“This is helpful.” A very successful, retired, corporate lawyer and his wife were reviewing a personalized update on The Cleveland Orchestra’s activities over salad with me and a development staff member who had been entrusted with this donor relationship. “But, do you know what would really make me give more? If my musician friends in the orchestra asked me themselves, I’d be falling over myself to increase our gift!”
“We play the music. They raise the money. If they ran the orchestra as well as we played, there would be no money problems. There’s plenty of money in this town. They just have to go get it.” Emphatic advice from more than one senior musician colleague – and advice I’ve heard from musicians in several major orchestras.
It’s true that there is plenty of money in Cleveland – and in probably every metropolitan area of any significant size. But our donor put his finger on a truth that escaped my colleagues. It goes to the heart of why we became musicians.
Music touches people. It moves them and inspires them. After a great performance of a Mahler Symphony, or of another piece representing the great achievements of mankind, we should be different people than we were before the experience. And when someone touches us, shares with us a rare and special experience, we want to know them. This is how our donors feel about us as musicians in their orchestras.
While some donors and board members support the orchestra out of a sense of civic obligation or to enhance business relationships, the true leaders and the ones who recruit other donors and board members are passionate about music and about their orchestra. These are the leaders who would walk through fire to save their orchestra, and they’re the ones who come to the fore during a crisis. The same dynamic is in play as you move down through the donor ranks – passionate orchestra lovers are committed subscribers and donors. And they love “their” musicians.
It was a crisis that led me to adopt my dual role as a musician and development staff member at The Cleveland Orchestra. After a brief strike (lasting 30 hours) in 2010, the musicians and board of The Cleveland Orchestra both arrived at the conclusion that we need more communication and more relationships between us. Ultimately, this led to musicians being invited to attend board committee meetings as unofficial “members” of those committees. I served as a musician delegate to the Fund-raising Committee, because of my interest in learning more about development and because of my realization that success in fundraising is essential to our future as a great orchestra.
More than half of our operating revenue comes from fundraising and endowment. Our Annual Fund provides more revenue than ticket sales for our main subscription series. As we look at the future for a major orchestra in a city with stagnant or tepid growth, the need for a much larger endowment and continued Annual Fund growth becomes stark. Nothing will have a greater effect on the remaining couple of decades of my career.
Our trustees who serve on the Fund-raising Committee have a deep commitment to the orchestra, and most of them have spent decades raising money for us. They were thrilled to have a couple of musicians join them. Volunteering at the highest level and giving financial support is how they demonstrate their love for the orchestra, and it resonates when musicians show their commitment in the same ways. It’s speaking their language. We made it a point to thank them for their dedication and hard work at every meeting.
Eventually, my desire to learn more and my participation on the Fund-raising Committee led to my accepting a position as a major gifts officer in our Philanthropy & Advancement department. I took a six-month sabbatical from my playing position (I joined the bass section in 1997), and worked full-time in development. Upon my return to the bass section, I have continued in a part-time role as a major gifts officer for the past year.
I expected resistance from my musician colleagues. I thought they might see taking a second position at the orchestra as a contradiction of our assertion that playing in the orchestra is truly a full-time job. Certainly, some have perceived me as “close to management” and have adopted a certain distance. Surprising to me though is the fact that the greatest source of objection was the staff members outside the development department. Some key staff members were unable to envision a musician filling any staff role. It took a great deal of time to reach the point where I could even be offered the opportunity officially. Now it is no longer remarkable.
My role is to identify current donors and subscribers who may be able to increase their annual giving to substantially higher levels and who may also be able to make a major endowment gift or estate commitment. While a frighteningly high percentage of our revenue comes from fewer than a thousand donors, we have thousands of other donors who may never have been asked personally to increase their support, and who may have no relationship with the orchestra other than attending concerts and receiving an occasional fundraising letter.
I seek opportunities to meet these patrons and invite them to join me for coffee or lunch where I can share our plans, hear about their experiences, and begin to develop a personal relationship. The best approach has been for me to greet them at their seats before a concert and introduce myself and thank them for their support. When I follow up with a phone call or email, even the people who initially decline a further meeting usually have a few questions about the orchestra. After we’ve had a chance to interact, they often reconsider and respond positively to another invitation.
I find that I never need to sell the orchestra or the idea of giving. These are patrons who have already demonstrated their interest. The most common reason for not increasing their gift is that they are already giving at the highest level they can afford. This is both encouraging and sobering. A minority of the patrons I meet with do become more interested once they feel like insiders. These supporters are the source of our growth.
Here’s what donors want to know when we meet. They want to know that we’re successful – that the institution and the art form are not headed down the drain. They want to know that we’re in internal alignment – that the musicians and management are pulling in the same direction. And, they want to feel like part of the family. Our dependence on contributed revenue makes it indisputable that they are necessary; it’s up to us to make them feel our respect and gratitude.
Orchestras are often characterized by a cliché: European imports that exist exclusively for the enjoyment of the very wealthy. But that completely disregards of course the fact that American orchestras developed contemporaneously with European orchestras (the Boston Symphony is older than the Berlin Philharmonic), and the fact that so many major composers had an American presence (Tchaikovsky, Mahler, Bartok, Stravinsky, Schoenberg, Rachmaninoff, etc.). It is an unfair charge. Our donors could have an exclusive orchestra, but they support the orchestra because they want to share it with their community. It’s really important to them to know that we’re growing and reaching new audiences.
As members of the development team, we can make them feel like part of the family, but growing audiences and demonstrating success is something that takes institution-wide efforts. Everyone needs to be on-board.
As musicians, we are in a unique position due to our job longevity, our musical knowledge, and our institutional memory. Development jobs do have a fair amount of turnover and tend not to be held by people with professional orchestral backgrounds. However, effective performance with donors requires a thorough knowledge of the orchestra’s finances, business model, organizational strategy, and the roles of key personnel and volunteers.
People often ask how I fit my jobs together. It certainly helps that they are in the same building. I try to arrive at work around 8:30 on weekdays and leave at 5:30 or 6. If the orchestra is rehearsing, I go to rehearsal; if not, I’m in the office or meeting with donors. On concert nights, I may even have a pre-concert dinner to attend. If I am disciplined, I’ve put my practice time in my calendar and find opportunities to head to a practice room in the basement. Keeping everything going certainly requires better time management skills than I have, but I’m improving.
Another issue that is raised occasionally is that of being a member of a collective bargaining unit and an FLSA-exempt employee at the same workplace. My roles are completely separate, and I have no supervisory role, so there is not a legal issue. Lew Waldeck of ICSOM used to refer to our collective power as an organized bargaining unit. That power consists of being able to say “no” to proposals we can’t live with in order to force changes. It seems to me that to focus exclusively on power ignores our chance to have influence. My experience has been that thoughtful, good-faith influence has great effect and is an ever more necessary part of moving orchestras forward in challenging times. Having a direct role in increasing our financial resources seems to me to be an effective use of influence on the organization.
Finally, I am sometimes asked if I think there are other musicians who would be interested in pursuing a similar role. I am sure that there are, but I do not yet know who they are, or how they would create their roles. I suspect that the roles will be unique to each musician, given our differing backgrounds and experience. The key questions revolve around time, where they are in their careers, management background, and personal strengths. Adding musician involvement to development is not the same as hiring to fill certain positions. The position will have to be shaped to fit the person who fills it.
In our orchestra, musicians are involved in paid and donated playing services, donor events, stewardship, solicitation calls with development staff, and donor thank-you calls, etc. Nearly one third of the orchestra participates as volunteers. I think it’s worth remembering the amount of work that goes into creating and preparing for those opportunities. That is what differentiates the work of paid staff from volunteer generosity. All of it is appreciated by the donors, of course.
Musicians can better their institutions and improve their situations by taking advantage of patrons’ natural desire to know their musicians better. The joy we bring through our music-making creates a bond between us and our audience. Their sense of being part of the family helps them stay close to the orchestra and inspires their support. There is no one better suited to make that happen than we.