Patrons Unite Part 1

Fellow AJ blogger Andrew Taylor and an intriguing piece up the other week about something called Giving Circles, which Andrew describes as a sort of investment club for philanthropic endeavors.

It’s a good idea and certainly something which can help increase involvement and interest in local nonprofit endeavors, like an orchestra.  However, after reading through the information at the Giving Circles website, I think they fall short of encouraging patrons to expand their collective influence to help shape a nonprofit in the direction they want to see them go.

For example, the basic premise of a giving circle assumes that any respective circle will donate money to an organization because that organization falls within their realm of interest.  And that’s a wonderful model assuming the circles already agree with the direction the organization is headed and wish to play a fairly passive role in that process.

But what if a group of patrons can take this idea a step further and mimic a much larger, better established model of collective representation and influence?  I’m thinking about Political Action Committees, otherwise known as PAC’s.

I know some folks out there associate PAC’s with greedy capitalists using slick high priced lawyers and PR professionals to influence members of government in order to pass legislature that is beneficial to their business or cause.  Granted, much of that system has been perverted beyond its original intent, which is to allow any group of individuals an avenue for expressing a collective voice.

But consider this, why don’t we take the best concepts of Giving Circles and Political Action Committees and combine them?  What you would end up with is a Philanthropic Action Committee (perhaps sharing the acronym will restore some of the nobler qualities originally associated with PAC’s).

One of the greatest problems among orchestras today is their increasing difficult time relating to and drawing in members of their communities.  Unfortunately, most of those problems are self inflicted; orchestras make it very difficult for smaller donors to direct their donations to an area of the orchestra they would like, assuming they gone through the difficult process of educating themselves enough to know how an orchestra moves its money.

Reversing the Polarity of Giving
There’s already ample evidence to show that the fundamental concept of charitable donations to orchestras is in need of change.  Right now the big philanthropic foundations and wealthy individual donors place a multitude of strings connected to their gifts, which in turn hobbles an orchestra’s ability to refine its product; it winds up being a tail wagging the dog syndrome.  A small group of individuals end up influencing the direction of an institution created to sell its product to the many.

On the opposite end of giving spectrum, the smaller individual donors have no voice in where or how their money is spent; they’re even kept in the dark about how an orchestra uses their money.  Nevertheless, they may have just as many ideas about what they think the orchestra should be doing but their “voice” is too weak for the orchestra’s leaders to hear over the chorus of larger donors. 

But these are exactly the sort of individuals orchestras are desperately trying to attract.  They need them to buy tickets, tell their friends about the orchestra, and grow those smaller donations into something larger, like a bequest.  Historically, orchestras have worked on cultivating these individuals to be just interested enough to stick around but not so interested that they ask questions or insist on being involved; essentially, they want them to be smart, but not too smart (this can be equally applied to both artistic and operational sides of the organization).

What needs to happen is for the basic nature of each of these two giving groups to change, something akin to a reversal in philanthropic polarity. 

Large donors usually give because they believe it’s something they should do and smaller donors give because they like the experience an orchestra concert provides.  By forming Philanthropic Action Committees, smaller donors can begin to help shape the direction they want to see their orchestra grow instead of being seen as a herd of disenfranchised check writing cows. 

You can see successful examples of this idea in the last political election and with the rise of some of the more powerful Political Action Committee’s based on ideology as opposed to business principles.  Members of such ideological based PAC’s are some of the most knowledgeable, passionate individuals in their communities about their respective area of interest; their involvement in the organization inevitably leads to their greater understanding of the respective subject material.

Tomorrow’s article will examine a current situation where this sort of concept would be ideally suited.

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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