Building Capacity for Audience Research:
Reflections on the Audience Research Collaborative

An initiative of the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation's Performing Arts Program

By Alan Brown

When I first began researching audiences in the early 1990s, database marketing was still in its infancy. Audience surveying involved paper and pencils, and was generally regarded as something that needed to be done on occasion to satisfy a funder. It wasn’t until the late 1990s and 2000s that empirical research on audiences and potential audiences gained widespread legitimacy as a decision support tool.

What is the role of audience research in an artistically driven organization today?

In many arts organizations, market research is valued to the extent that it contributes to more productive marketing and fundraising efforts. But when research enters the realm of artistic programming – which is more and more often these days – competing value systems collide.

On the one hand is the deeply rooted value system around protecting the autonomy of artistic leaders. On the other hand is the growing expectation of “data-driven decision making” and calls for programming to be more “responsive” to changes in the marketplace.

Funders have been helpful in building value around research. The research and evaluation requirements attached to project grants often provide arts organizations with resources and technical assistance to conduct research and reflect critically on their programs. Rarely, however, do funders offer grantees opportunities to build internal capacity to conduct research apart from mandatory evaluations.

In 2012, the Performing Arts Program of the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation extended an invitation to a group of its grantees to participate in a multi-year program to build capacity for audience research. Over a period of two and a half years, a WolfBrown team led by Rebecca Ratzkin provided customized technical assistance to 46 grantees. Hewlett Foundation covered the costs of the Audience Research Collaborative (ARC) program, but did not offer additional financial assistance to participating grantees beyond the operating support already committed.

Building Capacity for Audience Research candidly distills lessons learned from the ARC initiative for other funders who’d contemplate investing in the capacity of their grantees to gather and interpret audience data. The report is organized thematically:

  • Foreword by John McGuirk, director, Performing Arts Program, The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation
  • Introduction and Context – argues that today’s accountability environment drives nonprofits and their funders to seek out more and more data
  • Research Capacity: To Build or Not to Build? – frames key questions about the benefits and challenges of capacity building
  • Assessing Organizational Readiness for Research T.A. – shares lessons learned from the intake process
  • Establishing a Community of Practice – discusses approaches to cohort learning
  • Promoting a Culture of Learning – focuses on organizational learning, and the associated challenges and successes
  • The Value and Challenges of Collecting Demographic Data – raises issues of cultural competence in audience research and the challenge of collecting standardized demographic data
  • Parting Reflections – summarizes lessons learned
  • Coda: Hewlett’s Response to Demographic Results – reflections from Hewlett staff on demographic data in the context of the foundation’s commitment to supporting the Bay Area’s diverse populations

We are indebted to the staff of the Hewlett Foundation’s Performing Arts, and especially to their former fellow, Sheena Johnson, for their vigorous partnership throughout this initiative. John McGuirk’s recent blog, “Taking stock of our Performing Arts grantmaking” reflects on the foundation’s progress towards its larger goals.

The learning conveyed in this report could not have occurred were it not for the extraordinary efforts of the 46 grantees and over 50,000 audience members who took the time to reflect on their artistic experiences and share what they learned.

The opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.