group, and let them know what the results were and what you think should be done. The entire group learns along with you, and it might generate new ideas. You'll get confirmation of your decision or maybe arguments you haven't considered yet. New projects might spring from the old. The process starts anew.
This process is ongoing, allows you to learn, and has a number of checkpoints where you can get feedback. Hopefully, it can be a start to your own process, tailored to your organization. (And if you need help with that, call me ;) )
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