Reimagining Relevance: The Key to Returning to Revenue

As optimism for the return to live gatherings cautiously dawns, it’s time to commence the work of rebuilding your choral organization’s capabilities and re-engaging its audiences. Building on “Asking Thru Adversity,” his breakout presentation at the Chorus America Winter Conference, leadership and community engagement consultant Matt Lehrman offers this guide to focusing your efforts.

There’s no textbook methodology for restarting your operational engine after such a prolonged disruption. It’s unlikely that you’ll simply flip a door-sign from “closed” to “open” and pick up where you left off. It’s okay to be making up your strategy on the fly—so long as your board of directors and your team are mindful, purposeful, and united in their efforts.

Right now, you possess a rare and precious opportunity to reimagine the possibilities of your organization. Here are three priorities to guide your efforts: 1) declare a strategic intention, 2) renew your spirit of purposefulness, and 3) animate your customer and supporter experience.


Strategic Intention

A failure to begin by explicitly setting a strategic intention runs the risk of misaligning the expectations and frustrating the efforts of the stakeholders, donors, audiences, team members, volunteers, partners, and other constituencies whom your organization serves and upon whom it depends.

The question is: “How shall we approach the future?” What’s your decision?

  • Reassemble? Do we aim to put our pieces back to their pre-pandemic positions? or,
  • Reimagine? Will we consider reconfiguring our pieces in more creative and compelling ways?

Start your board and team discussion by asking, “Is a return to our organization’s prior way of operating truly in our best interest?”

There’s an understandable craving for the security of what’s familiar and a return to stability, especially for those whose lives and livelihoods have been affected. Emerging from stress and crisis, it’s tough to fault logic that says, “Let’s first get back on our feet before we consider other options.”

Still, your organization’s thorough consideration should include these questions:

  • If we were starting from scratch today, is what we did before still the way we’d choose to operate today?
  • Who should we have involved or served better before—and what is our present commitment to do something about that?
  • What have we learned or accomplished in the past difficult year that we don’t wish to give up? What silver linings can we take from the cloud from which we’re emerging?
  • What threats or challenges were we facing prior to COVID? Are those concerns resolved, or are they still lurking?

When you consider all your organization has experienced and everything our society has witnessed this past year (i.e., a global health crisis, economic stress, political division, reckoning with systemic racism, and more), it’s apparent that the world isn’t turning back the clock. So, is re-setting back to January 2020 truly your organization’s safest or smartest option?

A courageous board is one that’s willing to ask, “What might we achieve if we are willing to reconfigure our resources and embolden our expectations?”

Nurture such innovative thinking by your board and team by posing these questions:

  • What would be absolutely amazing for us to achieve within the next three to five years?
  • What is something we were doing previously that we can now stop (especially if that decision frees up capacity to accomplish something absolutely amazing)?
  • How might our organization change, and our community benefit, if we were to transition our commitment to being “inclusive” to being “anti-racist?”
  • What opportunities (technology, resources, knowledge, etc.) are familiar or available to us (and to our audiences) today that are different from before?

Strategic intentions are the potent building blocks of every nonprofit organization. When all your constituencies are unified in their expectations, your chorus’s possibilities for the future are exciting and unlimited.


Renew Purposefulness in Fundraising

You’ve been fundraising your heart out for well over a year. You’ve powered through your own stresses, made difficult organizational choices, and overcome donor exhaustion.

So, what’s your fundraising encore?

It’s a serious question. After such intense fundraising efforts, how anti-climactic will it be to revert to soliciting year-end contributions and holiday performance sponsorships? In the aftermath of everything that’s happened, look at the vast philanthropic need that now exists in your community and think really hard about how important your routine operating support “ask” will appear in comparison.

Sure, your most devoted audiences and supporters may be quick to return (though there’s no guarantee), but few nonprofits make their full contributed revenue goals without inspiring support of a much wider range of supporters.

Don’t back off! This is a time to elevate your sense of purposefulness—to make your organization even more relevant to your donors and your community. Invigorate your organization’s fundraising capacity in three ways:

  1. Restore the primacy of donor stewardship. Successful fundraising is less about frequent mailings and pretty graphics and more about cultivating an actual caring relationship. After a year of lockdown, it’s necessary to restore in-person connection as soon as it’s safe to do so. Remember, donors don’t just support a cause; they support people, they support an organization’s momentum and accomplishments, and they support compelling visions of what’s possible. What aspirations excite your donors? There’s never been a more important time to ask!
  2. Energize your points of connection. Use this checklist to knock the rust off of your organization’s fundraising mechanics:
  • Convenience—If someone wants to support your organization, how easy and obvious is the process? Did you offer a reason to make a recurring gift? If 10-15 percent of your online users disappear with every click, how can you improve navigation to stop their contributions from falling out of your process?
  • Directness—Are you speaking with donors on a personal basis and in ways that are authentic? Are you making introductions and asking for referrals? Are your discussions personally meaningful? Are you disciplined in your approach?
  • Significance—What stories of impact are your team and your board capturing and sharing? What rituals in your board and management meetings invite people to share their personally observed experiences so as to cultivate stories of significance, confidence, and trustworthiness?
  • Distinctiveness—How do your donors come to know that they are part of something special? A thank-you note isn’t enough. Recognition in your playbill, newsletter or website doesn’t count. What experience can you offer that delivers a clear sense of connection to something extraordinary? 
  • Connection—After a year of isolation, what is your opportunity to connect supporters not just to your chorus—but to each other? What donor-to-donor connections will get people excited to see and be with each other again?
  1. Reinterpret your organization’s relevance. It’s not unusual—but in this unique moment, it’s not nearly sufficient—for nonprofit arts and cultural organizations to define relevance solely by their performance programs, educational activities, outreach initiatives, and capital plans.

Arts and cultural organizations should be well disabused of the Field of Dreams fantasy that “If you build it, they will come.” There’s simply no promise that “If you rebuild it, they will come back.”

To re-activate your supporters, they need to know more than you’re getting back to business. To kickstart their attention, interest, and passion, you need to present more than a limited, inward-focused approach to relevance.

To assert relevance in this moment, your organization should position itself as more than a mere beneficiary of your community’s generosity. This is an opportunity to translate your artistic vision into bold community leadership. Now is the time for your organization to contribute its unique talents, perspective, and capabilities to the recovery, health, and collaborative spirit of your entire community.


Animate the Experience

If necessity is the mother of invention, then your return to live gatherings should spark a renaissance in the ways your organization connects with its audiences and supporters.

My newest webinar, Return to Revenue, is entirely about sparking that reimagination. It features open-ended access to a freewheeling database of creative ideas for generating revenue from ticket sales, admissions, class and activity fees, memberships, special events, and virtual programs.   

From the practical to the far-fetched, each thought allows people to add comments, share links, and develop options. The discussion is as far from best practices as it gets. It’s a dizzying free-for-all of possibilities meant to spark creativity and inspire action.

Among the questions and ideas being discussed:

  • Making the journey as fun as the destination—When someone buys a show ticket, let’s not wait to engage them in the experience. If a show is four months away, a ticket buyer can have access (via Zoom) to a schedule of fun and relevant content such as meeting the artist, witnessing rehearsals, or participating in group discussions with other audience members.
  • Free returns—If people are still reluctant to buy tickets, might organizations offer a policy of free and easy ticket returns—or make that a benefit of purchasing a membership, or perhaps sell a higher-priced “class” of ticket that supplies that benefit, as airlines do?
  • Voting for what you want—Conventionally, we sell tickets only after an organization announces a program and schedules a performance date and time. Even with restrictions being relaxed, it’s not clear precisely when choral organizations and other performing arts will reopen, so how about offering a selection of (unscheduled) program options and invite ­audience members to buy tickets (think of them as votes, or like a Kickstarter campaign) for the concert that they most want to attend?
  • Friend of a friend with benefits—Expecting that audiences are looking forward to connecting with family and friends once again, can we extend an offer that enables devoted audience members to most easily invite others to join them?
  • Eager Returners Club—What very special benefits (added value? merchandise?) might reward people willing to buy now and be among the first to return?
  • Something like a bus transfer—With what other arts or cultural organization(s) might we partner so that people who purchase admission for one might receive no-cost admission to the other? How might such connections help restore confidence to people needing some extra incentive to return to public outings?
  • Selling Anticipation—What might we learn from Disney? Their advertisements focus on the joyous, anticipatory feeling of “I’m going to Disney World!” to sell admissions, even when the parks are closed to the public.


The Future Is Malleable

Despite the best hopes and plans, the pathway out of the pandemic isn’t totally clear. Resist the temptation to declare that you’ve found your “new normal.” Nobody’s there yet, so stay alert and nimble. Get used to making adjustments on the fly.

Your return to revenue depends on keeping people throughout your organization mindful, purposeful, and united in their efforts.

Your return to revenue also depends on your revitalization of relevance.

Matt Lehrman, co-founder of Social Prosperity Partners, has taught 70+ webinars for nonprofits nationwide since the onset of COVID, including How to Sustain Donors in Turbulent Times, How to Ask for $ in Tough Times, Asking Thru Adversity—and his newest, Return to Revenue. He is expert at helping arts and cultural organizations with strategic planning, business model innovation, and audience development.