Maintaining Your Momentum During a Long-Term Crisis
BY JANET NEWCOMB, MOLLIE QUINLAN-HAYES, AND THOMAS F. R. CLARESON
Now, more than eight months into the COVID-19 pandemic, the end is still not in sight. Choral music organizations need to take the time to reassess their priorities and prepare themselves to weather the rest of this long-term crisis in order to position themselves to re-emerge stronger on the other side. In the view of three experienced proponents of readiness planning, maintaining your organizational momentum should be the top priority. That includes preparing for crises beyond COVID.
In the months since the pandemic changed everyone’s lives, you may have wished more than once that you’d had a plan in place that lays out exactly what you need to do in order to get through those chaotic first days of a crisis, safeguard the momentum your chorus will need to ensure its longer-term health, and lay the groundwork for a return to business as usual. The good news is that it’s not too late—planning is as essential to managing an ongoing crisis as it is to preparing for a future one
In fact, now is an excellent time for all arts organizations to begin what we in the field call all-hazards readiness planning to include continuity of operations protocols, procedures, and action steps. A readiness plan is a combination of documents, policies, processes, and training that formulates what your organization, leadership, and staff will do should the unexpected occur. It’s an organizational muscle that you train and strengthen over time…and it will always be a work in progress!
Developing guideposts specific to your organization that incorporate all areas of your activities—governance, staffing, programming, operations, communications and fundraising/development—will not only define your roadmap and benchmark your progress, the process will strengthen your mission and garner support from stakeholders. Now is the time to focus on your opportunities, break old habits and ways, and be nimble and inclusive of all stakeholders and your community.
What to Do Immediately
Remember that there are many things that you can be doing now, even while socially distant from your fellow performers, administrators and board members, and audience. And many of them can be done for little or no cost other than the time and thoughts of those involved.
There’s a good chance you’ve already completed several of these steps, so consider this a checklist to affirm the progress you’ve made thus far in the pandemic:
- Create response and recovery teams of staff, board, and volunteers to formulate a plan to reopen.
- Create/update your onsite emergency plan. If you don’t have a plan, there are many resources available. The free, downloadable ArtsReady 2.0 Pocket Response Resource, which key personnel can keep in their pocket or digital devices, guides you to customize this tool, which records how to respond in the first minutes and hours after an emergency.
- Use social media and other means to communicate with staff and volunteers on a regular basis to keep everyone informed as to what is being planned in preparation for reopening.
- Make it a priority to communicate your understanding and support for staff, volunteers and artists regarding their health and the health of their families, as well as their concerns for re-engaging in performing.
- Communicate with sponsors, funders, and donors to explain your situation and reopening plans. It’s imperative for maintaining and building continued support from your community at large.
Remember that hope is not a strategy. However, readiness planning is. And it’s never too late to start.
Making Tough Choices and Taking Calculated Risks
As you move from short-term tactics to short-term strategies, consider the choices you must make. Maintaining and building organizational momentum during a crisis requires creative leadership, a tolerance for risk-taking and a complete understanding of your organization’s financial elasticity. In order to do that, you need to create a monthly projection of revenue and expense through the end of your 2022 fiscal year (taking into consideration the dramatic reduction of earned income, renegotiated project funds, change or reduction of programmatic expenses, etc.). This will give you a timeline on how long your organization can continue without making dramatic changes. Next, you need to recalculate those projections after determining what significant expense items, such as staff salaries, can be reduced or eliminated. This will give you a new timeline to begin planning for new programming or interaction with your audiences. Ideally, you will include as many stakeholders as possible in the decision-making for these action steps.
The degree of collaboration within an arts organization during a crisis has a huge impact on its future health. At moments like this one, it is key for arts leaders to encourage the breakdown of internal silos while building cross-functional responsibilities among staff, board, and other stakeholders. Those leaders will find the secret to ensuring the future of their respective organizations. Building momentum through collaborative thinking may seem uncomfortable or awkward because it encourages and embraces different and often opposite viewpoints from a more diverse group, but it’s imperative to finding creative and innovative solutions for operating in the “new normal.” Within very uncertain economic times, a new approach to programming may require reallocation of funds or retraining of staff, but remember: It is almost always riskier for the organization to avoid taking these bold moves.
If your organization is forced to reduce staff, with their key responsibilities falling onto already taxed employees, or even if you are able to retain all members of your team, consider collapsing existing job descriptions. Your colleagues are bound to have talents and skills that have never been tapped on behalf of your organization. Create a safe space to allow each individual to surface their interests and capacities and consider new, cross-disciplinary or cross-departmental job scopes. Encourage agility so that staff feel allowed to flex their responsibilities as the organization's needs change. Explore ways to reduce hierarchy and traditional power structures and increase distributed leadership.
Considerations for the Board
If you are a trustee or supporter, you must work as tirelessly, if not more so, than you would during a regular choral season. This is a time when you should not “drift away” from the organizations you have supported for many years. There are a number of ways that you can continue to be a booster and a positive force for the ensembles. Recognize that staff leadership and board members are now being asked to make difficult choices they may not be used to making. The New York State Council on the Arts has developed the web video Guiding Board Members and Continuing Your Mission During COVID and Beyond to help you structure productive board conversations.
This disruption certainly has different effects on your operational, governance, and performance activities, depending on your size, location, and whether you are part of a volunteer-run, staffed, children’s, adult, community, academic, religious, or professional chorus. First, working from a position of knowledge gives you greater power. Understanding your cash flow and projecting it frequently is an important survival technique, and there are resources available, including self-assessment steps from the Nonprofit Finance Fund and The Wallace Foundation and Fiscal Management Associates. As you consider, also, the longer view, the leading national arts service organization SMU DataArts can help your organization plan for your post-COVID-19 future. Their report In It for the Long Haul offers “three propositions that any organization can develop and align in order to achieve success: its value proposition, revenue proposition, and people proposition…these steps have the potential to differentiate the organizations that not only weather the crisis but grow through it.” They recommend each organization consider four questions, which can offer a productive process for staff and board members to suss out their highest priorities:
- What might the next year look like?
- What do we do that is most meaningful and relevant to the community?
- How will we manage our people and revenue propositions to confront the new reality?
- When our doors reopen, whom will we gather?
If you have concerns about future funding or attrition of singers/performers, it may be prudent to consider your existential options, again to maintain as much control of your destiny as you can. Playing out these as scenarios is a valuable exercise and can often reduce the level of anxiety or fear by simply talking about the range of possibilities out loud. These may include:
- Shared services/back-end collaborations (printing, performance spaces, IT, audio/video engineering, joint administration) with other arts or non-arts community groups
- Strategic alliances (e.g., shared marketing or development/fundraising efforts), another option you can explore with other art or non-arts community groups
- Radical restructuring, including HR, leaving rented space, consolidating departments
- Financing, including asking donors and board members to ease restrictions on grants or funds, soliciting contributions for your re-start plan, or looking into bridge loans or lines of credit
- Suspension/hibernation/hiatus (allowing you to maintain your artistic and financial assets while taking a pause on programming)
- Mergers between two or more choral organizations that could help address some of the issues above
- An organizational exit strategy such as dissolution (a painful, but important step in situations where a worst-case scenario appears likely.
You may have fellow board members with experience in partnerships, employment law, contract negotiations, and financial instruments. Since your organization should not embark upon significant new directions without professional consultation, you may want to recruit new board members with expertise. Alternately, many communities and states have Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts chapters or arts and business committees that can offer pro bono or low-cost services.
Considerations for Artists and Performers
If you are a singer, conductor, music director, or accompanist in a choral music organization, you are most likely eager to get back into the classroom, rehearsal, and on stage, while at the same time feeling apprehensive about how to protect yourself, your colleagues, and your audiences. A growing body of research on aerosol transmission is becoming available and can guide you.
How do all the new scientific data and anecdotal information affect, or even help, your organization’s plan for reopening and performing? No matter your budget size, whether or not you have paid staff, or whether you season is long or short, you must consider these findings and adapt the information to your organization’s specific needs. Plan now by anticipating obstacles and setbacks along the way and in the future. Think about the facilities and plans for your rehearsals and performances and how they rate in comparison to the new research findings.
Developing your Longer-Term Plans
Once you’re confident about your organization’s momentum, use what you’re learning to establish an all-hazards readiness plan. How would a preparedness plan have helped you if you’d had one earlier in the pandemic? Rather than trying to anticipate all possible crises (including a global pandemic), determine your backup plans, policies, and procedures for restarting all critical business functions, no matter the cause for their interruption. Then review the lessons you have learned since the start of the pandemic (or really the knowledge gained from any past disasters) and update your planning and training protocols. Planning is a never-ending process!
As the pandemic took hold, were you prepared for these challenges?
- Knowing how to close down your organization. An emergency plan would have identified the priority tasks and follow-up procedures to be performed by all staff/volunteers prior, during, and after a closure.
- Understanding the financial and other ramifications of cancelling or postponing events and performances. An emergency plan would have developed crisis communications messaging for all stakeholders’ needs. Reserve funds would have been identified to support critical operations during closure. Staff would know how to work from home and whether they would continue to be paid.
- Identifying how to maintain essential activities with minimal resources and developing intensive efforts to provide alternative or additional services through digital platforms. An emergency plan would have considered these possibilities and identified a Plan B and a Plan C to mitigate the damage!
Additional Key Activities
One of the most important things we’re learning is that the COVID-19 pandemic presents unexpected opportunities. As the initial shock has worn off, you may have found yourself with the time and incentive to step back. Consider using this time to reinforce what your chorus means to its community and to reexamine your internal operations. Last spring, as we first began to experience the pandemic, Tom Clareson and Mollie Quinlan-Hayes addressed this topic in a webinar presented by Chorus America and several allied organizations. These key points still hold true nearly six months later:
We must be effective as communicators when we speak or write about the status of our choral organizations, as the singers always are when they perform. With information on upcoming plans for your organization, and other updates—including human interest stories on how performers in your organization are continuing to practice and hone their skills—try to maintain a social media presence. If you don’t use social media regularly, consider sending handwritten postcards and letters to key supporters and long-time patrons. This activity will also allow you to update your patron lists, public relations contact lists, and marketing materials.
Let your audience know your plans as far ahead as you have made them. Are you planning for performances in the latter half of 2021? Can you provide “hold the date” information? Can you give them music now—archived or brand-new audio and visual performances that you can share virtually during the holiday season and in the new year?
While digital presentation strategies might not seem like a natural extension of your work and the resources available immediately at hand, look to board members, volunteers, music departments at local schools, colleges, and universities, or even public-access or educational television stations for help. Many arts organizations are forging alliances with these allies, often at very low costs, to get their performances out to the public during this situation which does not allow live concerts.
Many organizations—from performing arts to libraries and museums—are taking this time to update key policies. These can include not only all-hazards readiness plans, but also key infrastructure documents such as financial plans, performance contracts, and rehearsal and performance site agreements. Some organizations are also taking time to update their strategic plans so they can have a new plan of action with which to start 2021. And insurers are working with all types and sizes of organizations to review policies, coverage, and liabilities.
Perhaps most important of all, we must consider that the COVID-19 pandemic is intertwined with other major crises: the economic recession, tension over social and racial justice, and more. This moment provides both opportunity and responsibility to consider how your organization and its actions can be rebuilt to break down unhealthy systems of power and work for greater equity.
As the pandemic continues, our choral organizations may not be singing together in the ways that we’re used to, but as you can see, there are many things we can be doing in the background (and socially distanced) to help our ensembles hit the high notes when conditions allow us to gather again.
Prior to becoming executive director of National Coalition for Arts’ Preparedness & Emergency Response and the performing arts coordinator for the Performing Arts Readiness Project, Janet Newcomb led eight arts organizations, including the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra, Charleston Symphony Orchestra, four arts councils, and a community arts center. She holds a BA in music from Hood College and an MA in dance from The George Washington University.
Mollie Quinlan-Hayes is a freelance arts consultant specializing in state and regional arts organizations, strategic planning and evaluation, program and grant design and implementation, and readiness. She directs South Arts’ national initiative ArtsReady, has co-chaired the steering committee of the National Coalition for Arts’ Preparedness and Emergency Response, and has served as a speaker and panelist for the National Endowment for the Arts and numerous national, state, and local arts organizations.
Tom Clareson is project director of Performing Arts Readiness, funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to help performing arts organizations protect their assets, sustain operations, and prepare for emergencies. As senior consultant for digital and preservation services at LYRASIS, he consults internationally on preservation, disaster preparedness, digitization, funding, strategic planning, and arts/cultural advocacy. He is board secretary of LancasterChorale (Ohio), a National Board of Advisors member of the Richard M. Ross Art Museum, Ohio Wesleyan University, and vice president of the board of the Foundation for Advancement in Conservation.