The Florida Orchestra is showing a new promotional video to audiences before each concert this month. A soft-sell pitch for donations, the video is part of the orchestra's long-term plan to turn March into a special fundraising month every year, much as public radio and television have annual pledge drives.
Michael Pastreich, president of the orchestra, doesn't expect the video to yield a lot in the way of direct support this year. "The concept is that if we do this next year and the year after and the year after that we'll build awareness and over time should penetrate much more deeply into our audience,'' he said.
The main point of the video is that ticket sales cover only 32 percent of operations, leaving the rest to be made up by donations from individuals and foundations, governments and corporations. That is proving to be a challenge during the recession that has hit Florida hard.
"Government and corporate support in particular have just plummeted,'' Pastreich said.
Historically, the Florida Orchestra is no stranger to financial struggles, but in the past two years it has posted balanced budgets, achieved through cuts in management staff and pay, a revised labor contract with musicians that reduced their pay, a disciplined focus on operational efficiencies, and some impressive fundraising.
The budget was reduced from $11.6 million two years ago to $9.3 million this season. But those cuts may not be enough if the orchestra doesn't have a wildly successful fundraising effort over the next three months or so. A deficit of about $600,000 is projected for the fiscal year that closes at the end of June.
"It amazes me how much stronger we've become while the world around us has been in meltdown,'' Pastreich said. "We've balanced our budget the last two years. We've paid off debt. Our cash flow has become stronger. But if we were to have a deficit, a lot of that would be undermined.''
Peter Toomey, a board member and chairman of its development committee, thinks the orchestra has no choice but to cultivate more donors, even in tough times. "The economy is what it is,'' said Toomey, vice president for finance with Progress Energy. "We've just got to go on with life and make our plan work in another way. We would love to solve this on the revenue-raising side rather than on the expense side again. I don't know that there's a lot more to be done on the expense side. We need to stabilize and grow what we count on as the orchestra's base of annual contributors.''
The orchestra has about 2,500 contributors, most making relatively small annual gifts. What makes its need to increase the number of donors urgent is that attendance trends — that is, ticket revenue — are not favorable. From 2007 to 2010, the orchestra's subscription revenue has dropped 19 percent. "The expected revenue from ticket sales is in a long-term cyclical decline,'' Toomey said. "Therefore, we have to become more effective at fundraising.''
A changing landscape
Symphony orchestras around the country are concerned about shrinking audiences because of major shifts in social behavior. "If things don't change, we cannot expect the same trends that sustained us in the past to continue to sustain us,'' said Judith Kurnick, vice president of strategic communications for the League of American Orchestras in New York. "The demographics of the country are changing.''
Kurnick recently wrote a report on research findings that challenge a long-held article of faith among orchestra advocates. "The belief that as people aged and reached their mid 50s and older would sort of drift to orchestras and begin to attend and support is no guarantee anymore,'' she said. "The kind of assumptions that this field operated on are not holding true.''
She identifies "the sea change that the Internet has wrought'' as a reason behind the changes in cultural and leisure activity affecting orchestras. "The next generation doesn't necessarily go out and do things as much,'' she said. "They do a lot more online, particularly when it comes to music and entertainment. So there's a real need for orchestras to look at what their services to the audience and the community are, and what is the value that they add, and are there ways to tweak the delivery and reach people in different ways.''
Other arts organizations face similar problems, though perhaps not as much as symphony orchestras, perceived as stuffy and old-fashioned by several generations who have had little exposure to classical music in school. American Stage, which shares a building with the orchestra's offices in downtown St. Petersburg, is enjoying its best attendance ever, thanks in part to a new theater.
Angela Bond, the theater's development director, needs to raise about $600,000 from contributors this fiscal year, and she notes a change in what corporate sponsors expect for their donations. "In the corporate giving world, it's no longer enough to be seen as a good community citizen,'' she said. "They want more of an advertising impact.''
One aspect of its fundraising campaign that has worked well for American Stage is the 229 Club, which asks supporters to give $229 a year for three years to pay for the theater's new lighting system (it has 229 lighting positions). "You have to find that hook that people will enjoy supporting,'' Bond said.
Pastreich likens fundraising to "pick and shovel work.'' Contrary to myth, it isn't done much on golf courses or at posh parties. "Poor fundraising is done on the telephone or at a cocktail reception,'' the orchestra CEO said. "Good fundraising is done in a very personal, focused setting. One of my major learning moments was when I realized my job on a fundraising call isn't to walk away with a check. My job is to talk about what I'm passionate about and enable you to figure out where we fit in your priorities.''
John Fleming can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8716. He blogs on Critics Circle at blogs.tampabay.com/arts.