San Antonio Symphony Begins To Triage Their Future

Now that the San Antonio Symphony (SAS) has made it past the darkest hour and are firmly headed toward the dawn, the stakeholders are now free to triage the next wave of challenges.

The 1/20/2018 edition of the San Antonio Express-News published an article by Deborah Martin that takes a very detailed look at what the organization has accomplished and some of the challenges that lie ahead. Here’s an overview of those items plus a few more that should be on their radar.

Emergency Priority: Collective Bargaining Agreement

Adaptistration People 034Shortly after the Symphony Society of San Antonio (SSSA) elected a new executive committee, they managed to reach an agreement with musicians on a short term collective bargaining agreement (CBA) (details). The organization will find itself revisiting this item again in short order but the symbolism of reaching an amicable agreement so quickly is worth its weight in political and fundraising gold.

Emergency Priority: Short Term Fundraising

The new SSSA board was faced with $2.5mm in projected expenses and a loss of key funders thanks to the latter severing ties with the organization after promising to take over the SAS via a successorship agreement, then backing out of the deal. Fortunately, the organization managed to secure sizable grants from city and county governments and when combined with concessionary cost cutting measures from the musicians, they expect to have enough cash on hand to finish the season in June, 2018.

Urgent Priority: Rebuilding The Administration

As part of the now defunct successorship agreement, the SAS shed itself of nearly all their administrative infrastructure. All buy a handful of operations personnel remained while executive, finance, marketing, and development duties were either transferred to what would have been the new governing nonprofit or outsourced to the Tobin Center for the Performing Arts.

Currently, the SAS’s former Vice President and General Manager, Karina Bharne, is serving in an interim executive director capacity but in order to successfully plan and implement next season and begin fundraising in earnest, the organization will need to recruit permanent administrators.

A closely related thorny issue includes how to deal with any existing outsourced service agreements. Given that those were almost certainly negotiated under the guise of successorship, it would be prudent for the SAS to re-examine any terms and adjust accordingly.

Urgent Priority: Recapitalization Fundraising

Although immediate expenses will undoubtedly place the most notable pressure on the orchestra’s board, the only way to prevent it from becoming standard operation procedure is to begin building an emergency fund then engage an endowment campaign.

An emergency fund should be enough to cover a full season of fixed expenses. Next steps include securing seed gifts for a meaningful endowment campaign with a goal of 3x the annual budget.  Ideally, the board will be able to identify donors capable of giving to both fundraising drives.

Less Urgent: Audience Development

Since initiating the outsourced administrative services, stakeholders and patron supporters have lamented what they see as the results of inadequate marketing. While there will almost certainly be some rough patches during transition periods, an organization in a position the SAS finds itself in has little to no room for a learning curve.

Lower single ticket sales mean lower earned income, which orchestras rely on to help maintain positive cash flow throughout the season.

Closely related is the dynamic element of audience building; specifically, maintaining current subscribers while simultaneously generating new subscribers and reliable repeat single ticket buyers. These patrons not only help bolster earned income but they lower marketing expenses. Think of it like a revenue force multiplier.

The more that base erodes, the more it costs to rebuild.

Less Urgent: Board Development

The failed successorship process took a toll on the SAS board. The remaining members seem to be motivated but they’ll need new blood to help prevent board burnout. They’ll also need to begin approaching the task of board recruitment from a different perspective.

One of the underlying problems plaguing the SAS is the lack of board diversity; in every sense of the word. They need to reach out and build connections into minority communities, attract professionals outside of existing business circles, and entice large donor members from circles outside traditional culturally focused philanthropic community (key members of which were part of the nonprofit that scrapped the successorship agreement to begin with).

Less Urgent: Negotiate A Multi-Year CBA

In an ironic sense, it’s almost liberating to think that the next big CBA negotiation ranks comparatively low on an organization’s list of priorities. Having said that, all the challenges above will have a great deal of impact on how this endeavor unfolds.

Non-Urgent: Pension Obligations

Although the nonprofit planning to assume control via the successorship agreement cited pension obligations as their reason for leaving the SAS at the altar, it’s actually a very low priority item. Certainly, the SAS will need to make its annual payments on time and in full, but even before the successorship process was initiated, they were having no trouble meeting those expenses. In fact, the new SAS board chair, Kathleen Weir Vale, has publicly stated the pension obligation is a non-issue for the orchestra.

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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