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.

Misc. Tips

I have assembled a small collection of ideas related to marketing and constituent relations. Thought I would share some of them today. I am not including donor benefits today because they could go on forever.

Volunteer Relations
April is National Volunteer Month so it is always nice to show your volunteers that you appreciate them. Some organizations I have come across have:

-Had volunteer dinners with entertainment and awards.
-Had a Holiday party where the volunteers were invited to bring an ornament to decorate the tree. This publicly exhibited how strong the volunteer corps was and how involved they were since few people ever saw more than a handful of them at one time.
-Annually nominated a volunteer of the year for a United Way recognition dinner and then noted the fact in the volunteer newsletter.
-A couple places I worked required the entire cast and crew to help strike the set at the end of the run. The volunteer guild would make a big pot of spaghetti or chili or bring a 4 foot subs for dinner. This let the volunteers rub elbows with the cast and also allowed the strike to move along on schedule.

Marketing/Public Relations

For Resubscriptions some organizations have:
-Had resubscription dinners with buffet/heavy hors d’oeuvres, sometimes with a concert/one act play as added incentive.
-Taped cards with Hershey Kisses attached the seats of season subscribers. The cards said “X Theatre Loves Their Subscribers! Exclusive Subscriber Ticket Sales End X.” This showed the subscribers they were appreciated and created a buzz among non-subscribers wondering what it was about. A curtain speech explained it all. (Have to credit Lisa Jones at the Carolina Ballet with this one. I adopted it from her. Works fairly well.)

For Public Awareness/Relations Some Organizations Can:
-Do short, pointed curtain speeches and be available at intermission for questions/comments.
-Speak at Chamber of Commerce and Rotary Club meetings. Offer special business packages.
-Hold backstage tours, playtalks and advanced discussions about themes in shows.
-Give discounts on tickets for people who bring food donations for the local Food Bank.
-Have free First Monday play readings taking advantage of the theatre being dark
-Set up special “get you to the theatre on time” seating and menus with restaurants
-Have pre-show orientation talks in a room off a lobby or restaurant (promoting dinner, talk and show packages)
-Approach a local bookstore about having staff do talks about shows, costuming, lighting design, opera, etc or with significance to a best seller. In return, book store will put up window display promoting a performance with props, posters and perhaps a dress form. (Actually started this process with a Barnes and Noble and got agreement but my employment contract ran out before it came to be.)
-Similarly, approach churches (they are groups of people who go to events regularly as a family unit after all) to do talks about topics of interest. (I met an executive director with an art history background who spoke at evening church talks on the fact that some of the implications in The DaVinci Code that famous people belonged to secret societies were based on fabricated forgeries a la The Hitler Diaries)
-Encourage actors/directors/technicians/musicians, etc to blog. I mentioned the benefits and pitfalls of which I discussed at the end of this earlier entry and the beginning of this one. Just today, I came across these guidelines Groove Networks sets for employee blogs.

-One policy I never was in the position to institute once I formulated it–No disparaging remarks about patrons on the job. One place I worked not only discussed the stupid things people said or asked, they posted a running list on the box office door. I believe this type of thing creates a hostile work environment which subtly insinuates itself into customer care.

Customers are indeed idiots. I should know, I am one. Everyone has an off day. When you deal with a couple hundred people each day, there are bound to be a few having their off day (as well as the chronic idiots). One easy solution to this is the old money in a jar routine whenever someone complains about a patron. Then take the jar to a bar after hours and use it to buy beer and pizza and complain your heart out there.

Anyone else have some tips they have found useful? Some of the things I have done and come across have been sort of corny, but they were successful. I would really be interested in knowing what people have done. I will compile a list and post it as a resource people can consult when they need inspiration.
Clicking on “Joe” at the end of the entry will let you email me.

Well Laid Plans

At the risk of being derivative of today’s Artful Manager posting, I too would like to call attention to the Washington Post article on the planning process that went into the Arena Stage’s 2004-05 season. Since some of the themes of my past entries have been to bemoan the lack of space newspapers give arts writing and to champion making people aware of the process that goes into creating art, I was pleased by the article on both counts.

I thought the article did a good job talking about the myriad decisions that factor into season selection. I won’t mention all of them because they are outlined fairly well on The Artful Manager. A couple of things I wanted to note from my own experience though–

First, I was amazed to see the season selection starting so early. They started in September/October. Most places I have worked at have started taking suggestions and reading scripts around December, the holidays put things on hold so nothing happens until January. The whole process of balancing things has to be crammed into February because marketing needs to start printing up brochures for season renewal in the beginning of March. (more on that later)

Why don’t things start earlier? Well typically people are so busy with trying to get the new season started in September and October that they aren’t thinking about what they are going to produce at that time next year. The Arena has a leg up because they have a fairly large Artistic and support staff that provides the decision makers a little more free time to begin contemplating. Most theatres don’t have one dramaturg. Michael Kinghorn is listed as Senior Dramaturg which implies that there is more than one person acting in that capacity. (What is a dramaturg you ask? Glad you did, check here and here)

Don’t get me wrong, the Arena operates at a level where they need this size staff in order to endure the quality that their patrons expect of them. I just wanted to make it clear that the article was not representative of the majority of theatres though pretty much every theatre strives for the balance the Arena reached regardless of staff size.

The other thing I noted about the article was the absence of input from a marketing staff member. Marketing people aren’t always on a selection committee and even if they are, they may not attend every meeting. However, with the amount of time the process takes, (and it doesn’t appear that the Arena is very different), the marketing department is always clamoring for a decision to be made soon because there are brochures to design and mail, press releases to write and a resubscription campaign to launch.

I don’t know what it is like in other art forms, but in theatre if you have a season that only runs part of the year or if there is a portion that you consider your “high” season, you make tremendous efforts to start your resubscription campaign for next season before the last show of the current season starts (sometimes even the second to last show).

The reason is it is easier to get people to resubscribe when they are handed a brochure while watching something they enjoy. (Thus the reason many seasons end with a high energy musical or familiar classic. Arena is ending this year with Tennessee Williams, next year with Eugene O’Neill.) It is difficult enough to get people to subscribe at all these days, trying to start in the summer when they are thinking about things other than a show they saw months ago is insane. The decisionmaking and approval process on the designs and text of a marketing campaign is almost as involved as the selection process and compressed into a tenth of the time. It is no wonder marketing people intone “Are you done yet?” as their personal mantras.

One side observation on this last point-with the exception of one instance, in my experience if a show does well, the credit goes to the artistic choices. If it does poorly, the blame goes to marketing for not pushing it enough. This seemed to be such an undeviating trend that when I experienced the exception, I immediately approached the marketing director. Because it was just an atypical experience, I filed her obvious answer as reinforcing my “When I am In Charge” credo.

She said that while the executive director did tend to micromanage things more than she would like, both he and the artistic director were aware of and approved of all the marketing and advertising decisions and accepted responsibility for the result.

This may seem quite obvious. In most of my experiences, the top leaders would either nod agreeably at the explaination of why more money was being invested in promoting some shows than others or they would say they didn’t want to be bothered with the details. In both cases, the marketing director would be called on the carpet if attendance was disappointing.

This is essentially the main reason I won’t handle marketing anywhere I don’t feel my supervisors comprehend that artistic decisions and social trends can contribute to how well a show succeeds independent of how much effort and money is put into promoting it.

I would be interested in knowing if other arts marketers had similar experiences. Just click on my name at the end of the entry and drop me a line!

Billboards on Fire!

I came across on interesting donor benefit this weekend which seems like something a number of arts organizations could offer their supporters. My brother-in-law’s mother runs a social service agency. As part of a fundraising dinner/auction, she established a tiered system of rewards for donations similar to what an arts organization might offer.

A benefit of donating into the top tier was to have ones name placed on 3 billboards throughout the county, have ones name included in PSAs, in a full page advertisement in the program and on signage at the event. This reminded me of a chapter in The Guerilla Marketing Handbook by Jay Conrad Levinson and Seth Godin. They mentioned that it was possible to get billboard space fairly cheaply if you weren’t picky about where and when your information was displayed by taking advantage of gaps between contracts on a billboard. (Though certainly one could try to get specific periods donated.)

I had never really explored this option when I was doing marketing and pr because the intermittent availability of low cost periods was not conducive to trying to promote performances and seasons. As a benefit of donation, there are better possibilities. The listing on my sister’s mother-in-law’s donor card says the billboard acknowledgment will occur during 2004. At this point, she has 8 months to make good on her promise. Depending on their relationship with the billboard owners, arts organizations could probably publicize a probable period an acknowledgment would appear by getting the owners to review when contracts expired or the times of the year when there are typically few clients looking to advertise.

Something I will certainly explore or suggest for exploration in my next job.

So, Where’s The Fire?

In an earlier entry (see the subheader “Demon Horses Unleashed!”) I had mentioned some blog entries on the artsjournal.com site that discussed why dull press releases were bringing about the downfall of classical music. The discussion was started by Greg Sandow on March 23 and both Andrew Taylor and Drew McManus picked up the discussion in their own blogs.

In his original entry, Mr. Sandow suggested making the headers on press releases more exciting and suggested something along the lines of “Two Headed Cellist Makes Debut”. As a minor tribute to his suggestion, I make the burning billboard reference here. At the time, I thought it was interesting and a lesson for all arts organizations and so referenced it in an entry.

It turns out, it is a topic that won’t die. On Monday, Drew McManus offered an additional entry on it. Mr. Sandow actually hasn’t stopped talking about it and wrote about it Thursday and <a href="Friday of last week.

This additional conversation on the matter gave me pause and caused me to review the press release writing I have done in the past. I certainly thought I wrote a good game in the body of each release, but in light of what Mr. Sandow discusses, I wonder if the titles were boring and if I had included facts that weren’t pertinent.

Honestly, these are considerations that are elementary in any journalism and public relations class. Most marketing and pr departments don’t have the luxury of having a skilled person who can examine releases for these things. They barely have the time to review someone else’s release to make sure nothing is misspelled and the dates are correct. Engaging style often takes a backseat and I think that is what Mr. Sandow’s point is.

In the arts, sometimes our best and only reminder of the basics we are supposed to be following come from independent sources. I appreciate that Mr. Sandow took the time to extend the discussion on this topic. It really didn’t catch me on the first mention, but it certainly has started me thinking now.