Advocacy: Incorporating Evaluation
The economic and social impact analyses that have been addressed throughout this discussion can play an important role in strengthening your advocacy with elected officials and other policy makers, board members, donors, and the general public.
Experts agree that strong advocacy messages are those that communicate specific achievements, quantify impacts to the extent possible, and succinctly discuss your organization’s effect on participants and the wider community.
Your board is both a primary target for messages about your organization’s impact and a crucial vehicle for communicating those messages to a wider constituency. Board members are usually pleased to see evidence of impact by the organization they govern and serve, so you should look for opportunities in board meetings and other occasions to share your documentation and evaluation findings.
One simple strategy is to keep board members informed about publicity that communicates your organization’s impact. You cannot assume that board members will notice the majority of press that your organization receives. You should copy selected articles and periodically distribute them to board members in amounts that are not overwhelming to read.
If you are conducting any formal evaluation of your programs or impacts, you should keep the board informed of how these evaluations are progressing and share any results. When forming an evaluation committee, consider including one or more board members. They can then serve as spokespeople for the process and the findings, helping to communicate to other board members and the wider public. Bring copies of evaluation reports to board meetings so any interested board members can read them, or if they are available online be sure to send the link to your board members.
If you have a newsletter or other forum for communicating with constituents, use that opportunity to promote your evaluation findings. Supporters of your programs are often quite interested to hear more about how the arts relate to economic and community development, especially if you have evaluated impacts specifically tied to your organization.
If you have worked with an outside evaluator, that person might be happy to do a presentation to your board or to a group of invited guests to explain the methodologies used and the results. It is likely that your outside evaluator can make a compelling public presentation and answer questions about the evaluation process. Consider inviting them to share their work with some of your key constituents.
When you have significant impact results, consider sending out a press release to promote publicity around the impact evaluation. Newspapers generally like to report on the quantitative evaluation itself, along with anecdotal information that supports the evaluation findings. For example, if you are publicizing the results of an economic model that suggests your organization has significant impact on the lodging and real estate sectors of the economy (which are two likely areas of impact), you should consider whether there are business leaders from those sectors who would be willing to speak with reporters and offer their own opinions about the importance of your organization for their businesses and others like them. Reporters are likely to ask you if you can suggest people who would talk with them about the impact of your organization, so create a list of names and phone numbers that you are ready to share with those who request them.
An important point to remember about conducting advocacy around community impact evaluation is that your case will have maximum effectiveness when presented by you or other leaders of your organization who clearly understand the methodologies used. If you can use layman’s terms to explain the methodologies and results of your evaluation, constituents and policy makers will have much more confidence in your case. Most people will rely on you for such explanations; they won’t go looking into the fine print of your report to answer their basic questions about what makes the study valid, so do your homework and understand the evaluation methods that were used by your team.
Organizations sometimes spend considerable time and money on economic and social impact analyses and then neglect to make the positive results widely available through their websites. More and more, donors and visitors attach value to cultural organizations interested in benefiting their communities economically and socially as well as artistically. Many of these donors and visitors choose to learn about an organization through its website before becoming more involved with it. Developing part of their website for evaluation results is becoming increasingly the norm for cultural organizations.
One model for creating an effective web presence for your evaluation findings is to provide a web page containing a brief overview of your economic impact report. You can include links to more detailed highlights; the full report; a press release for local press outlets; and a fact sheet about your organization.
Another model for building an evaluation web presence is to post subsequent program evaluation analyses alongside earlier ones. Even if evaluations of your economic impact fluctuate, the ability to compare evaluations over time will allow the reader to make conclusions about your general impact. It will also generate confidence in your commitment to evaluation. Since the ultimate goal of evaluation is improvement and growth, it also demonstrates your interest in and commitment to your role in the community.
The case you make for your organization’s community impact will be stronger if you point out how your results are consistent with the results of major national and regional studies. Indeed, even if you have not conducted your own community impact evaluation, you should consider incorporating community impact arguments into your case-making by referencing national and regional studies that show the importance of arts organizations for community well-being.
Many states and regions have conducted studies of the economic impact of the arts. You can learn about these studies by contacting your regional or local arts alliance. If you periodically meet with peers at other arts organizations in your region or community, you can start a conversation about whether or not a regional study has been done in your community that would be useful for you to reference. If not, you could contact regional or national arts associations and express your interest in being included in future economic impact studies.
Periodically, research reports are released on the impact of the arts that are of general interest and importance. Look for discussions of recent research on the impact of the arts on student learning and achievement. Another area where some research has been undertaken is on the health benefits for older adults participating in the arts. Familiarity with these research findings can allow you to argue more persuasively for the role of arts organizations such as your own in your community.
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