Why Nonprofits Need to Make Authentic ConnectionsBy David Devan |
If you were lucky enough to live in Philadelphia in 2008, chances are that you remember being a part of the celebration of the Phillies winning the World Series.
I was a transplant from Canada and have always loved baseball, and since the festivities were happening right in front of the Academy of Music, we closed the Opera Company offices and most of us headed out to Broad Street to enjoy the parade with friends.
I remember the sense of community that unified our city that day. Everyone had something in common: pride. The entire city rallied around and reveled in our hometown team having proven itself the best in class.
So…what does this historic moment have to do with opera?
Everything. And it’s not only opera — I believe there was a lesson in that frenzied celebration for any organization that wants to thrive in the new millennium.
The reality of our economy today is that no institution, whether for or nonprofit, has the luxury of feeling entitled to exist anymore. We live in a world where competition for resources and — even more precious to some — our time, is at an all-time high. Holding on to our current support base in today’s climate is difficult enough, but expansion requires that we do our jobs with high levels of flexibility and resilience, and challenge even the most basic assumptions about our business models.
When I arrived at the Opera Company of Philadelphia in 2006, our primary goal was to produce large-scale opera at the Academy of Music. The core of our mission was to make great moments come to life on stage.
This is, of course, still our focus — except that we have removed any preconceived notions on where those great moments might unfold. Our mindset has shifted toward how we can authentically connect with audiences in Philadelphia — wherever they may be – and provide them with music and education experiences that truly enhance their lives. How can we make people feel uplifted, and channel a sense of shared experience? How can we inspire passion and pride?
We had already been working in this direction when, in 2010, we experienced an institutional game-changer. As part of the “Random Acts of Culture” program, funded by the Knight Foundation, we had worked with Macy’s and gathered over 600 singers from our community, anchored by the Opera Company of Philadelphia Chorus, to perform the “Hallelujah Chorus” with the famed Wanamaker Organ. We chose an iconic Philadelphia location, because connecting this moment to our city was important for us. As the video racked up — literally — millions of views, we received calls from national press outlets and industry peers to do interviews about it. Perhaps more importantly, however, was that people in our own community became more aware of us – and in the best and most sincere possible way: as an organization that can bring music to your everyday life and lift you up with a smile. They were proud that we were based here in Philly.
We’ve now done over 80 “Random Acts” in the community over two years — largely in Philadelphia-centric locations like Reading Terminal Market, the new Barnes Foundation, and the Please Touch Museum, to name a few. But that’s just a piece of the puzzle.
Around this time, we began in earnest to find new, user-friendly entry points that would allow people to become familiar with opera. We created a free public broadcast of opening night on Independence Mall that drew over 5,500 registrants our first time out in 2011. We provided over 7,000 adults with informal talks or free, downloaded podcasts last year to make learning about opera fun. And if your school doesn’t include any of the 5,500 students going through our formal Sounds of Learning music education program, then we’re still happy to come out and provide music education for your classroom. We’ll even break down a scene from “Dreamgirls,” and show your students why it mirrors an aria from Puccini’s Cavalleria rusticana, or explain how opera singers project without the microphones that pop stars use.
The beautiful reality is that when we made the Philadelphia community a priority and placed it right alongside our desire to produce great opera on stage, we started touching twice as many individuals each season. And that’s without taking into account the millions of social media views and shares that we have garnered globally.
Of course, none of this would be effective if we weren’t simultaneously working to ensure that our onstage product was creative and deeply engaging. Fostering up-and-coming composers, committing to new American operas annually, producing cutting edge chamber works as part of our main season — all of these programs have translated into a visceral energy that our audience seems to feel and embrace.
There are no magic bullets in the nonprofit sector today — we will continue to face challenges. In opera, even when we sell every seat in the house, we still need to raise roughly 70% of our annual budget through fundraising from individuals, corporations, and foundations. But as a person who has chosen to make Philadelphia my home, I feel that our success begins and ends with meaningful connections in our community. And this fall, when we host our Opera on the Mall broadcast of La bohème at Independence Mall, I won’t be surprised to see that same Philadelphia spirit experiencing the opera that I saw cheering on the Phillies in 2008. And once that spirit pervades an organization, there’s no stopping it.
General Director David B. Devan has led the Opera Company of Philadelphia since 2006.
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