Alliance Communications Manager Mary Schwarz explores what the participatory arts sector can learn from a book about individual altruism…

My colleague Sue Kay and I were working recently for social enterprise The Arts Development Company (TADC) and Dorset Arts Together, consulting on how to develop a truly owned, dynamic and connected approach to delivering the Dorset Cultural Strategy. TADC CEO Mike Hoskin recommended a book to us, which greatly helped inform our proposals for collaborative ‘huddles’ in a refocused people-based structure. Since then, the book has also been a live reference point for me whenever involved in planning projects.

‘Doing Good Better: Effective Altruism and a Radical New Way to Make a Difference’ by William MacAskill is –  as its full title suggests – an exploration of how you as an individual can make informed choices to make the best and biggest difference. With chapter headings such as ‘Why You Shouldn’t Give to Disaster Relief’, ‘The Best Person Who Ever Lived is an Unknown Ukrainian Man’ and ‘Don’t “Follow Your Passion”’, you can tell it’s a book that turns conventional thinking upside down. MacAskill shows that despite best intentions to ‘do good’, our actions may be ineffective and at worst, do harm.

It’s a fascinating and salutary read that will change how you think about choosing a charity, a cause and a career if you’re interested in increasing your impact in all areas of your life.  What’s also so enlightening is how relevant the five questions it poses are to what we do in participatory arts, from a single project to a strategic network, like ArtWorks Alliance. Sounding simple, the questions deserve more thought (and research) than you may first expect when planning what to do:

How many people benefit, and by how much?

Is this the most effective thing you can do?

Is this area neglected?

What would have happened otherwise?

What are the chances of success, and how good would success be?

To these, I would add two more – thinking about learning and development as well as accountability:

How will you know you’ve achieved success?

How will you know how you’ve achieved success?

ArtWorks Alliance brings together willing partners who want, at a strategic level, to develop participatory arts – by working together on problems that cannot be solved by any one of the partners working on their own and by exploiting opportunities in ways that are richer than working separately. The Action Groups are the on-the-ground collaborative manifestation of that ambition.

As the Alliance plans for the next two years, MacAskill’s questions will be at the back of our minds as we determine the collective version of those ‘charity, cause and career’ choices. Hopefully the questions also resonate helpfully with you, your organisations and other networks across the participatory arts sector. As MacAskill says, ‘It’s the size of the drop that matters, not the size of the bucket, and, if we choose, we can create an enormous splash’. Doing participatory arts better. Together.