How do you keep your community in the loop as innovation unfolds?

This is Part 1 of a series of three posts I’ll be writing about The Network of Ensemble Theater’s organizational experimentation as a part of EmcArts’ Innovation Lab for Arts Development Agencies.


Hello EMC Arts Community! My name is Sherrine, and I am the Communications and Administration Associate for The Network of Ensemble Theaters (NET). NET is one of the cohort of organizations participating in Round 2 of the EmcArts’ Innovation Lab for Arts Development Agencies. NET is made up of a small (4!), passionate staff, an impressive and vibrant board of directors, and a mighty community of members dedicated to the values of co-creation, in theater and beyond. We are so excited to have the opportunity in the lab to get to tackle a complex challenge of our organization.

Here is a very, very brief overview of the challenge NET put forth to EmcArts:
The Network of Ensemble Theaters (NET) represents a sector of the field that is known for research, innovation, and adaptability. Yet as an organization, we find ourselves lagging behind; we’re holding on to definitions of “ensemble” that may no longer accurately reflect the types of work created by our members, and we continue to use an outdated business model, one more reflective of 20th-century thinking than present day reality. These challenges are interconnected and, when combined, are especially complex in nature.

The beauty of the EmcArts Innovation Lab is that it offers you the opportunity to work on your challenge by designing a couple of experiments. So, you go away on a retreat to the Airlie Center in Virginia with a group of about 10 organizational stakeholders to engage in some deep conversations and thinking about what those experiments might be. For us, our experiments really came into focus on the second to last day of the retreat.

But this kind of work for a membership organization, such as ourselves, reveals another challenge: How do we keep in communication with our members about this process as it unfolds? Further, as we are beginning the process, how do we keep our members connected to the process at the conception phase when we are mostly asking questions and throwing out big concepts that haven’t formed into anything tangible yet? I felt a particular stake in this question not only as the staff person that has Communications in her title but also as a member. The theater company I co-direct is an active member of NET. Wearing that different hat, how would I like to stay connected?

We decided to take the last couple of minutes at the end of each of our days at Airlie to create short video missives about what we were thinking about, and then we blasted them out on our social media sites.

Day 1

Day 2

Day 3

Day 4

Now, I will say they didn’t get as many plays as I wanted (or as many likes on Facebook or retweets on Twitter). Yet I still love the intention behind these video messages—to more actively connect with our members about the workings of NET outside of live gatherings. Looking back, I would have built up more context around these videos. However, these videos had other values; they helped us focus our thoughts at the end of each day and offered the opportunity for our members to engage in the conversation if they wanted to. They can also be revisited and act as an archive of our experience and learning. As we get ready to launch our experiments, members may find it useful to go back and hear about where the seeds of the ideas came from. We, as NET staff, can also revisit them to see if the original thinking carries through to the end of our experiments. The lack of engagement when the videos were originally posted was really good information to get and will inform how we think about deeper participatory communication strategies in the future. They may have originally been just a blip on social media, but certainly not for nothing!

Throughout our conversations at Airlie we knew that a communications strategy had to be equally considered alongside all of the experiments. As we prepare to launch our first experiment, we are also planning the biggest social media communication push of our organization to date. So…

Stay tuned for Part 2: NET LAUNCHES EXPERIMENT #1!


Share Your Experience

In the comments section below, share your experience with community engagement. How do you communicate with your community when conducting organizational experiments? What strategies or approaches have you tried?


Sherrine is the Engagement Manager for The Network of Ensemble Theaters (NET).