Monday, 12 September 2011

Building a family: lessons from the social sector

In the last years, we´ve witnessed the solidarity generated at an international level when disaster strikes a country, even a distant one, affecting the lives of thousands of people. I could mention the tsunami in Indochina, the earthquake in Haiti, the floods in Pakistan and, more recently, the humanitarian crisis in the Horn of Africa. People with more or less money, sensitive to human pain, try to contribute, within their possibilities, in order to help relieve that pain, but, also, in order to feel good themselves, in order to feel human, useful, solidary. In the last weeks, I´ve been following closely the efforts of the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) in raising public awareness as well as funds for the Horn of Africa. And I´ve been thinking that the cultural sector has got a lot to learn with the social.

In the last years I have supported the WFP on a number of occasions. A few days after my last donation I received this email. It wasn´t just a ‘thank you’ email. It was something more. The WFP informed me on the impact of my contribution; it brought me news; it shared personal stories; it explained what the next steps would be. All this in a very personal, informal, clear way, that obviously aimed to give the receiver proof of the WFP´s effort and efficiency, as well as of the importance of the donor himself in the process.

At the same time, the WFP was communicating with the public through its website, as well as through regular posts on Facebook. They shared news, good and bad; they showed photos and videos from the affected areas; they reminded people of how they could help (not only by donating money); and, in the end of July and for one week, they had a correspondent in Dadaab, the largest refugee camp in Kenya, doing reports and interviews, as well as answering people´s questions posted on Facebook (watch here the video from day 1 and follow the rest on You Tube). It was also at that time that Josette Sheeran, the head of WFP, gave a powerful and deeply inspiring TED Talk, Ending hunger now, which was seen by thousands of people.

During that campaign, which is unfortunately not over, the WFP:

- constantly reminded everyone, through all the means and channels available, of its mission (The WFP fights hunger worldwide, saving lives during emergencies while building a better future for next generation. WFP is funded solely by voluntary donations).
- it shared its vision, objectives, next steps;
- it was telling stories from the field of action;
- it was giving proof of its work and interventions;
- it used a direct, colloquial, comprehensible language;
- it made available on all digital platforms the ‘Donate’ button (one of the campaign´s big objectives), facilitating the process as much as possible;
- it never forgot to say ‘thank you’ and… ask for more.

Photos from the series "A family arriving in Dadaab", taken from the WFP website.

Culture, for a number of reasons, does not appeal to people´s hearts and minds the same way human pain or the lack of essential goods do (such as food, a house or even education). But it is essential. “Why?”, many people might ask. Well, that´s exactly the question.

- How many cultural institutions in Portugal have missions that are something a bit more exciting than “X is a cultural institution of a european scope at the service of the national community” or “Y is managed by a private and public utility Foundation, aiming to promote culture”?
- How many cultural institutions use their channels to permanently assert and share their mission with the public? Or their vision?
- How many cultural institutions publicly commit to specific objectives and give feedback on the process of achieving them?
- How many cultural institutions tell stories on their day-to-day activities, the people working in them and the people they are committed to serve, demystifying what´s going on inside their walls and showing their impact?
- How many cultural institutions have a human face?
- How many cultural institutions speak a comprehensible language?

The person who managed to summarise all these questions with great insight and sense of humour was Adam Thurman, founder of Mission Paradox and Communications Director of Court Theatre in Chicago, in his talk Power and the Arts, which I had the opportunity to watch last week. Actually, an inspiring talk on the power of communication in the way we relate to other people, our ‘audiences’. In the way we create our ‘family’ and make it grow.

It was also last week that Casa Conveniente took an initiative that is unique, as far as I know, in Portugal (but I believe that this is the way forward for our cultural institutions): it launched on Facebook the campaign Be a sponsor of Casa Conveniente for €12. The friends of Casa Conveniente responded promptly and, as one would expect, very positively. They will support the project with this modest amount (or even more) and they will spread the word. Because they believe in the project; because it´s something that moves them; because they want it to continue providing them with unique, unforgettable moments; and because they want to be part. I believe that Casa Conveniente´s next step should be to communicate with those who don´t know them: to share their vision; to show what they´ve been doing; and to show their impact. And for that, I think it would be a good idea, among other things, to ‘use’ also their friends, more or less famous, registering and sharing their thoughts and feelings about the project. People (and not institutions) sharing what moves them with other people. And thus the family grows.

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