How Three Grant Recipients Engaged Their Audiences Cost-Effectively

Recipient: Evanston Symphony Orchestra, Gilloury Institute: Silk Road Rising, Chicago Chamber Musicians
Challenge: Rather than “do more with less,” these groups wanted do more with what they already had in order to engage their audiences under a poor economy.
Solution: Tap into existing resources; give to the audience in ways that give back.
Results: Richly varied and positive: The Chicago Chamber Musicians had 1,273 unique site visitors the month it rolled out an asset‐based incentive. Evanston Symphony Orchestra swapped a soloist encore for hundreds of e‐mail addresses belonging to people who suppor
Impact: All three groups are ramping up asset‐based audience engagement practices and have gained organization‐wide buy in for cost‐effective new media tools.
AWF Support Six grants to three groups totaling $55,500.

The Project:

While many nonprofits take a “wait and see” approach to the economy or struggle to “do more with less,” others question the conventional wisdom and grim adages of these recessionary times. By creatively using existing assets and resources, arts organizations can take audience engagement and donor development to new levels in the digital age.

Silk Road Theatre Project, which showcases playwrights of Asian, Middle Eastern and Mediterranean backgrounds, knew it could not afford to wait out the recession. Instead, it made some difficult, short‐term budget cuts while borrowing a best practice from larger institutions – the use of third‐party endorsements. Silk Road produced a series of testimonial videos starring its own donors, who describe what Silk Road means to them in compelling, personal terms that go far beyond what the organization could ever say about itself.

This not only left Silk Road free to focus its annual appeal on recent successes and future plans, it completely changed the tone of the ask, and the audience loved it: People who received the appeal letter with a web link to the videos spent almost twice as long watching them as those who clicked through via an e‐newsletter. Several even called to thank Silk Road for taking a refreshingly positive approach. When Silk Road used an existing resource – its donors – to make a credible, heartfelt case for support, the organization saw a 90% increase in annual fund income and a 36% increase in the number of donors.

Grammy finalist The Chicago Chamber Musicians also creatively merged a best practice with existing resources. It knew that increased exposure to chamber music is a proven way to grow an audience. To get there, the ensemble took something it already had – a vast library of recorded music – and gave some of it away, in the form of one free download per month. This approach is paying dividends online – the incentive helped grow the e‐newsletter subscriber base by 44 percent since January 2008 – and in the concert hall, where one of its free concerts drew its largest audience in 14 years.

Evanston Symphony Orchestra turned this website‐to‐concert‐seat pathway on its head, using the energy and excitement of a live concert to drive supporters to its website, where it can cost‐effectively cultivate them between performances. This 64‐year‐old community orchestra had tried several traditional and e‐marketing techniques that fell flat. But when it offered to call a soloist out for an encore – again, a

resource that it already had – if at least 200 people signed up for the e‐newsletter during intermission, a motivated audience responded with 282 e‐mail addresses, including 78 that were completely new to the group, and 47 for patrons whose database records were missing an e‐mail address. To communicate with them, Evanston Symphony Orchestera makes the most of art in the age of digital reproduction: It made a one‐time investment in design services, so that its volunteers can reformat and reuse digital images, creating high‐quality e‐mails that reinforce the organization’s brand and identity, without imposing new costs.

The Arts Work Fund invests in the financial sustainability, management, governance and growth capacities of small arts and cultural organizations located in the Chicago metropolitan region.

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