My organization recently drafted a new strategic plan that stressed the institution’s need for continued focus on building community audiences and developing sustainable outreach efforts. This need, of course, is not a new trend within the field of local history, and our strategic plan aimed to place the importance of our mission to connect with the community front and center. Holding a managerial role over many of our public programs and educational activities, I am tasked with developing events that reach new audiences and broadening our programs to appeal to under-served portions of our community. This is an ongoing process, but is also provides the opportunity to experiment with new program formats, marketing efforts, and target audiences. Often, our program staff“experiments” with new events, some with great success others not so much, but each provides a learning experience to grow from and further improves the organization’s exposure.
Our most recent community outreach success did not come from a new program, rather one of our longest running and perhaps most “traditional” museum offerings, a monthly adult lecture series called Second Saturdays. The series is near and dear to me; I had the opportunity to create the monthly lecture offering when I first started with the organization, new to the field nearly nine years ago. Since that time, the series has featured diverse topics related to local and national history and culture, including presentations and performances—from sword play to Irish dancing—as well as the expected book talks and signings held onsite at our Historical Society Museum. Over the years, a core audience gradually formed bringing a sustainable presence each month.
Recently, an unlikely outreach opportunity developed when a devoted volunteer proposed a topic idea for the lecture series. This volunteer has served as a tour guide for countless tours for school groups and public visitors, served on a variety of internal committees, participated with specials projects and events, and essentially done whatever I have asked of him. His proposal came from a local church’s program committee on which he served. The plan was to hold an offsite event to highlight the history of one of the oldest—if not the oldest, depending on who you ask—churches and congregations in the community with a historic talk and a building tour. My initial reservations concerned our ability to generate a sizable offsite crowd, the potential for concerns over holding a public event at a church, and limited oversight in the program’s implementation.
However, when I realized my trusted volunteer was going to be managing the event for the church alongside a pastor who had attended nearly every Second Saturday program since the series’ inception, I felt confident that the program was setup for success. The 18th century church is an iconic building, and their archives have always had a connection to our organization, and we have in our collection an original organ built for the church in 1804. I put my “faith,” combined with a marketing deadline, in what could now be considered an offsite outreach program.
On the dreary winter morning of the event, with the threat of snow and ice in the forecast, I was pleasantly surprised to find a bustling church lobby with a large crowd and limited seating in the room where the talk was to take place. As I scanned the crowd during my usual introduction for the program, I noticed a number of familiar faces as well new ones. I later learned that much of the crowd was not otherwise connected to the church, and simply interested in the event. The program itself ran smoothly and throughout the talk and then later during the building tour, the guides related personally to the audience by skillfully placing the context of the history of the church within the narrative of the community’s early settlement.
At the end of the event I knew we had achieved success: many new attendees to the program mentioned that the location offsite made them eager to attend, while longtime attendees expressed their appreciation for holding the talk at the church rather than disconnecting it “offsite” at the museum. One audience member even suggested that this model could be a separate program series that could visit and feature different churches each month.
This was a successful outreach event because we merged organic outside program development with an established program that had already garnered community support. The event increased our organizational reach, fostered collaboration, and served a new audience, which will hopefully translate into additional future engagement.
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