Outsourcing Admin: Not Just for the Money Savings

In a post a few weeks back I suggested that, rather than radical innovation, the arts sector might see some pretty great results through some common sense improvements. I suggested as an example “communities of organizations forming cooperative agreements for the use of space, or investments in shared technology, or other resources.” Strategic alliances, shared services, and partnerships sure sound good on paper but, one might ask, are they paying off in practice?

A couple weeks I ago I was directed to a great post on the blog of Betsy Sturdevant, principal bassoonist for the Columbus Symphony; it’s entitled YES, things really have changed for the Columbus Symphony. Sturdevant walks readers through the dire straits the Columbus Symphony faced the past several years and some of its recent positive changes. Here is an excerpt on the beginning of the turnaround:

The recession resulted in further decline in donations and ticket sales for the orchestra, and by February of 2010, the Columbus Symphony’s financial status had became dire.  The orchestra’s new leaders, CEO Roland Valliere and Board Chair Martin Inglis, determined that the orchestra would have to either cease operations or radically restructure.  The musicians voted to accept compensation cuts of 20% in order to save the orchestra, and the symphony’s administrative duties were turned over to CAPA, the Columbus Association for the Performing Arts. CAPA’s dynamic President and CEO Bill Conner became the symphony’s CEO, and Roland Valliere became the symphony’s President and Chief Creative Officer. Now, only a year later, it’s safe to say that the Columbus Symphony has experienced a remarkable turnabout.  The symphony has benefited greatly from its affiliation with the highly-regarded CAPA.  Turning over administrative duties to CAPA saved the orchestra thousands of dollars, and since CAPA is an extremely well-run organization with competent, dedicated employees, the symphony is now well-managed. 

The list of successes that follows is pretty impressive: revitalized board; new donors and increased contributions; amicable negotiations and a new musicians’ contract signed six months early; balanced budget; terrific new music director; two new concert series; streaming of concerts; and increased goodwill among community members.

Two keys to the Columbus Symphony’s great outcomes seem to be: (1) CAPA (Bill Conner) appears to be providing very sound management and to be gaining the confidence and respect of musicians and community members alike; (2) liberating Roland Valliere to fulfill the new position of Chief Creative Officer appears to be liberating the Columbus Symphony to renew itself and become an inspired, dynamic, more responsive, and creative entity–what arts organizations often are when they are young and small, but which they sometimes cease to be as they become more institutionalized.

I was curious about this partnership between the Columbus Symphony and CAPA and so I followed the link to the CAPA Website, whose home page looked a lot like the home pages of any number or PACs in the country, filled with promo for upcoming shows. But when I clicked on “About Us” I found a link called “Shared Services.” I clicked through and this is what it says:

Shared services arrangements offer a streamlined ticket buying experience for patrons and season subscribers while allowing our partner arts organizations to focus on their missions and the artistic quality of their work. [...] Services are personalized to fit each organization’s needs, and can include marketing, public relations, finance, human resources, IT, and development/fundraising. CAPA also provides shared ticketing services … production, booking and management services.

There is a long and impressive list of organizations with which CAPA works. I am not at all familiar with CAPA or any of these partnerships; but I gather from Betsy Sturdevant’s post that Columbus Symphony’s alliance with CAPA seems to be, just as CAPA suggests, allowing the orchestra to focus on its mission and programs.

This past week Anne Midgette wrote a post called  Looking for good news about orchestras in which  she asks “which orchestras are doing the best?” and answers with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the Pacific Symphony, Orchestra of St. Luke’s, the New World Symphony, Orpheus, and Wordless Music. She comments that these organizations represent a different approach to playing the same kind of music and then lists a few things they all have in common: “smaller administrations, more flexible concert formats, and higher-than-usual job satisfaction from their musicians” She ends saying, ”Don’t underestimate these factors as a key to success in the future.” It’s a great post. I concur wholeheartedly with Anne on her list of orchestras and factors of success.

From my vantage point, it seems that Columbus Symphony might be added to the ‘good news’ column for the orchestra field. To respond to a changing environment organizations need greater flexibility. Outsourcing administration and shared services may be wise tactics for institutions (midsized, in particular) with overbuilt capacity. Moreover, outsourcing admin may leave organizations hands- and minds-free to pursue mission. 

  Two postscripts:

  1. I wish to send thanks to all who posted or emailed me directly in response to last week’s minor rant on innovation. There were some terrific comments posted, which I encourage all to read.
  2. I want to send a shout out to David Zoltan (ArtsAppeal) and everyone that presented at TedXMichiganAve. I wish I could have seen you all live and I can’t wait to see the videos.

Cubes Union image by monarx3d licensed on Shutterstock.com.

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Comments

  1. Heather Beasley says

    I would love to hear more about the successes and problems raised when development/ fundraising are outsourced to a common organization. I work as a grant writer for multiple arts organizations and the conflicts of interest are numerous…I can certainly see the benefits of sharing administrative staff for publicity, ticketing, and financial management, but for the organizations I work with, development is so closely woven with strategic planning that raising funds means being intimately involved with the future direction of the organization. My concern is that the staff for the shared-services organization will apply their own preferences between organizations in working with donors, which can lead to some sticky ethical problems.

  2. Sam Levy says

    From THE STAGE in London:

    Published Wednesday 11 May 2011 at 11:29 by Natalie Woolman

    Greenwich Theatre has become the first venue to share back office functions with the National Theatre, in a move that will cut costs for the smaller organisation.

    Greenwich launched new ticketing and box office software that is hosted by the National’s Tessitura system last week. The move came about because the south-east London venue had been told to upgrade its server by its previous ticketing provider but could not afford to do so.

    The NT has previously sold tickets on a show by show basis for other companies, including Shunt and Punchdrunk, but this is the first time that a venue has ‘piggybacked’ on the National’s system permanently through its own website.

    Last autumn, The Stage reported that the National was in talks with a number of London producing venues to share back office services, including IT support and human resources as well as box office functions. The arrangement with Greenwich marks the first agreement of this kind confirmed by the NT.

    Sarah Hunt, director of marketing at the National, said: “Greenwich would not have been able to afford it, so they have been able to access a really sophisticated system. Customers will have a better journey, a more intuitive experience booking tickets through this relationship.”

    Hunt said the installation was completed within eight weeks and in future the National would provide IT support on the system to Greenwich. She added that the National was in talks about setting up similar arrangements with other venues.

    The NT and Greenwich websites and databases will remain secure and separate. According to Hunt, Greenwich customers will see no evidence of the fact that the booking system is hosted by the National, nor will any audience details be shared between the two organisations.

    Greenwich is using the Tessitura box office system under a sub-licensee agreement at a reduced fee.

  3. Andy Buelow says

    Diane, a fascinating topic and one that I hope you explore further. There is a fairly constant refrain about this kind of consolidation from funders, but my impression is that they are very difficult to do well. Columbus seems to be a success story, but it will be interesting to see how the arrangement fares with a little longevity. It is one thing to get an orchestra back from a financial precipice but quite another to put it on the more elusive path to long-term sustainability. What little investigating I have done into mergers and management consolidations has left me curious but cautious. I suspect that they fail as often as they succeed.

  4. says

    Thanks so much for the shout-out, Diane! The videos will be releasing very soon for all to see (hopefully by the end of the week even), so can’t wait to see what you think.

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