Anniversary Planning: Lessons Learned

We asked the chorus leaders we interviewed for our 2018-19 Winter Voice article “Cause for Celebration” to pass along practical lessons learned from their experience planning anniversary seasons. The wisdom they shared ranges from knowing when to start to knowing when to stop.

Start as early as you can.

Andrew Bradford considers planning as far in advance as possible to be his mantra. He notes that major anniversaries and other large-scale initiatives require lots of staff time—it should be a group effort, he emphasizes—and major financial contributions. For the SFGC’s 45th, he intends to begin planning 18-24 months ahead.

And if you can’t start as early as you might like...

Bradford had far less time to get ready for the 40th. He started his job in the spring of 2017, and within about six months the chorus’s artistic director announced she would resign after the 2017-18 season. “When I arrived, very little had actually been planned in the way of firm ideas or projects or initiatives” for the anniversary, he says, and initially he had to devote most of his attention to the artistic director transition. “But very quickly [new artistic director] Valérie [Sainte-Agathe] and I worked together with the board and staff to figure out the things that we could do to both make it a very special first season for her but also a very special 40th anniversary season for the entire organization.”

Approaching a similar challenge in Tampa, Kara Dwyer and her staff laid out “the framework of a season.” As she puts it, with a chuckle, “We tried to outline programs that were specific, yet vague enough.” Because their performances with the Florida Philharmonic are mainly the orchestra’s responsibility, they were able to focus on their self-produced concerts. “We tried to leave the actual program open to a new director to plan, but in the meantime, we were gathering all the information we could about historic performances and things that our former singers and current singers might want to do during the 40th anniversary.”

Trade on your assets.

In the early planning stages, Mary Ann Aufderheide recommends reflecting on your priorities.  “Do some self-evaluation about what’s the most important for you,” she says. If Handel’s Messiah is central to every season, “that might be really important for you to do in your special anniversary.” But, she adds, do it “in some more extraordinary way. Maybe you hire an orchestra if you’ve never had the chance to do that. I think you need to trade on your assets and make sure that those are celebrated, but then also there needs to be some sort of a stretch because it gets people excited.”

Reach out.

Dwyer feels it’s essential to involve chorus members in anniversary planning. “I think that your most valuable resource are your singers, the people who have experienced the history of the organization,” she says, “and involving them early in the discussion process about how to celebrate your anniversary is critical.” MCTB and VocalEssence are among the choruses that formed anniversary committees to engage current and former members, as well as patrons and community members. “Of course, whenever you try to plan by committee you get a million more ideas than you ever can realize,” Aufderheide cautions. “But we had several meetings with an advisory group where we said ‘OK, let’s dream. What would it look like, what would you like to see?’ And from there we distilled down the things we really could do.”

Know when to stop.

Is there such a thing as too many anniversary celebrations? “Definitely,” says Dwyer. “It’s one of the most important aspects of planning.”  With an all-volunteer chorus like the MCTB, managing singers’ time is “hugely important,” she says. “We have an entirely volunteer chorus. If you overtax their time and make the experience less enjoyable for them, they're not going to come back. So you have to know what the culture is like within your organization, what people are used to doing, what they would be willing to do. Asking them those questions is really, really helpful.”

Be mindful of your paid staff too, Verdugo adds. “Don’t overplan,” he says with a hearty, self-aware laugh. “We’re a small staff. We pushed ourselves by having four events [in the space of three days]. We have a huge volunteer network that supported us, but we got right to the edge of what we could do capacity-wise. You have to know your limitations.”

There’s also a limit to what you can ask of supporters: ticket-buyers and financial contributors. As always, says Brunelle, the challenge for an artistic director is “to figure out how many concerts you can do that people are going to want to attend.” But these days, the question is trickier to answer because he says audiences have become more selective; significant season ticket sales are largely a thing of the past. Bullin has this advice: Make sure that at every occasion, you have a theme you want to reinforce. “There has to be a strategy,” she says. “What are you trying to tell people? How can you fill them with wonder and affection?” When it comes to deciding how much fundraising is enough, Bullin says overdoing it wasn’t a huge subject of discussion for Chanticleer “because all of the events we planned had their own logic and constituency.” Still, she says, “you do have to think, if you’re soliciting money, how tired people will get of being asked.”

Chanticleer held its first 40th anniversary celebration in April. Interviewed just a few days before its last observance on October 18, Bullin noted, “We won’t say the word ‘anniversary’ after that.” At least not until the 50th.

Don Lee is the managing editor of the Voice, as well as a media producer, editor, writer, and amateur choral singer who lives in St. Paul, Minnesota. At NPR in Washington DC, he was the executive producer of Performance Today.