Listening to arts advocates in Los Angeles

Fellows receiving feedback on their proposed initiatives from project consultants at the February 2017 ACTIVATE Arts Advocacy Leadership Program training session hosted by Self Help Graphics & Art, a community arts center in Los Angeles. (Credit: Matías Muñoz-Rodriguez)

Arts for LA is a leading voice for the arts in greater Los Angeles, working to engage individuals and organizations to advocate for access to the arts across all local communities. Its ACTIVATE Arts Advocacy Leadership Program trains both arts education professionals and committed citizens to become more effective advocates for the arts in Los Angeles County schools. A grantee of our Performing Arts Program, the organization received a “Listen for Good” grant in 2016 to help gather feedback from advocates trained through the ACTIVATE program. Listen for Good is an initiative of Fund for Shared Insight, a funder collaborative with 13 core funders including the Hewlett Foundation.

Recently, Heath Wickline, the communication officer for our Performing Arts Program, hosted a Slack chat with two of Arts for LA’s staff members, program manager Abril Iñiguez-Rivas and deputy director Karen Louis, as well as Valerie Threlfall, the project lead for Listen for Good, and Jessica Mele, the Hewlett Foundation’s program officer for arts education. The chat has been shortened and edited for clarity.

 

panel

Heath: Valerie, could you start us off by telling us what Listen for Good is trying to achieve?

Valerie: Sure. Listen for Good is a grant initiative of the Fund for Shared Insight — a funder collaborative that is committed to helping funders and organizations get more connected to the people they are trying to help.

Listen for Good grantees receive a two-year grant and commit to using a survey to listen to their clients — systematically and intentionally. They also receive technical assistance as part of their grant to listen better — and address any challenges that come up along the way. In 2016, Fund for Shared Insight made 46 Listen for Good grants.

The ultimate goal of Listen for Good is to accelerate the practice of listening to clients and incorporating client voice into organizational decision-making.

Heath: How did this grant came about?

Jessica: Actually, Arts for LA approached us. They felt like Listen for Good’s method of getting beneficiary (or client) feedback would be a good fit for their ACTIVATE Program, which was relatively new at the time. I was really curious how Listen for Good would work for them, given that they don’t have the profile of a typical Listen for Good grantee, e.g., organizations serving “clients” directly in a service environment.

Valerie: It’s true that most Listen for Good grantees are direct service organizations — nonprofits that support individuals or a community by providing housing, healthcare and the like directly to individual clients.

Abril: Right. We seem to be a square peg in the round hole within the grantee portfolio, but the Listen for Good team has been great about helping us adopt and implement the process in a way that makes sense for what our organization does.

Heath: What was it that made Listen for Good attractive to Arts for LA?

Karen: For the work we do, particularly with the ACTIVATE Program, we were looking for solid, consistent and sequential modes of evaluation. Participants in the program, our ACTIVATE Fellows (we are about to welcome our fourth cohort), have a diverse breadth of experience, goals and opportunities, so it can be a challenge to ensure that we are giving each of them what they need to be effective advocates.

Heath: And how has the experience with Listen for Good been?

Karen: AMAZING

Valerie

Abril: Hahaha yes!

Heath: What would you say has been the best part?

Abril: We’ve learned a ton. The Listen for Good team has been incredibly supportive throughout the process and have really guided us through it in a thoughtful way.

We learned a lot about how to tailor ACTIVATE to the wants of the participants from the results of the survey. We also gained a lot of insight on how to make effective use of feedback to inform our work from our conversations with the Listen for Good team around the design of the survey, the analysis of the results, and how to share the insights internally and externally.

Karen: The evaluation itself and having a structure to develop tools of evaluation are key to the success of our programs. ACTIVATE is a prime example of a program that is cyclical in nature. Through our work with Listen for Good, we have gained specific and distinctive insight into what works well, what can be improved, and how we can implement strategies and opportunities for the next cycle of programming. The new metrics we’ve acquired provide a secure base of understanding and gauging how well we’re meeting our ACTIVATE Fellows’ needs and expectations. There’s less guesswork, which allows us to develop stronger processes as a team when it comes to how we think about our programming.

Heath: Could you give us an example of the program tailoring?

Abril: Sure. One of the interesting things that came out of the first round of feedback was that people who were coming to the ACTIVATE Program from a professional capacity were experiencing it differently from those who are coming in with a community-based approach.

Part of what is great about the program is that it’s open to anyone with an interest in arts advocacy, so we have Fellows who have are arts administrators in school districts or nonprofit organizations in the same cohort as working artists, parents, and community members. Having this incredible mix of experience levels and perspectives in the same room is one of the boons of the program, particularly because of the networking opportunity it affords. However, through the survey, we learned that Fellows coming to advocacy work from these disparate approaches have different needs and require our support in different ways.

Jessica: By the way, Abril, I find that piece of insight so interesting — the difference between participants from a professional perspective versus community perspective. I think what you learned has implications for building the field of arts advocacy.

Heath: Could you say more about that, Jess?

Jessica: Well, I think the field of arts advocacy is pretty underdeveloped, though LA is a bit of an anomaly (there’s more happening there). This work with Listen for Good surfaced the reality that there isn’t one type of arts advocate. And that different types of advocates need different things, take on different projects — and can contribute different things to the field.

Abril:  Exactly. Looking at these two groups, we found that while the Fellows coming to the program in a professional capacity were happy with the networking opportunities in ACTIVATE, those coming from a community-based approach thought that the networking needed improving. After looking at those responses more closely, we realized that the community-based Fellows were looking for more structured/facilitated networking sessions or exercises to help them build relationships with Fellows whose professional roles or organizational affiliations would be (mutually) beneficial.

This was a totally unexpected finding; we hadn’t realized that these two different kinds of Fellows were experiencing the program so differently.

We ended up bringing this back to the Fellows who participated in the survey and asked for ideas on what this kind of facilitated networking would look like. We got a lot of great suggestions on how to tackle this issue and will be implementing some of the strategies the Fellows suggested with the new cohort starting in September.

Karen: The feedback we got helped us realize that something as simple as seating arrangements can make a big difference. What happens when you put a teaching artist with a dynamic program is sitting next to an arts administrator looking to diversify their programming? While we are not necessarily making the collaboration happen, we are opening the door to the possibility of collaboration. Having realized this, we’re now working more intentionally to create an environment in our ACTIVATE sessions where those opportunities and collaborations can flourish.

Valerie: From our perspective, Arts for LA did a great job of getting solid feedback from members of their cohort and then segmenting that feedback for insights, which is what allowed them to see how different groups (e.g., those coming from a professional background versus community members) were experiencing the program. And how they could respond to their various needs.

Heath: Is the Arts for LA experience similar to what you’re seeing with direct-service organizations in the program, Valerie? Or are they really different?

Valerie: In terms of structure, their ACTIVATE program is very similar to other direct service organizations that may have “cohorts.”

Arts for LA did an especially great job of analyzing their results using simple but powerful tools and then processing the results with their constituents or clients (e.g., the Fellows) and involving them in developing solutions.

So, yes, they are an instructive example of how you can use feedback on the ground to shape a program and drive continuous improvement.

Karen: We are in position, too, where evaluation is so critical for that very point that the advocacy field is underdeveloped. Our ACTIVATE Program is one in which we are trying to change that by engaging our community members on every level to understand that they can take active part in the process.

Jessica: To have a truly effective advocacy field, you need both types of advocates. And, I would argue, that we need more of the community member advocates. Too often, professionals in the field are driving advocacy for the arts. ACTIVATE is important because it brings those groups together, and hopefully the two support each other in their learning.

Abril: Absolutely, and I think this particular example about the difference between those coming at advocacy in a professional capacity vs. from a community-based approach highlights the need for us (as a field) to more intentionally build those partnerships.

Heath: What advice would you give to an organization interested in applying for the new round of Listen for Good grants?

Karen: Be specific in need/project, and adaptive in the process itself. Having an anchor in ACTIVATE gave us an immediate working model, which was a win/win.

Valerie: I have heard some grantees say that you have to come prepared to learn or be surprised (in some cases) about the insights that will come. You think you know … but you don’t always.

Abril: I think it’s also important to be open to the possibility of unexpected results and the opportunities for growth and change that they might afford.

Valerie: Much more articulately said!

Abril

Heath: Okay. Let’s leave it there. Thanks again to all of you for sharing your experience with us!

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