Measuring Your Orchestra's Success in Fund Raising
"How do I know my orchestra is achieving its potential in fund raising?" I hear this question a lot--from musicians, from board members, from administrative staff. It's a very complicated question, one that is likely to become even more important in these difficult economic times. And it's a question that can become critical when an orchestra is going through a difficult labor negotiation, perhaps asking for musician concessions and making the claim that "we are raising all the money we can raise in this community." At certain times in certain places, that claim may be true, or very close to true. At other times and in other places, it may be unjustified. But how does any observer, even an involved observer inside the organization, know? Fund raising is vague, squishy, hard to get a handle on--harder to judge than earned income, where there are empty seats to tell you what your potential might be in ticket sales.
The first step is to develop an internal consensus on what your "peer" orchestras are. It certainly isn't determined by budget size alone, though that is one component. Demographics, societal makeup, and economic level of the community are all factors. So is the size of your metropolitan area, not just of your city. (When I did some work with the Houston Symphony some years ago, Houston was the fourth largest city in the United States, but had the fifteenth largest metropolitan area; the latter was a more relevant comparison.) What is the competition? Is yours the only orchestra within a one-hour drive, or are there several? You must weigh all of these factors, and then come up with a list of approximately a half dozen or so orchestras to which it makes sense to compare yours. You might start out with a larger list, because the next step is to remove from the list any orchestras that have experienced serious financial problems for an extended period of time. You do not want to establish benchmarks that include, to put it bluntly, those who are failing.
When you have settled on those peer orchestras, it is time to ask them some questions. One of the great things about the orchestra field is that we all try to help each other--so you will probably get answers, particularly if you offer to share the results with all who respond. Generally it might be the chief development officer or executive director who asks her peer, but it could be a board chair as well. The questions will establish a range with which you can compare your own orchestra's performance, and perhaps show areas in which there are opportunities for improvement (or, perhaps, show you that your orchestra is performing extremely well in its fund-raising activities). Since the majority of annual fund-raising dollars comes from individuals, for the sake of simplicity let me focus solely on developing a list of questions you might ask these other orchestras:
• What is your total budget?
• How many dollars do you raise from individuals in your annual fund? (Do not count dollars raised from events, such as galas; do count private family foundations as individual gifts.)
• How many annual fund donors do you have at each of the following levels? (These will probably change for different budget size orchestras; I've written these for smaller-budget orchestras that aren't likely to have that many gifts over $10,000; larger orchestras might cut off the bottom levels and add some higher ones.)
o $10,000 and over
• How many of your board members contribute at each of the above levels?
• What percentage of your subscribers are also donors?
Just getting and comparing that information will provide you with an enormous amount of information to assess the fund-raising performance of your organization, and to identify areas for potential growth. It isn't a perfect method, and you must add in the knowledge that you have about your own community. But the fact that it isn't perfect does not mean it's without value. Benchmarking, if applied with intelligence, is an enormously valuable tool.