Using Art for Social Impact: Targeting Stakeholder Engagement

Closing circle for Airbnb hosts, staff and Miami nonprofit partner, Americans for Immigrant Justice (Unconventional, 2016)

Finding public and private organizations with missions aimed at ‘empowerment’, ‘resiliency’, ‘awareness’, or simply ‘giving back’, is easy. But what separates the highest impact organizations from the rest is straightforward: stakeholder engagement. In 2011, I launched U-Doodle, a consulting firm that employs art to improve the social impact of businesses, nonprofits, and governments by targeting stakeholder engagement. Today I announce that we are completely rebranding U-Doodle — starting with a name change to… Unconventional.

Unconventional connects artists, whose art is participatory and publicly visible, with opportunities to design installations that strengthen stakeholder relations in the public and private sector.

Airbnb staff and Miami hosts painting a mural at a recent stakeholder engagement project, (Unconventional, 2016)

Before zooming into specifics, let’s examine how targeting stakeholder engagement can improve an organization’s social impact.

A stakeholder is anybody affected by decisions made by an organization or group in relation to specific causes or places. For example, climate change issues in South Florida involve stakeholders from universities, governments, local businesses, nonprofits, and grassroots groups — all of whom must work together. Each of us has a network of stakeholders affected by our decisions. And, just like we’d want family and friends working ‘on the same page’, we urgently need similar — and more deliberate — collaboration in institutions affecting larger numbers of people. Why? Because engaging stakeholders and getting everybody on the same page improves an organization’s ability to produce innovative and viable solutions; sustainable for the long haul.

As with any successful stakeholder engagement initiative, Unconventional’s success depends on (1) how diverse our partners are, (2) how deeply we understand our partners, and (3) how much ‘ownership’ we share with our partners. Research on creativity, collaboration, and civics finds that combining people from diverse backgrounds causes disparate ideas and perspectives to collide, generating more innovative and socially responsible solutions than what would emerge from groups lacking such diversity. Principles of human-centered design show that, by deeply understanding clients, and ‘empathizing’ with them, we’re better positioned to create products that are personally meaningful and practical for clients. By engaging stakeholders in a way that encourages inclusivity and participation, stakeholders gain a shared sense of responsibility for what the organization promotes; making an organization more sustainable and resilient for when things go awry. Unconventional practices these principles in ways unlike other companies that merely explain how to engage stakeholders on a slide-deck. Instead, we directly engage stakeholders with art installations that are highly participatory and custom designed for each partner with whom we work.

For instance, in January we connected Miami-based artist, Gabriel ‘GG’ Gimenez of GG Artwork, with work at the Overtown Youth Center (OYC). GG, whose recognizable murals adorn Miami’s streets, used a ‘paint-by-numbers’ method to give middle and high school students an opportunity to paint a provocative mural and make their voices heard. GG worked with OYC staff throughout the design process, bridging professionals and youth in Overtown. Together, they decided to theme their mural to the topic of climate change in South Florida; an urgent and relevant issue requiring consensus in Miami, if we expect a legitimate solution. With GG, youth envisioned how climate change affects Overtown, and, throughout, brainstormed and discussed ways to draw attention to this issue in their community. In the long-term, we plan to bring stakeholders from the business world and from government into places like Overtown to devise solutions in collaboration with local youth and nonprofit leaders. In doing so, we’ll not only facilitate multi-stakeholder collaboration, but also beautify the community in ways that symbolize the beginning of many similar collaborations.

Youth and staff from Miami’s Overtown Youth Center creating a mural with GG Artwork (Unconventional, 2016)

The benefits of stakeholder engagement go beyond business or strategic gains, and have profound impact on community, civic and social change efforts. By leveraging art as a tool for stakeholder engagement, Unconventional sets a ‘visual precedent’ for the collaborative style of work that must follow if our goal is positive, sustained, impact. After over 200 similar-style arts installations across the U.S., we’ve had a range of successes. We’ve improved interfaith relations in religious organizations, built empathy between faculty and students in Miami-Dade public schools, and given NYC residents a voice in city planning by working with their Department of Transportation. Our work has extended into the corporate world, partnering with companies like Yelp! and Airbnb, and into the nonprofit world, with City Year, Launch Pad Miami, the Overtown Youth Center, and many others. We’ve seen that stakeholder engagement is an essential ingredient to any cause, across private and public sectors. As we continue to grow, we are always seeking new opportunities to harness the power of art to create a world where rapid economic growth translates into more positive and sustainable social impact.

Interested in joining the list of partners with a team building or community service project? Are you already working on an interesting art-based project that boosts stakeholder engagement?

Let me know in your comments below!

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