Orchestra Strikes Point to the Value of CRM

Because I worked as an Executive Director of a symphony orchestra earlier in my career (and was part of two unfortunate strikes and walkouts), I watch orchestra negotiations with particular interest. I think it’s fair to say that over the past two decades these have come in waves, where orchestras tended to follow one another. Either wage negotiations go well and orchestras sign early, or one goes on strike, which sets off a wave across the county.

What we’re seeing today is something new, outlined in an article last week in The New York Times. The reporter points out that some orchestras are thriving, building new halls, increasing their seasons, and raising endowments. Yet others are struggling, and some big-name orchestras faced strikes yet again.

What makes one different from the other is pinpointed with clarity in the Times article. Even the headline gets it right: “For Orchestras in the U.S., So Much Depends on Their Communities’ Fortunes.” The final paragraph of the article points out the crux of the issue and the solution at the same time:

“From the point of view of the musicians, they’ve spent a long time developing their skills, so they tend to look at what people with similar skills are being paid at other orchestras,” [Stanford professor Robert Flanagan] said in an interview. “On the management side, they’re basically stuck with what the community they’re located in is willing to pay. And those two perspectives have very little to do with each other.”

Let’s assume that musicians are not being overpaid, meaning that a cut in wages isn’t going to solve the problem. The key is the part about what a community is “willing to pay.”

Orchestras, like all cultural organizations, get their money from individual decisions by people, not by collective action such as taxes. Orchestras are constantly in the business of “selling” the value of having an orchestra in their community to anyone who will listen, particular wealthy arts-minded donors, foundations, and community leaders.

It’s absolutely true that communities get what they want, and if nobody in the community cares about having a symphony it won’t be funded and that’s that. It’s not a right of a community to have an orchestra. It takes artistic quality, great leadership, and the will and philanthropy of (usually) a very few very ardent supporters. As corporate, government, and foundation support withers, it’s individuals who make the difference, and that’s always been true, but never more so than today.

That’s where a CRM changes everything and why we built PatronManager in the first place, as a CRM system that combines ticketing, marketing, and fundraising in one system. What makes raising money for an orchestra different from raising money for any other social service is that you can’t get a donor to give to an orchestra unless he or she has been to a concert, yet you can get people to give to the Red Cross, Susan G. Komen, or Save the Whales, simply based on their mission.

This means orchestras must “grow” their donors, moving them from attending once, to repeat visits, then asking them to give first a little, and then a lot. To my way of thinking, donor cultivation is at the crux of the success of the orchestras that are thriving, and at the heart of the solution for those that aren’t.

That isn’t to say the orchestras that are on strike haven’t done great fundraising — they have. It’s just that the costs still outweigh their ability to fund them. And the solution is to either cut costs or raise more money.

A CRM system is all about harnessing technology so that it enables orchestras (and every other cultural non-profit) to efficiently and effectively track ticket buyers, turn them into donors, and help the organizations know who is in their midst. It’s also why having an embedded tool such as WealthEngine is so important. If you knew you will have 10 first-time ticket buyers who are philanthropically active with household incomes of over $500,000 per year in your hall next weekend, wouldn’t you want to act upon that?

I truly hope that the orchestras that are on strike settle, as some already have. I know that when they do, the task at hand will be to raise more money to support these musicians. And if they don’t settle quickly, they will still face that same fundraising burden.

That’s why the technology of the future — CRM — will play an increasingly important role.

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One response to “Orchestra Strikes Point to the Value of CRM

  1. Thanks Gene – this really gives a good perspective not only on Orchestras, but any group putting on shows. Perhaps there should be a new component of Patron Manager – I’d call it “Union Negotiator!”

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