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.

Educated Giving

Since I talked about funding yesterday I thought it might be useful for readers to know a bit about how funding decisions were made.

Foundations typically ask for mission statements, information about programs, goals that have been met and financial statements. The information they require is often similar, but just different enough that you spend as much time recasting existing informaiton as you would had you written it from scratch. This is why the paper I cited yesterday encourages foundations to consolidate their reporting.

All this basic information is available to the public by law. The IRS and most states hold this information on file for public viewing. It can be very difficult to find out how to acquire it though.

Another option is to visit Guidestar.org. Many donors and grantors go there to learn about organizations they are considering giving money to or to find out what organizations meet their giving criteria. Anyone can access the information there.

Some of the information is provided by the organizations themselves so the amount available tends to vary from place to place. You can pretty much depend on at least finding the 990 filing. The latest filing I could find for most places was the 2002 filing which covers the 01-02 ficial year. The 990s give information on earned and unearned revenue, revenues and expenses, mortage information, etc. You can also discover the salaries of the highest paid officers and employees. A 990 is a good place to look if you are considering a job with a non profit and want to know about the financial stability of your future employer.

For most organizations, Guidestar also lists profit/loss and balance sheet financial statments. You can get the same essential information from the 990s, but it is much simpler to read in this format.

As mentioned earlier, you can also learn about the institutional missions and goals, the names of people serving on the board of directors and types of programs the organization conducts.

Guidestar is very easy to use. Check it out if you are even the least bit curious about an arts organization.

Other Viewpoints

I was reading an article on Artsjournal.com that mentioned quite a few Broadway shows originated elsewhere (in fact Prymate is opening this week directly from Florida State University which is rather uncommon.) I was wondering if anyone had collated the names of the shows which originated away from Broadway before moving there. I didn’t find any (if anyone knows of an article, I would be grateful for the info) but I did come across a couple interesting sites.

The Door Swings Both Ways

I often talk about how the arts need to watch current business trends and assess how they can be applied to the arts world. I came across a Fast Company article from 1999 that spoke of a class at Duke that examined what the arts have to teach the business world.

“Leadership and the Arts” is taught by Bruce Payne. He brings his class to NYC from NC for four months. The class spends the time going to see theatre, dance, opera, orchestra concerts and art museums and discusses the lessons that can be derived from the experiences.

“In the new world of corporate America, everybody is worried about how to achieve excellence in smaller and flatter organizations,” says Payne. “That means finding styles of leadership that work well with smart, self-respecting professionals. Since everybody knows that hierarchy never worked well — and these days, it works less well than ever — what styles of leadership really make the most sense? The people who succeed in the arts these days are people who have solved that problem. They know how to coach, they know how to encourage, they know how to praise, they know how to love. And they know how to express a vision that excites rather than intimidates.”

The romantic view of leadership sees it as a kind of ectoplasmic magnetism, in which followers in variously sized groups — from teams to cults to companies to countries — are drawn mystically and irrevocably toward a central source of inspiration. A more practical view of leadership suggests that real leaders have identified and mastered a secret tool: emotional observation. If you can watch people — and, by watching them, figure out what makes them do what they do — you might be able to get them to do something else, something better. That leadership principle, Payne believes, makes the theater a perfect laboratory for anyone who wants to brush up on what makes people tick.

There were a couple parts of the story that made me wonder if I should open a consultancy business. There are topics it identifies as important that most arts people know far too much about.

“According to Payne, arts organizations, especially small repertory companies and dance troupes, serve as useful models for a world that reveres the startup. “The performing arts have always had to do more with less,” says Payne. “All arts are essentially entrepreneurial.”

Business books and seminars have picked clean any number of occupational metaphors to teach management and leadership skills — sports, the military, wilderness survival, religion. Yet, perhaps more than people in any of these other fields, people in the arts have learned to deal effectively with impossible deadlines, tight budgets, temperamental employees, and the perpetual challenge of selling a product with a short shelf life to a fickle, demanding consumer base.

For inspiration on creative ways to lead a company — or to chart a meaningful career — there’s no business like show business”

All Around the World

I also came across a website with the results of a world wide survey comparing the social norms of a number of countries on topics like Social Welfare, Sports, Religion, Politics to picayune details like whether a period or comma is used as a decimal point. Another website breaks the responses down by subject area.

It is all very interesting reading and the questions seemed to have been set up so that answers were reflecting the same criteria. For example, being late for a meeting was measured in increments of when you mutter excuses, when you apologize profusely, and when the lateness was intolerable. Many cultures it was 5 min, 10 min and 30 minutes, respectively. In some cases though it was 30 minutes and 1 hour, respectively.

I did wonder about the validity of the survey or at least about the age of those answering the questions when it came to the arts section because everyone almost uniformly answered “You think of opera and ballet as rather elite entertainments. It’s likely you don’t see that many plays, either,” or a near equivalent. It made me wonder if the reputed esteem that Europeans bestow upon the arts was a myth they liked to reinforce so they could feel superior to the U.S. or if it is just likely that the type of people who spend enough time on the web to answer lengthy cultural surveys aren’t inclined to go see shows.

Nonetheless, it is all very intriguing.

Im Famous Now….

Okay, maybe not too famous, but my comments on the Artful Manager blog postings about the arts manager as an evangelist appeared today on that blog. My thoughts are quoted in relation to “bait and switch” using Chick tracts as an example. (Yikes! As I was grabbing links for this blog, I saw that my full letter was posted on the artsjournal.com site. You can read it here.)

What I wanted to reflect upon today though, is the amount of commentary I am seeing in regard to “open source” as applied to the arts. For a long time it has been used in connection with software development, most notably regarding Linux. However, I have recently seen it discussed in regard to the arts. (Unfortunately, I can’t track down the places I have seen it except in the Artful Manager blog.)

As promised in my statement of purpose for this blog, I have been thinking about how an arts organization might go about putting this into practice. One of the applications of this idea is certainly open book management, a term apparently coined in 1995 by John Case who wrote for Inc. magazine:

“The beauty of open-book management is that it really works. It helps companies compete in today’s mercurial marketplace by getting everybody on the payroll thinking and acting like a businessperson, an owner, rather than like a traditional hired hand.”

The practice has also been extended beyond employees to provide information to vendors and other organizations whose dealings are closely entwined with ones company. The question then is–can the same practice work with an arts organization’s employees, patrons and local arts journalists?

According to the articles written since 1995 in Inc., companies have realized some actual benefits from adopting this approach. The most widely cited result is usually that the practice empowers employees by educating them about where costs are high and places them in a position to suggest alternatives that will cut the expenses.

Most non-profits have to file financials with the state and those filing are available public scrutiny and often accessible online. It is a far different thing though, to eliminate all the searching a motivated person would have to do to acquire this information and publically invite patron and employee review. Certainly there would have to be an effort to educate the public and employees about what they are looking at. As with the commercial application of the open book philosophy, the benefit would be that an employee or patron can make educated suggestions about alternatives.

I have seen some arts organizations use this approach, but only when financial crisis threatened and they desperately needed sympathy and understanding. At that point they were meeting with the IATSE leaders to work things out and were briefing the local arts writers weekly about all the efforts being made to turn things around. Obviously, you want to open your books long before a crisis approaches with an eye toward preventing one. If you do end up in a crisis, it would be beneficial to have employees/patrons/arts journalists who completely understand every element that contributed to the problem and are thus more sympathetic than they otherwise might have been.

Now certainly one of the reasons the open book approach to management works is that employees, vendors and major customers of companies have a fair understanding of the forces which affect industries related that company. This isn’t necessarily true with an entire patron base so opening everything to everyone might prove counterproductive when employees are constantly explaining and justifying decisions to people who understand the business of the performing arts to widely varying degrees.

You also can’t open every aspect of a performance to the public. Direction, design and performance choices can’t be done by committee and retain quality. It is possible to involve arts writers more integrally during the creative process and perhaps get more complete coverage than just a review. (Though certainly many reviewers have a lot to cover and don’t have the time. Also, you may get expanded coverage at the price of your reviews as shown here and one blogger’s reaction here.)

I did read an article recently (which I wish I could find again) that talked about covering the arts like sports. It quoted a portion of a speech by Chris Lavin. I seem to recall that Mr. Lavin’s speech caused quite a debate with many detractors feeling that such coverage would cheapen how people viewed the arts. (I will try to see if I can locate the debate online.)

One of the things I have found interesting in the articles I have read advocating sports type arts coverage is the idea that sports writers have a relationship with the people they are writing about and have strong opinions about relative strengths and weakness of people and teams on offense and defense.

It was sort of amusing to me to think about arts writers going to early practices like sports writers go to training camps and opining about how good the cast was going to be during the upcoming season. It might seem funny to think about an arts writer mentioning the fact that the training program an actor is coming out of is strong on period acting and also stresses Meisner and thus her presence in the Feydeau farce promises good things for the production, but that is the type of indepth analysis readers of the sports pages get every day. Is it crazy to think more people might become interested in the arts if newspapers encouraged their arts reports to write such involved pieces (and gave them the resources to do it)?

Another area where the open source idea has really made head way lately is the internet itself, especially in relation to blogging. Howard Dean’s campaign really brought attention to tools that would enable people to organize grassroots support for a purpose. Non-profit organizations are already picking up on the trend to help them with fundraising.

Certainly, as a conduit of information dissemination and promotion, the internet has a tremendous amount of potential far beyond transmitting spam. Actors/directors/designers can post blogs on an arts organization’s website talking about the progress a show is making in rehearsals, etc. There would be a fair amount of value added to an avid performance goer’s experience if they could read about decisions that were being made, discarded and then perhaps revisited by the various people involved. As a performance continued its run, the actors might reflect on their changing approach to their role.

In fact, access to material that portrays decision making closer to the moment it is happening might enhance the learning experience of acting/directing/dance/design students much more than a Q&A session with an artist where the person’s relationship to the decision making process is much more remote and abstract. Having performed the reflective exercise of blogging about their experience, an artist who is doing such a Q&A session might be able to impart insights of greater value than he/she previously had.

The same section of the website containing the blogs for a certain production could feature an area where patrons could make comments about that production. There is a certain danger inherent to providing people with a forum to discuss their experiences at your organization. Not only do you run the risk of angry people making scathing remarks about the director’s behavior in rehearsal or the quality of your show, but you also suffer some credibility problems if you censor the bad out while presenting the forum as a completely candid representation.

The bogus reviews to discredit or overly praise authors recently discovered on the Canadian version of Amazon is only one example of this problem. Only presenting positive comments or allowing anonymous postings can cause suspicion that something similar to the Amazon problem or the faked Sony movie critic is transpiring.

So, some interesting possibilities for applying open source to the arts. I am sure I will think of some more as the blogging process continues.