A few weeks ago I attended Clarinet Day at Western University’s Faculty of Music. There were about 40 of us clarinetists of all ages, levels and ability. This community outreach initiative is devoted to clarinet matters – clinics, master classes, faculty member performances, vendor exhibits, and rehearsals for our end-of-day clarinet choir concert. Some of us, myself included, got a half hour private lesson with a Western clarinet student. As if that weren’t enough, there was a recital the night before by the invited guest artist, Canada’s pre-eminent clarinet virtuoso, James Campbell which, sadly, I could not attend (heard it was great though!).The event left me energized and wanting to practice more. It also got me reflecting on the concept of “community outreach” or “community engagement”.
In the area of environmental sustainability or corporate social responsibility “stakeholder engagement” is a well-known term. It means involving people who might affect or be affected by the decisions and actions of your organization. Stakeholders can be employees, customers, suppliers, community members, activists, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), Aboriginal groups, politicians, media and the academic community. Companies engage with stakeholders through various means – face-to-face meetings, dialogue sessions, community advisory panels, focus groups, telephone research interviews, town hall meetings and social media.
Why do they engage? The simple answer is that it’s good business and good PR. Taking a “listen and learn” approach shows interest in building relationships and working towards a win-win outcome. If a company wants to gain community support for a proposed project, they have a better chance of succeeding by engaging with local residents than they do by arbitrarily telling them they’re going to build something in the neighbourhood. Where local opposition to a project is strong, stakeholder engagement can help the company make a decision early on whether to proceed or pull out, before investing further money, time and resources. This is especially important for companies that want to do business in emerging markets.
But there are other benefits to such engagement such as strategic knowledge and institutional learning. Take employee engagement as one example. Getting front line workers to give their perspectives, thoughts and ideas for improvement can pave the way for more efficient processes, ideas reducing costs and improved employee retention – all good for the bottom line as well as company’s reputation as a good place to work. Customer engagement is another example. In recent months, I’ve worked on a few research consulting projects, interviewing customers of local energy distribution companies to get their feedback to help the company formulate its long-term plan. This feedback, in addition to being a regulatory requirement in Ontario, helps the company learn where it can improve its customer service, prices and communications.
Building positive relationships with multiple stakeholders can be a challenge, but its value cannot be overestimated. In the case of Western’s Clarinet Day, this community engagement scored many benefits for both sides. It provided tremendous value to the participants, showcased the immense skill and talent of its faculty and students, enabled participants and their families to experience the instrument’s remarkable range and versatility, and served as a means to help recruit talented students. Above all, it reinforced a positive relationship between the institution and the community. As for me, I got the side benefit of meeting and networking with some interesting folks! Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go practice!