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16th November 2016 Bea Udeh

Five must haves to develop a more Diverse Audience Base #ADA

Mel Larsen , a Consultant, Coach and a mentor for the Audience Diversity Academy looks at the essential requirements to create a positive impact on your audience base.


It’s been a pleasure to support a number of cultural organisations through the Audience Diversity Academy as they develop their relationships with new and different audiences. Through a series of ‘experiments’ they are testing out ideas and tactics, focused mostly on attracting and retaining more BAME and ‘Hard to Reach’ audiences.

I have spent almost 30 years contributing to the development of greater diversity and fairness in arts funding, marketing and delivery. In the case of attracting BAME audiences the same questions, challenges and excuses arise time and time again. Why is this? Perhaps it’s because important lessons have not been embedded into organisational culture. Perhaps it’s because the impetus to act only arises when funds are available. Or perhaps it’s because there is a deeper, unconscious bias, extreme examples of which have been recently exposed by Brexit.

Acting as a Mentor has afforded me the opportunity to listen to both the public and private hopes and challenges of my mentees. The successes and challenges they have shared with me have again reinforced my view on key things that must be in place to effect real change in this area:

1. A CEO with a Purpose and Vision – without the support of the person in charge it is only a matter of time before the potential for real and lasting progress is de-railed for political, budgetary or resource issues or any number of other reasons. These reasons may seem to make sense now, but, as British demographics continues to diversify at a pace, will look like short-term thinking even by the end of this decade. This is in-depth work that requires commitment and cultural change. It’s called ‘leadership’ for a reason. When diversity is not prioritised or embedded in senior management culture, it will not be embedded in the rest of the organisation.
2. Staff briefing and buy-in – once the CEO is on board, the whole team needs to follow by working to open up access, representation and relationships. Otherwise, goodwill and good work will be sabotaged, consciously or unconsciously.
3. An understanding of your audience – its pretty hard to communicate with a target segment if you know little to nothing about where they can be found, where they currently spend their time and money and what they want. Most of my mentors have found they need come up with cost effective ways to find this information fast. In fact, one person who had next to no information on her targets took my advice, got on the phone to local groups and has now built a very good database and network of contacts who want to help. The results of her efforts showed up almost immediately through the highest inflow and uptake they’ve ever had from BAME applicants for a project.
4. An open-minded culture – although diversity sounds like a simple concept at heart – in this context: recognising and valuing difference – it can become complex due to that very difference. By assuming, ‘we are all the same’, decisions can be made that actually end up excluding people. There is a lot of fear of ‘getting it wrong’, or of ‘offending people’ and this is not totally unfounded: it can feel initially very uncomfortable to wake up to one’s own ignorance or prejudices.
My first advice is that it is almost always better to try something than do nothing, especially when so much advice, support and guidance is available from champions, experts, mentors and institutions locally and nationally.

Thankfully, all of my mentees have been thinking well beyond any fear of failure. They just want to do the very best they can. Sometimes what is required is very simple, as the experiments are showing. For example, a change in words or images used in promotion, a team briefing, different departments working together more closely, meeting community contacts, new programming. Sometimes it can be a little harder: recognising self-bestowed leadership by taking a stand; giving up free time to ensure something happens; or taking on something you don’t feel ready or qualified to do simply because no-one else is going to do it.

5. Persistence and patience – I understand that making changes within an organisation is not always easy and can take time. Ditto with building a new audience. History has shown that those who are of a mind to make a lasting difference need to be persistent and immensely patient. Things are slowly changing, however, with the help of programmes like the Audience Diversity Academy, and there is some good news in terms of resources, ACE has recently put £4.6 million into developing BAME theatre and disabled senior leaders.

I have great admiration for the Academy mentees, who are all clearly committed to change, are willing to try something new and willing to challenge the status quo. They have been working hard and have come up with interesting experiments. I look forward to reporting further on the details of their actions and progress later in the year.