This is the first in a series of posts by TRG and Piper Foundation Fellow Vincent VanVleet where he’ll report on his discoveries as he travels the country to research the impact of artistic programming on patron loyalty.
If you had three months off from your job to research anything about the arts management field, what topic would you choose? It’s a fun question to think about, and I am fortunate enough to have this opportunity.
I am privileged to have been chosen as a Virginia G. Piper Fellow just a few short months ago and subsequently as a concurrent fellow with TRG Arts, with a focus on researching the link between artistic programming and patron loyalty. The Virginia G. Piper Trust “acknowledges the never-ceasing demands of nonprofit leadership and offers opportunities to retool, refresh, and renew to senior leaders who have been in their roles for 10 or more years.” The fellowship allows non-profit executives, who spend much of their career invested in training staff, time away on sabbatical to invest in their own learning and development, in the hopes that they can bring that knowledge back to the organizations they lead. TRG has been similarly dedicated for years to training leaders of non-profit arts organizations with emphasis on advancing the field, and has started a fellowship program to spotlight the research I’ll be doing.
I have been in non-profit management for 17 years, having left the production side of the business because I wanted to be part of something much larger than myself. It has been a humbling and exciting experience to work with such talented artists and administrators alike. After a long tenure as general manager of Phoenix Theatre, I was thrust into my post as managing director in 2011 at the height of the economic crisis. I had to find a path forward for our organization. Like many, we were swimming in a sea of red ink while at the height of a multi-million dollar capital campaign to build a new theatre. The project had started before the recession hit, but was too far along to back out without setting the organization back two decades. I knew cutting our way to financial success was never going to work. Previous leadership had already tried that approach and, as we figured out, you can only cut so far. My gut instinct told me to “lean in” during the “bad” years, so I evaluated our situation and what needed to happen to swim upstream of the crisis and get ahead.
First and foremost, I was acutely aware that my entire team needed to be rowing in the same direction. This may seem like a given, but the staff were war-torn from all the staff cuts, worried about who was going to be cut next. They all were hunkered down in “it’s not my fault” mode. We had not hit our revenue goals on a production with the exception of one in 22 months. When asked why we’d failed to make goal, marketing responded with, “We did our job and told people to come, it must be sales’ fault.” Sales responded with, “We can’t magically make the phones ring, it’s marketing’s fault.” And development threw their hands up in the air and said “It’s the economy, stupid; nothing can be done.”
I questioned what I’d gotten myself into, but realized that the more useful question to ask was this: “How can I straighten this out and get this exceptionally talented team of folks back in the game?” Therein was born my quest for collaboration and an integrated approach towards patron loyalty. In my work, I am continually driven to find what matters.
This time, what mattered most wasn’t revenue.
Yes, you read that right. I just said that revenue didn’t matter (and on TRG’s blog, of all places.) But, seriously. Revenue was not the priority. Just because we need revenue to make payroll, doesn’t mean it will miraculously come.
Behavior was the priority. If we got the behavior right, revenue would follow as the byproduct of our investment in doing the right things. The second thing that mattered was providing the right tools to the staff to do their jobs. So in the middle of the economic crisis, we invested in a new integrated ticketing and donor CRM platform to aid us in our efforts.
We focused solely on our behavior with ticket buyers. We knew if we wanted to grow loyalty, we would need to dive deep into the ticket buyers first because that is where a patron’s journey begins. They show up and attend a production, and from there, they can choose to continue the relationship—or not. While we maintained our standing development plan, we knew we would never grow contributions if we didn’t get the first interaction right.
Moving forward from that decision, next we reorganized our team, creating a patron development position that managed attracting buyers and retaining them. The role was also responsible for turning these folks into “baby donors.” All the other departments became resources for helping in that effort. Everyone started rowing in the same direction with the patron at the center of our organization. The reorganization took four months to complete. It was challenging. There were tears shed and some folks choose not to stay on. No one was let go. We kept coming back to our own behavior toward each other and toward our patrons.
Remarkably, we hit goal on the first show, then the second, and then we hit a stride, successfully achieving goal on every production for two years running. Over the course of the past few seasons, we have experienced an 87% growth in earned revenue, 128% growth in single ticket sales, and 8% growth in subscriptions. Total attendance has grown by 52%.
Now, three years later, I have a bit of an intermission. Thanks to the Piper Fellowship, I can turn my time and attention toward advancing donorship and loyalty. I am setting out on a journey to discover best practices in converting transactional relationships to long term loyalty, discover the impact of programming on loyalty, and research how integrated loyalty approaches are working in organizations across North America.
You can bet when I am finished with my studies and time away from leading my organization, I will jump back in. Where will I start when my intermission is over? Behavior—because next to data, that is where transformational change lives and breathes.
I am inspired by some of the great work happening at our peer organizations across the country. I want to know: Where have you found success? What are you all doing really well that we can learn from each other and put to work at my organization and through TRG’s sounding board, the wider field?
I look forward to collaborating with innovators in these areas in the coming weeks and months, and/or hearing your thoughts in the comments below.