Orchestra Docents Study: Introduction

Recently, I completed an analysis of the Denver Zoo volunteer docent program.  A docent is traditionally an individual who is a lecturer or tour guide in a museum or cathedral.  But contemporary avenues of service include many non profit organizations which have a great deal of public contact, such as zoos.

Adaptistration People 062I became introduced to the world of docents through my in-laws, who have been zoo docents for 15 years.  Throughout that time they developed such a close relationship with the zoo that my wife and I were even married there.  And over the years I’ve noticed more and more about how much training, enthusiasm, and time they spent with the organization.

They didn’t have as much of a direct interest in zoos or conservation programs earlier in their lives, so why did they become so passionate about it later in life?  This question has always been buried in the back of my mind but it wasn’t until a few years ago that I began to connect it to the orchestra world.

The concept of orchestra docents is nothing new; orchestras from Chicago through Anchorage maintain small docent programs.  However, their focus is almost exclusively on children’s educational outreach programs in the public schools.  And although these types of programs certainly deliver positive results, the nature of their concentration is incapable of approaching the results of a comprehensive docent program, such as the one at the Denver Zoo.

Where the Denver Zoo program really shines is in its ability to help create a groundswell of interest and enthusiasm about the zoo and its programs among adult visitors.  Without even trying, they have created a self enabling process which transforms outsiders into insiders.

Come back tomorrow where we’ll begin to analyze the Denver Zoo program in detail and determine if what they do is transferable to orchestras.  We’ll see how the three major stakeholders in the Denver Zoo – administrators, volunteer docents, and animal keepers observe about the docent program and what it accomplishes for their organization.

About Drew McManus

"I hear that every time you show up to work with an orchestra, people get fired." Those were the first words out of an executive's mouth after her board chair introduced us. That executive is now a dear colleague and friend but the day that consulting contract began with her orchestra, she was convinced I was a hatchet-man brought in by the board to clean house.

I understand where the trepidation comes from as a great deal of my consulting and technology provider work for arts organizations involves due diligence, separating fact from fiction, interpreting spin, as well as performance review and oversight. So yes, sometimes that work results in one or two individuals "aggressively embracing career change" but far more often than not, it reinforces and clarifies exactly what works and why.

In short, it doesn't matter if you know where all the bodies are buried if you can't keep your own clients out of the ground, and I'm fortunate enough to say that for more than 15 years, I've done exactly that for groups of all budget size from Qatar to Kathmandu.

For fun, I write a daily blog about the orchestra business, provide a platform for arts insiders to speak their mind, keep track of what people in this business get paid, help write a satirical cartoon about orchestra life, hack the arts, and love a good coffee drink.

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