December 9th, 2014
A community chorus finds that the resources needed to grow the organization were just a phone call away.
Community choruses are born out of a love for the choral arts and sustained by passionate leadership and boatloads of volunteer labor. The Bucks County Choral Society is no exception. Founded in 1973 by a small group of music lovers, the Choral Society grew into a premiere choral ensemble in the Philadelphia area under the exacting direction of Elma Heckler, who led the group until her retirement after the 1999-2000 season while battling cancer. She died in June 2001.
Thomas Lloyd became artistic director in 2000, taking to heart Heckler’s desire that the Choral Society step up to the next level both artistically and organizationally. “When I came, it was pretty much a Mom and Pop group,” Lloyd recalls. “It was doing really ambitious programming and was essentially being run by volunteers.”
One of those volunteers was Leland Felt, a businessman who had sung in the chorus since 1985 and, as board member was often pressed into service to manage the group’s day-to-day operations. After being named the group’s first executive director in 2012, Felt decided he needed help since he had not led a nonprofit organization of this size before. He called Chorus America, and being within driving distance, set up an in-person meeting in Washington DC with Catherine Dehoney, at the time director of development, and other Chorus America staff.
“They were extremely helpful in answering a lot of the questions I had,” he says. “I went back home with a list of a whole bunch of things Chorus America could help us with. From that point on the marriage has solidified itself.”
Taking a fresh look
Several items on Felt’s list had to do with governance and fundraising. The Choral Society had made good progress in expanding its support network beyond chorus members and their families and friends. But Dehoney suggested that more could be done.
Her advice was to reach out to people and groups that may not be aware of the chorus—such as the boards of the YMCA, the local historical society, and other large organizations well known in the community. She also suggested that the Choral Society recruit more non-choir members to its board. That would require changing a bylaw that stipulated that choir members outnumber community members on the board.
These were great ideas, but Lloyd and Felt wanted to do more than just relate the suggestions to the board. Felt asked if a staff person from Chorus America could come to the board’s annual retreat in July of 2014 to facilitate these discussions. President and CEO Ann Meier Baker agreed to do it.
“That was a huge boost in what it said to the board about Chorus America’s assessment of our organization,” Felt says. "Her willingness to come out here and give us two full days of her expertise and experience has helped create an environment of change and continued growth."
After “open and frank discussions” at the retreat, the board agreed to recommend to the chorus members that it amend its bylaw and continue to cultivate supporters in the community for both the board and its development activities.
Finding a community “sponsor”
For years, the Choral Society had put on fundraising events, supported by and attended by primarily chorus members. While important for generating a community feeling, the events were not helping to grow the group’s circle of friends.
“We had been so dependent in our fundraising efforts on the choir support of those events,” Felt says, “to the point where it would have been a flop and financial disaster if we did not have two thirds of the attendees from the choir.“
At the retreat, Meier Baker suggested that the group find a “sponsor” in the community—“someone who is willing to put his or her best foot forward on the chorus’ behalf.”
The chorus found that person—a prominent member of the community who was familiar with the choir but had only attended one concert—who offered his house as the venue for a fundraising event. “That one concert was enough to sell him on our organization,” Felt says. “He knew two of our board members, as well, which was a huge help.”
The event, held November 8, 2014, drew some 100 people, about 40 of whom had never attended a Choral Society concert. Some 50 chorus members sang for 20 minutes in the midst of the party, but the objective was to appeal to the community more than the choir. “We want to make sure that no more than 30 percent of our paid attendance at these events is choir members,” Felt says. “We met that goal.”
The new strategy paid off, Felt says, with $10,000 in donations for the evening and an abundance of new friends for the organization. “Cultivation of those people was the goal more than raising funds,” Felt says.
Mining the Chorus America Annual Conferences
While Lloyd’s background includes a 10-year stint as a manager of information technology on Wall Street, “my education on 501(c)3 administration, fundraising, and marketing has primarily been through Chorus America Conferences," Lloyd says. "I would go to workshops, take a lot of notes, come back and give them to my board or chorus leaders and make sure everyone got the magazine.”
But he always encouraged chorus leaders to experience the Conference for themselves. “When someone goes to conference other than me and comes back and says, ‘That was amazing,’ that’s when you know that you are part of this larger thing, that you are not just in an isolated situation trying to reinvent the wheel.”
Felt attended his first Chorus America Conference in 2014 in Washington, and he says it was a revelation. “For me it was like a three-day executive MBA program,” he says. “It filled holes in so many different aspects, especially in fundraising activities, grant writing, finance, and all the things we were looking for assistance with. We took a lot of the things we learned there and immediately starting talking with our board about different approaches.”
The importance of measuring your progress
A key take away from the conference, Felt says, was the importance of having a strong and measureable marketing plan. The board of the Choral Society had created such a plan in 2010, after which they integrated all of their marketing and fundraising contacts, and began regularly surveying their audiences members.
Having detailed demographic information has allowed the chorus to target and streamline its advertising—and save money. “The information also was important to our sponsors and potential sponsors,” Felt says. “I truly believe we are getting greater support from our sponsors because we can demonstrate what we are doing, that we are spending our money wisely, and that anything you give us will be to used to its best advantage.”
Armed with new information from Chorus America, Felt was able to tailor the group's marketing plan. "I had done a lot of reading about marketing and strategic planning," Felt says. "But once I reached out to Chorus America, they honed in on choruses and approaches that worked. The information they had complemented what I already had, and gave me a lot more ideas."
In addition, on the advice of a workshop leader at a Chorus America Conference, the Choral Society signed on with Brown Paper Tickets, a ticketing agency that provides performing arts groups with a great deal of data about their audience members. “We went from few hundred emails to more than 1,200 now,” Lloyd says. “We are in a suburban area in between two major cities, Philly and New York. Our challenge is to convince people that you don’t have to travel an hour to get to music that is interesting, engaging, and performed at a high level.”
The group also created YouTube videos of the chorus rehearsals with some commentary about the program by Lloyd. “We know people have been watching them because we get a lot of feedback at concerts,” Lloyd says. “It provides a personal connection so that people know what they are getting into, a sense of excitement, a sense of what the music is about before they get there.”
“We’ve gradually built up a real solid audience base and a stronger foundation in the community,” Lloyd says. “We are now across the boundary of being volunteer run to professional run, with a lot of help from volunteers, without them having to shoulder the whole burden.”
Words to the Wise
Expand your circle. “Any organization requires both inside and outside leadership and engagement with people,” Lloyd says. “It is very easy to become self absorbed and enclosed and kind of a private club and rely on the same set of people who become stuck in their ways or burned out.”
“We have identified other people from community that might not want to be board members right away,” he says, “but if we ask them if they will serve as part of an investment committee or something that calls on a specific expertise. That is a productive way to bring people in from the outside."
Build up your organization’s management expertise. “Choirs are smaller organizations, by and large," Lloyd says, "and in order to build long term sustainability, it’s crucial not to become dependent on any one person or personality in either the administrative or artistic side. My goal is to build something where the next person who comes along would find a strong organization there.”
Make strategic planning a routine part of your organization’s way of operating. The Choral Society has created three-year strategic plans since 2004, and updates them each year at its annual meeting. “You need to have that as a routine part of what you do, not just something you do when you get in trouble,” Felt says. "Bringing in outside facilitators is also a big help in getting perspective on what you are doing."
Encourage your key leaders to attend a Chorus America Conference. Both the Choral Society’s board chairman as well as executive director Felt have attended conferences. “When you have multiple people, including an artistic person, a board person, and an administrative person, attend, that is when you can really gain a lot,” Lloyd says.
“Usually when people come on a board they have not had experience administering a board,” Lloyd says. “There are things that are common about nonprofits but things that are peculiar to community choruses.” Chorus America Conferences have dozens of workshops to address all of the specifics of choral arts group management.
Pick up the phone. “Call Chorus America,” Felt advises. “There are people there who want to answer your phone call. Ask the question, ‘How can Chorus America help us?' You won’t be able to get them off the phone after that.”