Volunteers to the Rescue!

I have been closely watching a series of articles Drew McManus is writing on the topic “How to Save Classical Music.” He is using the docent program at the Denver Zoo as a case study of how to use volunteer labor to aid in the revitalization of orchestras. He begins by defining the problem, then talks about the Denver Zoo program and has most recently written on how to apply these lessons to orchestras. Volunteer programs are of special interest to me so I have already put a fair bit of thought into his entries. I suspect that additional consideration will so occupy me that this entry meant for Friday won’t be posted until Saturday.

Drew starts out with the premise that while most arts organizations inevitably have education as part of their mission, the focus of education departments is typically on school programs rather than on audience education. He suggests training and empowering docents will provide support in the areas of marketing, public relations, education and outreach. Docents are traditionally individuals who do tours and lectures at museums and cathedrals. Mr. McManus’ suggestion is to minimize the teaching posture and position docents more as knowlegeable companions.

He goes on to discuss the similarities between the Denver Zoo and orchestras which make the comparison valid. He also mentions the problems facing orchestras echoing the sentiments of the McPhee Knight Foundation speech I cited last week. The solution, he says, lies in adopting the Denver Zoo’s aims:

They facilitate people in their community with the tools they need to become an integral part of the zoos mission instead of looking at them as merely check writing automatons. The zoo gives up a measure of its own control over the institution, but in turn they create a passionate group of stakeholders that perpetuate ongoing community interest and involvement with the zoo. They enable members of the community to become involved partners as opposed to static participants. In turn, the zoo entrusts these individuals with the important responsibility of communicating with the public the value of their mission and to create an interest in the actual ‘product’.

Personally, I have always been interested in getting volunteers more involved in the organizations for which I have worked. However, I have been concerned about the administration’s commitment and investment in the volunteers. This is why I would be cautious about starting such a program in an arts organization.

The problem I have faced is that administration often looks upon volunteer help as a forgone conclusion. There is a Field of Dreams assumption similar to the one made about audiences–if you are offering the opportunity to volunteer, then certainly people are going to want to do it so they can be associated with the wonderful things the organization does.

One place I worked had often discussed, but never held, a volunteer appreciation event in the 15-20 years of the program. I felt victorious at having been the first to successfully organize one. When it came time to plan for the next one, I was told money wasn’t the issue but in light of the fact that after 20 years without an event, only 40 out of 350 invitees came, maybe it was better to have it every 2-3 years.

I was extremely annoyed. We had started doing performances at a 1000 seat venue that was much more accessible to major roadways than our other performance spaces, but with which our audience base was not familiar. The first show we hardly had 200 people attend. However, we didn’t abandon doing shows there but worked on increasing awareness of the venue. In my mind, we could have done the same thing by noting the party date 6 months out on every piece of correspondence sent to participating volunteers.

As a result of perceiving an exploitative motivation with little thought of appreciation, I have never proposed additional programs in which volunteers could be involved. I do, however, collect ideas such as Drew’s against the day I am in a position to direct policy.

In the second day’s entry, McManus discusses how the program of the Denver Zoo is structured. I was impressed by the amount of training the docents underwent and how much they were invested in the zoo. One of the biggest complaints the volunteers had was that the program became too formalized and that full time employees assumed functions they once performed. It is to the volunteers’ credit that they feel such ownership for the program. The zoo is so happy with the program they intend to double its size to 600 docents in the near future.

In his third entry, Mr. McManus discusses the problems with orchestras and how the docent program can help. One of the biggest problems, he says, is that orchestras devote an increasingly larger portion of their ticket revenue to market to the same, ever decreasing, segment of the public. When they do try to attract more diverse audiences, “it often comes off looking like a tragically unhip old guy trying his best to look young and cool.”

Educational information that is provided is usually in the form of reams of printed material utilizing arcane terminology and might be supplemented by a brief pre-performance lecture. What it lacks, he says, is personal face to face contact with someone who is passionate and knowledgeable, but like you, doesn’t have all the answers. He also suggested essentially gutting the PR department of everyone except an editor and let docents write press releases.

My reservations about the exploitation of volunteers aside, I found his suggestions very exciting. Certainly the training of docents would have to be well planned and executed. I know that some people volunteer for the social prestige association with an organization or art form brings. People who want to impress others with what they know may only compound the intimidation a novice feels. Excluding a volunteer from being a docent can lead to a whole other set of PR problems.

The benefits for this program could be enormous. You could offer any level of interaction from having docents mingling in the lobby answering questions to offering a low intimidation program people register for in advance. In the latter program you might have a docent contact a person on Wednesday saying “Hey, why don’t I meet you for coffee before the show Friday night, my treat. Then I will make sure you get to your seat, we can talk at intermission and after the show. But if you have to get home to your kids, you can always email me with questions.”

If your worst problem is that the new attendee ties up your docent by wanting to meet for coffee before every concert, is that really a problem? You can always introduce new attendees to each other and encourage them to meet for coffee as a group. (Then hit up the coffee shop for a program book ad at the very least since you are sending so many people his way.) You can also direct people to internet tools like meetup.com (which includes classical.meetup.com and theater.meetup.com) and evite.com that make it easy for those who share interests to organize discussions with people they have never met.

The idea about volunteers writing press releases was very intriguing. I am not as confident about the writing skills of volunteers as Drew is, but I have never tried it. This actually may be the answer to the boring press release thread Greg Sandow brought up. If you have docents submit press releases that highlight why they are excited by the piece or person performing, you excise the boring “professionally” written junk. As Drew suggested, all it takes is an editor (who can resist the temptation to insert boring stuff) to polish it up and perhaps reorder some points so the release starts out with the attention grabbing details.

Drew also suggests that docents could be valuable in attracting new audiences from the diverse communities they live in by disseminating information and generally acting as an advocate for the insititution. My thought was that unless people from these communities were already experimenting with attendance and just needed to be empowered by such a program in order to gain the confidence to volunteer as a docent, there wasn’t much chance of achieving diversity.

I mentioned this to Drew and he agreed drawing docents from the current audience would only serve to continue drawing the current audience. He said instead “the trick is to get the program started with a core group that is not entirely representative of the current audience. A few ideas I’ve had is for orchestras to utilize individuals such as private music teachers who have adult students, retired school teachers.” This sounded like the most prudent course to me.

A variation of the Denver Zoo docent program could certainly be worth the effort to implement. I didn’t check out the Denver Zoo marketing budget, but the fact they estimated it only cost them about $25,000 to run a 300 person docent program is probably a miniscule portion of the budget. However, according to Drew’s survey they heavily depend on the program to enhance the visitor’s attending experience, educate visitors about the zoo’s mission, provide staffing for in-school and summer education programs and provide paid staffers with time to attend to zoo operations. The docents are essentially the public face of the zoo.

I took a quick look at Baltimore Symphony’s 2002 990 return. They reported 1.5 million for marketing. Even if Drew is wrong and a docent program only reduces expenses by 10% instead of 25%, $150,000 is still a fairly significant savings. Imagine what sort of docent training program you might have if you added half of that savings to a current volunteer budget?

To make all this work requires the docents to be invested in and well informed about the organization they represent. This level of investment and information can only be achieved if the docents have control of their program. It is straight from Management 101 that when you assign people responsibilities, you need empower them with the authority to act. The program also needs to receive the full support and cooperation of the organization administration. Essentially this ties in with the concept of open source management I wrote on back in February.

Drew doesn’t think this is likely in symphonies due to an insular nature that resists releasing authority and transparency of information. His fear is that “Without their continuous support and involvement, the program will come across as nothing more than another propaganda tool that orchestra’s are already well known for.”

Drawing from my background in theatre and popular music, I would say it depended on the age of the organization and how entrenched current management was in their ways. If it was relatively young in its institutional development, I would say there was a fair chance such a program might be adopted. Otherwise, I would have to agree with Drew that there would be too much inertia in the corporate culture to make progress. It seems that the biggest contributions of innovation and change in areas of business like the tech sector come from people who admit they didn’t know any better. I imagine it change in the arts world would originate in the same place.

Of course, this is not to say that old dogs can’t learn new tricks. Looking to the tech sector again you have IBM who have shown they can do just that. We should always strive to do better at every age.

About Joe Patti

I have been writing Butts in the Seats (BitS) on topics of arts and cultural administration since 2004 (yikes!). Given the ever evolving concerns facing the sector, I have yet to exhaust the available subject matter. In addition to BitS, I am a founding contributor to the ArtsHacker (artshacker.com) website where I focus on topics related to boards, law, governance, policy and practice.

I am also an evangelist for the effort to Build Public Will For Arts and Culture being helmed by Arts Midwest and the Metropolitan Group. (http://www.creatingconnection.org/about/)

I am currently the Director of the Grand Opera House in Macon, GA.

Among the things I am most proud are having produced an opera in the Hawaiian language and a dance drama about Hawaii's snow goddess Poli'ahu while working as a Theater Manager in Hawaii. Though there are many more highlights than there is space here to list.

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