The Importance of Collecting Data on Chorus Operations

How You Can Use the Chorus Operations Survey Report

As chorus leaders you make important decisions annually, monthly, even daily, that affect the future of your organization. In doing so, be sure to consider context, both internal and external, as you make your choices. What are other choruses doing? What are others in the broader nonprofit community doing? What have we ourselves been doing and how might we do it better? We discuss how others have used the Chorus America Chorus Operations Survey Report to inform their decisionmaking.

Looking at numbers out of context might be comparable to being asked to sing the next note of a new song without any music in front of you. By itself, a note is just a note—not music. It's all about context.

To help you with this, Chorus America conducts an annual chorus numbers survey and publishes the results in its Chorus Operations Survey Report. Its purpose is to provide chorus members with some context in the choral field to show you how your operational practices and financial capacity compare with other choruses of the same type or budget size.

Many of you already know how useful it is to have access to this information. You routinely refer to the report and share it with your board members. Importantly, you participate by completing and returning the survey questionnaire when asked each year, ensuring that the choral field will continue to have this vital tool.

Others of you choose not to participate for myriad reasons. Perhaps you feel your organization is unique, so a comparison to others would not be useful, or that this data is only for the large-budget choruses. Or, you only have one paid staff member and he's too busy to fill out surveys and analyze data.

I hear you. But I invite you to spend the next few minutes sitting in with me on a planning meeting with the board treasurer and senior staff of my fantasy chorus, the Curious Singers. They are preparing their annual organizational budget, and today's task is to do an evaluative review of their revenue streams.

Shhhhh. They are just getting to the sensitive issue of board giving. Executive director Sue, who is responsible for fundraising as well as general management of the organization, wants to institute the practice of requiring an annual gift from each board member to ensure that there is 100 percent giving. Music director Sam thinks that's a good idea since he knows that some board members did not contribute last year, but he wonders how much to ask for and whether to ask for a specific amount. Treasurer Steve agrees that 100 percent of the board should be giving and suggests that they just choose an amount for the coming year and see how it goes. Sue frowns: This hit-or-miss tactic does not work for her. She pulls out the most recent Chorus Operations Survey Report, correctly recalling that there is a section about boards that might be helpful in their discussion.

Sure enough, on page 6 is the section on board contribution policies. A quick look reveals that 77 percent of all responding choruses have some level of board contribution expectations, with 60 percent suggesting a specific minimum amount. Further discussion ensues as Sue, Sam, and Steve note that the average suggested board contribution in their budget range was around $80. Sue has the budget figures from the last several years handy, so they do some simple math. Even though a few of their 15 board members hadn't contributed, board contributions last year totaled almost $2,000, equating to an average gift of around $130, much higher than the average of $80 in their budget category. While they would be in step with more than three-quarters of responding choruses if they established a board contribution expectation, the report data do not convince them that they should adopt the average amount in their budget category. More information is needed. Sue decides to access another data source, and they all break for lunch.

How Your Colleagues Use Data

While they're at lunch, let me share with you how some other Chorus America members have used the Chorus Operations Survey Report, along with other data sources.

Michelle Hile, executive director of North Carolina Master Chorale, relates that she explores the survey results herself and shares them with her board. A year or so ago, NCMC board member Matt Zemon, whose expertise is in marketing, became particularly engaged over the issue of building a local audience (Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill) for choral music. He called Chorus America. We shared additional data (available to all members upon request) and Matt further enhanced his research by weighting the survey results based upon the population of each peer chorus hometown or region. Matt's presentation to his board compared NCMC with choruses in peer budget size, identifying areas where NCMC was on target, exceeded, or underperformed. "It was very interesting and certainly enlightening," notes Michelle, "though my concern at the time (and still now) is that not all of the member choruses respond to the survey fully or respond at all." So, to supplement the Chorus America data, Michelle consults other sources. "I personally have used to research specific ensembles similar to NCMC, particularly to analyze sources of income/support-events vs. grants vs. admissions."

She is in good company. When Allison McMillan, executive director of Providence Singers (Rhode Island) and her board considered the same question about board giving, she cross-checked her chorus type and budget peers, but also accessed BoardSource to help in their decisionmaking. Allison uses the Chorus Operations Survey Report to "focus in on the most applicable data for my group." Specifically, she consulted the data on chorus dues because the Singers were contemplating changes: What level of dues are members paying? Should they consider an increase or elimination of dues?

Deborah Patel, former executive director of Milwaukee Children's Choir, frequently used the Chorus Operations Survey Report as a discussion tool with board and staff. It served less as a "deciding factor" than as one source among many in MCC's decisionmaking process. Based on the survey data, Deborah liked to point out to her funders that "Our earned revenue ratio was above the national average," but there are categories such as tuition and ticket prices where she did more networking among her peers to get at the "numbers behind the numbers."

Matt Greenberg, executive director of Chicago a cappella, uses the Chorus Operations Survey Report extensively himself, and says "I distributed the entire report to our board and indicated where we fall in each of the areas. It has given us a way to easily let our board understand some areas where we are 'just fine' and others where we 'need some work.' Particularly when we began talking about cash reserves, it was useful to demonstrate how much other choruses in our budget range have in cash reserve as a way to begin framing the discussion."

Priscilla Smith, executive director of Anima (Illinois), says "We use the report to compare ourselves to other like organizations and this sometimes results in a change in our decisionmaking. For instance, we look at ticket prices, tuition rates, and staff salaries and if we feel we are well outside the norm, we determine if we should make adjustments. We also look at earned/contributed income statistics and use this information when working with our board on fundraising issues."

Several of the executive directors I spoke with in researching this article accessed the salary information that is collected and compiled by Chorus America during the survey process—but not published in the report. Matt Greenberg related that this has been useful to Chicago a cappella "as our board deals with the ever-present issue of staff compensation."

So What Did They Decide?

Should Providence Singers increase, decrease, or eliminate their chorus member dues? Allison McMillan found that the majority of choruses in her budget/type peer groups do charge member dues at around the Singers' level; she also looked back at her own figures to determine how long the dues had been at the current level. The result: They chose not to eliminate the dues but to increase them slightly, as dues had not been increased for five years. "The dues issue remains an ongoing question," says Allison. "We will continue to check on what other choruses do and evaluate what is the best path for us."

Did the Chicago a cappella board vote to establish a cash reserve? Matt Greenberg relates that there was "no concrete outcome" yet, but that the discussion "helped the board realize that a cash reserve was something that needed their attention, and that looking at other organizations' situations was a good way to begin measuring success in that area."

And here come the Curious Singers back from lunch. Should they specify an amount for annual board giving? Sue, like Allison McMillan of the Providence Singers, consulted the choral data, her own internal data, and some non-financial nonprofit industry data. Ultimately, both groups chose not to specify a minimum amount, electing rather to require a gift from each board member that is "personally meaningful," while making clear the expectation that their chorus should be among the board member's top giving priorities.

You've gotten the idea by now. There are many sets of data, both financial and non-financial, much of which you possess internally, and some of which are easily available on the internet.

The current Chorus Operations Survey Report can be downloaded for easy circulation to your board and other interested parties from the Publications page of the Chorus America website. The more choruses that participate, the more accurate and meaningful the data will be. As a responsible member of the choral community, I urge you to participate.

Imagine how good you'll feel when you join your colleagues in contributing to the process. All together now: Assemble those data and let your numbers sing!
This article is adapted from the Voice, Summer 2007.