Not Your Mother's Volunteer Group

by Rebecca Winzenried

Orchestra volunteers build for the future by becoming models of 21st-century business efficiency.

The Des Moines Symphony Guild knew it had a problem. After nearly 50 years as a major fund-raising and civic force for its orchestra, it was seeing a drop-off in membership. Long-term volunteers were becoming less active as they entered retirement years, with many "snowbirds" taking off for warmer climes during the height of the season, and the group was having difficulty attracting new recruits. Not to mention that the organization's membership was heavily slanted toward women. Even though a number of men actually were involved with projects, none were signing on as members.

Conversations with focus groups around the community quickly revealed the source of the problem: the name. "Guild" repeatedly brought up a certain image, of "little old ladies sipping tea." A change, in this case a change of name, was definitely in order.

Unlike other volunteer groups that have rather quietly changed their names in recent years in an effort to become more inclusive (examples include Friends of the Portland Symphony in Maine and the Richmond Symphony League in Virginia, both former Women's Committees), the Des Moines group made a big splash with its news. As the Alliance--a name chosen for its non-gender-specific image of individuals coming together for a common cause--the group focused on its name change during the 1999-2000 season. It hired a graphic designer to create a vibrant new logo and worked closely with the Des Moines Symphony Orchestra to coordinate designs and colors used in brochures and ads. Letters explaining the change were mailed to all season subscribers along with their season brochures. The result: The group picked up a number of new members just from the season brochure mailing, and now counts several men among its ranks.

Volunteers have always been a backbone of orchestras, marshaling forces to handle behind-the-scenes tasks, coordinating education concerts, and raising funds. Most volunteer associations organize multiple events during a season, but the numbers represented by individual projects alone are staggering. In the 1999-2000 season, the Kansas City Symphony League's Symphony Supper Club netted more than $333,000; the Dallas Symphony Orchestra League's Millennium Ball netted more than $400,000; and the Omaha Symphony Guild's Diamond and Pearl 80th Anniversary Season ticket campaign accounted for 38 percent of total new and renewal season subscriptions.

And it's not just dollars, but the time commitment, that has made volunteers so valuable. Last year WAMSO, the Minnesota Orchestra volunteer association, began logging the number of hours racked up by its volunteers. The WAMSO president surprised orchestra board members at the annual meeting by presenting a "check" for $275,643, representing the value of volunteer hours (calculated at $13.73 an hour, according to an independent study). But this steadfast and vital force has been hit hard by changes in society and the workplace. Two-career families--with the kids' music lessons, dance lessons, and soccer practices thrown in--can't squeeze enough hours out of the day. Young adults who did not have the benefit of public school music education have less inclination to join a symphony association, and even dedicated volunteers aren't as interested in traditional fund-raising endeavors as they used to be. The dual issues of new-member recruitment and retention consistently rank at the top of concerns voiced in the annual Constituent Issues survey conducted by the American Symphony Orchestra League's Volunteer Council.

A New Attitude
After some soul searching, the response from volunteers has been to get smart and take a good, hard look at their operations--at the way things have "always been done." Orchestras and their volunteer associations are responding by restructuring their organizations, marketing themselves aggressively, implementing new ways to work with the interests and schedules of busy professionals, and building for the future.

Sometimes the first step is as simple as adopting a new attitude. Lois Margolin, president of the Des Moines Symphony Alliance, notes that the name change alone gave its leadership a more confident stance in contacting companies for underwriting and sponsorships. "Once the name change was a fait accompli," says Margolin, "the attitude really changed. We're 100 percent more professional than we used to be. When we walk into a meeting with a corporation carrying the slick materials we have now--the brochures, the letterhead, our mission statement, everything coordinated with the symphony materials--we're looked upon far more professionally. Our presentation is so much stronger. We have credibility."

The Alliance considers the expense of hiring a graphic designer as a one-time investment in the future. The group made a point of working closely with the orchestra to coordinate the style of its marketing materials. "We really felt it was important to make the connection," says Margolin, while at the same time building awareness that the Alliance is a separate group with its own major activities, including its annual Youth Artist Competition and a middle-school string festival.

Volunteer groups have also been lobbying to increase their presence on orchestra web sites, and the effort has paid off. A quick glance at web sites from orchestras across the country reveals that sections for "how to get involved" or "volunteer opportunities" have become standard fare. That wasn't so even a year ago, but now orchestras like the Chicago Symphony Orchestra have online volunteer membership forms and offer ideas for how to choose a volunteer experience. And some, like the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, have highlighted volunteer activities during the year. Just click a button and fill out a survey of areas where you'd like to help out.

A few volunteer groups, like the Symphony Guild of Charlotte in North Carolina, even have their own web sites. "It's absolutely vital to reach out to new members. That's where people turn for information now," says Peggy Dreher, the group's vice president of marketing and public relations. The web site, and her position, were part of a 1999 restructuring undertaken by the Guild to coordinate its marketing and publicity efforts, to promote its activities, and to recruit new members. Like many volunteer groups, the Guild had seen its membership drop to less than 200 in the mid-1990s from a high of more than 500 two decades earlier. (It has now climbed back to around 300.)

A name change wasn't in order here. Instead, the Guild adopted a very business-like organizational structure that streamlined some committees, created a grant-writing committee reporting to the vice president of management and planning, and a corporate partnering chairman reporting to the vice president of marketing. The group then drafted a marketing plan that would do many a small business proud. Dreher notes that while few volunteer groups have dedicated marketing efforts, the Guild's approach reflects the realities of today's volunteers. "We put our best foot forward. We wanted people to know we weren't just the little housewives of the past, staying at home, who spent some of their time with the symphony. We have people who work full-time. Some of them are high-powered business people who have their own firms," says Dreher.

As part of the restructuring, the Guild has been rethinking typical volunteer models of operation. Many volunteer leaders feel that regular meetings create a sense of inclusion and spark ideas, but the Guild places few requirements on members as far as the number of meetings they must attend or the specific number of hours they must devote to projects. "We recognize that we are dealing with a volunteer force that is trying to run a household and work full time. Plus they may have other commitments in the community," says Dreher. "Time is the valuable commodity now."

The Guild has adopted strategies to tap into the knowledge, skills, and networks of non-traditional volunteers. One of the officers has organized a think-tank of business people who plan to gather occasionally for an hour or so of brainstorming. That will be the extent of their "volunteering." As Dreher says, "they have a lot of great ideas. And many of them have contacts in the community that they can call on to implement those ideas."

She has begun hosting dinner meetings for the marketing committee--a small change, but one that is crucial to accommodate working volunteers' schedules. Dreher also uses e-mail extensively to touch base with volunteers who are working from home on projects such as the newsletter. The Guild eventually hopes to place a master calendar of activities on its web site that members can consult.

The Guild web site is a prime example of the group's use of the so-called "serial" volunteer, the individual who may devote time to one limited project before moving on. The volunteer who began redesigning the site last year in an effort to make it more user-friendly (plans are to eventually sell online tickets to the Guild's designer showhouse) was only able to devote her energies for a year. The project was taken over by another volunteer who is readying the launch of a new business. She told the group, "I'd like to help, but I can't volunteer and go to a lot of meetings." Instead, the designer works mainly from home, meeting occasionally with the group's leadership to go over the project.

Business Models
On the West Coast, the Seattle Symphony is tapping into a completely new group of volunteers by making connections with the business community. Ginny Matheson, the orchestra's director of human resources and volunteers, has helped the orchestra hook up with companies that encourage employee volunteerism. One is Washington Mutual, which sends groups to help with ushering and ticket taking, escorting students back and forth to buses, and accompanying senior citizens to the concert hall.

Of course, it doesn't hurt that the orchestra's venue, Benaroya Hall, is located just across the street from the financial services company. So if the orchestra needs extra ushers, say for weekday education concerts, "They just put on their [company] T-shirts and march across the street to help out," says Matheson. "We have a concentration of companies in the downtown area who have various kinds of volunteer programs. There's a whole group of employees available."

The orchestra has begun expanding the concept by hosting special recruitment events, inviting Seattle residents to come on in, see the concert hallÉand, by the way, here are some ways you might help out. Again, the orchestra has reaped the benefit of a certain interest in just seeing Benaroya Hall, which opened in 1998. This, along with Benaroya's busy calendar, means more volunteers are needed to act as tour guides and to man the new interactive Soundbridge Music Discovery Center.

Matheson, whose job is to act as a staff liaison between the orchestra and the Seattle Symphony Volunteer Association, acknowledges that the recruitment events proved workforce volunteers can be elusive. "We saw a lot of professional people for the events, but so often the volunteer jobs they would like, the evening or weekend events, get picked off quickly. So it can be kind of hard to fit them in."

The orchestra has made an effort to let professional people know that there are lots of ways to help out. Volunteers with technical expertise, whether a simple familiarity with data entry or more complex web and streaming audio/video skills, are invaluable to orchestras that are becoming increasingly dependent upon computers, databases, and web sites, but don't necessarily have the skills, staffing, or funds to tackle information-systems projects. One Seattle volunteer has been donating time to create a database that, ironically, will be used to help coordinate and track volunteer activities. "She's able to ask questions that make you think about how you look at a database. What kind of reports do you want to run? How do you fill out the forms you've set up? How should those forms read? It's not something that seems like it should have been so difficult to achieve, but it was for us," says Matheson.

New Recruits
John Ashbaugh may be the only person in the country who volunteers with two orchestras, in two widely separated cities, at the same time. That's a bit of an exaggeration, but earlier in the year, Ashbaugh was still assisting with the web site he created for NSOvation, the young patrons group of the National Symphony Orchestra, even though he had moved to Atlanta a few months before. Soon after landing in his new city, Ashbaugh created a similar web site for the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra's Bravo! young patrons group. The site is used to promote efforts and activities of the group, which is targeted to twenty- and thirtysomethings.

Ashbaugh agrees that web sites are a necessary tool for new volunteer organizations. He says that half of the 350 NSOvation members who joined during his time with that group did so by filling out an online form. And he notes that the technology is within reach of all volunteer groups, regardless of their members' Internet proficiency. He has set up the NSOvation site so that members who have limited Web experience can update and post new information.

Young professionals' groups, reaching out to potential symphonygoers in their 20s and 30s (and sometimes 40s) have formed at a number of orchestras since the early 1990s. There are the BATS at the Austin Symphony Orchestra (who take their name from a curious tourist attraction, a colony of bats living under one of the city's bridges), Fortissimo at the Oregon Symphony, and Symphonix in San Francisco. Some, like the Rochester Philharmonic's Crescendo, consider themselves grassroots efforts, as they were organized by a few individuals wanting to connect and network with others who share an enthusiasm for classical music, but who didn't feel their interests quite fit the existing volunteer organization.

Most of these groups are social in nature, hosting pre- and post-concert get-togethers or special events like cocktail parties and dinners. Members or participants may occasionally help out with showhouses or other orchestra events, but they do not fit the traditional volunteer mold, at least not at this point. Their goal instead is community outreach, education and development of audiences that may never have experienced live orchestral music. Crescendo's web site includes a Top Ten list of classical works and a "Never Done It?" section with tips about programs and the concert experience. Asking young patrons to become members, to volunteer, and to support the orchestra is seen as being a couple of steps down the road. The hope, of course, is that these younger patrons will "grow" into memberships with the more established volunteer groups or to positions on their orchestra boards.

Ashbaugh feels the interest is definitely there. "Many young people are looking to participate in social activities that reflect who they are becoming or help them understand what they want to become. I think they are starting to appreciate life and all of the nuances that make life wonderful, and the arts are a part of thatÉwhy not the symphony?" In its first year, Bravo! cultivated relationships with other Atlanta young professionals and arts groups, including their memberships in events such as a backstage tour and a cognac tasting at the Four Seasons Hotel.

Charlie Wade, Atlanta's vice president of marketing and communications, is a supporter of the group's dynamic efforts. He notes that Bravo! has re-energized a concept that languished after the formation of another young professionals group a few years ago, a group that was focused on fund raising. "Will it create long, loyal, lasting relationships?" asks Wade. "I don't know. But it's one more way to get the orchestra on the social calendar for this group, where it wasn't before."

Rebecca Winzenried is the former managing editor of SYMPHONY.