Extreme Makeover: Community Chorus Edition II

For nearly half a century, Voices of Omaha has presented annual performances of Handel's Messiah without admission charge. In 2010, artistic director Edward B. Hurd laid out a challenge and a path forward: “We can do even more for our community.” Part II of this two-part series explores how the chorus exponentially increased its development efforts and shares "words to the wise" learned through experience.

Getting their development act together

In 2010, Voices of Omaha’s development activity was minimal. A few request letters to long-time foundation supporters yielded $1,500; the project grant application submitted to the Nebraska Arts Council was not funded at all. The organization’s profile on Guidestar.com was non-existent. Though the group had $20,000 in savings, the chorus was barely maintaining its annual budget through chorus member dues, a product sales fundraiser, gifts from the members themselves, and concert donations.

The Seven-Year Growth Project strategies changed all of that. Voices of Omaha had a project that funders could get behind. The revamped image and marketing resources, community partnerships and collaborations, and concrete plans for the future demonstrated that the group was serious about where they wanted to go.

“I am very proud of the chorus’ serious development progress―especially of their current status on Guidestar.com and GreatNonprofits.org,” remarked Hurd. “Guidestar is for philanthropists what Chorus America is for serious choral organizations. On Guidestar, Voices of Omaha went from a bare listing with no information to Gold Level participants in the Guidestar Exchange Program in one year. This lends great credibility to the chorus for any funders doing background research on us. And GreatNonprofits provides a way for our supporters to offer comments and reviews of our activities.”

Grant applications are now being written by board members with input from the artistic director. Hurd is a regular member of Nebraska Arts Council project grant review panels which puts him in a position to know what the council is looking for and to see what other organizations are doing. “I was very pleased when our 2011 application to the NAC was ranked second out of 22,” Hurd said. Voices of Omaha funding from the state is continuing at high levels.

Voices of Omaha board and singer members have also stepped up their activities as arts advocates and fundraisers. “It is implicit in our mission that we be advocates for the arts, with an eye to the future,” Hurd says. “The group now maintains membership in Nebraskans for the Arts and Americans for the Arts. A carefully timed string of press releases go out throughout the year highlighting grants received from Nebraska Arts Council, education program funders, ongoing educational outreach activities, and high school youth participants. Emails are sent to state representatives from the legislative districts in the Omaha area regularly to thank them for their support of funding for the arts and to keep them abreast of our activities.”

 The organization is also taking care of its donors properly—following up with them and making personal contact. “Our grant writing is also a marked change from what we had been doing before,” Hurd says. “The days of writing a simple letter requesting a $500 gift have past. These days, foundations are looking for meaningful projects with quantifiable goals and proof that they won’t be throwing their money away with the organization.  They also like to know who they’re funding and see the results of their financial support.”

“Foundation board members and legislators each receive a personal invitation to attend the annual performance. Although it’s a free concert, we reserve VIP seating for everyone who responds, provide complimentary valet parking, and royal treatment all around. Recognition in the printed program is good, but the impact on donors sitting in the audience is even better.”

After only three years of this concentrated development activity, funded grant applications and gifts have jumped from $1,500 to over $15,000.

Three years to go, and going strong

Halfway into their seven-year “makeover” plan, progress has been strong, Hurd says. The group’s annual budget has grown from $21,000 to the current $33,858 in four years. Most of the additional funds have gone into marketing and into making sure their Messiah orchestra members are paid at union scale.

The group plans to put on a major gala to mark its 50th year, and in preparation, hosted a smaller test run in 2013 for its 45th anniversary. “The response was astounding,” Hurd says. “In the audience was the First Lady of Nebraska, the Mayor of Omaha, four state senators and their families, representatives of all of our foundation supporters, and two former artistic directors.” In recognition of their 45 years of service to the community, Governor Dave Heineman proclaimed November 24, 2014 to be "Voices of Omaha Appreciation Day in Nebraska."

“It has been exciting to see how this little group has transformed itself,” Hurd says, “from something that was essentially anonymous in the community to something that everyone is taking notice of.”

Words to the Wise

Hurd offers these lessons learned from the experience of renovating the Voices of Omaha organization.

Activate and expand your board. With no executive director, Voices of Omaha’s board functions and artistic and administrative functions have traditionally been intertwined. “Sorting through and figuring out our various roles has been an education process,” Hurd says. Chorus America’s resources on management and governance have been a big help to board members, he says.

When expanding the board, Voices of Omaha looked for and found new members with specific skills that the group needed. “We needed a new treasurer,” Hurd says, “and a young accountant in the community who had been to one of our concerts stepped forward and said, ‘I really like what you are doing. I’d like to help.’ Also among the “new guard” are board members with expertise in development and in marketing.

The Voices of Omaha board now operates in the Cloud. Without common office space, working from locations around the city, the organization’s corporate files are stored as Google Docs with access available to the entire board. The website and social media administrators make immediate adjustments and posts to online pages from their mobile devices or desktop computers. The chorus’ email lists and membership registration lists are managed through email provider Constant Contact.

“We are a small group of ten,” Hurd says, “so we know each other well, and it is a really good team environment. I want other people to feel empowered and receive the sense of satisfaction of a job well done. It’s often difficult for me to let go and let folks do their jobs; I have such pride in the organization, sometimes I can’t help kibitzing!”

Start with an ambitious goal and map out the interim steps. “Any group that is in a rut and wants to break out and begin anew needs to start with a lofty goal,” Hurd says. “Then work backwards from there.” Making the process systematic will teach the board and the staff patience, he says. “Our project revealed all of the ways we were weak and we had to strategize how to fix the weaknesses,” he says. “When you lay it carefully on paper and have a strategic plan, you can just follow the plan and adjust as you go. Everything will fall into line, if you follow the plan.”

Measure your progress. Rather than a vague goal such as “We want younger people and more people of diverse ethnic background in our choir and audience,” Voices of Omaha set specific diversity and age distribution goals based on real statistics from the NEA. In fact, the chorus has measureable goals for almost everything which are reviewed annually and articulated in grant application narratives: audience attendance, chorus membership, high school student participation, age distribution of audience and chorus, ethnic distribution of audience and chorus, and, of course, fundraising.

“Vague statements like ‘we hope to have a lot of people come to the performance,’ ‘we plan to do a bunch of marketing,’ ‘a lot of students will get free tickets,’ without any quantifiable goals or corroborating statistics only weaken the grant application,” Hurd explained. “It’s amazing how quickly things come into focus for an organization when measurable goals are set, results are tracked, and strategy adjustments are made from lessons learned based on solid data.”

Remember, everything is interconnected. Making global changes in your organization is complicated. It helps to remember that everything you do is interrelated. “Image impacts on fundraising, on membership, and on audiences,” Hurd says, “and audiences and membership impact on fundraising and your image. They feed off of each other.”

Be transparent. All of Voices of Omaha’s financial statements, board policies and past programs are on their website. “In fact, other non-profits are beginning to copy our website,” Hurd says, “and we didn’t even have a website three years ago.”

Missed Part I of the series? Learn how Voices of Omaha overhauled their images to attract and younger and more diverse community in Part I of the series here.