Thursday, January 30, 2014

All You Have To Do is Ask

What do you do with a season you had no hand in planning and a marketing budget that isn’t yours? You listen carefully to those around you, and you unapologetically ask for whatever you want. When I joined the Gay Men’s Chorus of Washington in the fall of 2013 as Executive Director, I was handed a program, a budget, and hundreds of supportive friends in our chorus family.

Not two weeks into the job did our volunteer chorus president approach me with a request (the first of many, I would soon learn).  JP asked if the chorus could sponsor a viewing party of the NBC Live Broadcast of The Sound of Music. He wanted to do something special for the members to boost morale and keep them engaged. “Sure,” I replied, “just don’t spend any money.” This probably isn’t the answer he was looking for, but I quickly learned that JP is both tenacious and creative. Since he didn’t get exactly what he wanted from me, he pulled the oldest trick in the book and asked someone else.

JP and one of GMCW's members (Ryan) who works for NBC Universal immediately put their heads together. Ryan put JP in touch directly with the decision makers and was instrumental in pushing internally for NBC's participation. The original ask was if NBC Universal would be willing to provide some small giveaways for our chorus party what was to be built around the live broadcast. Their response surprised us.

As it turns out, NBC wanted to get more in front of the gay market in promoting their live musical, so they turned the tables and asked for our help. We gladly agreed to help make some connections with other LGBT choruses interested in the same kind of thing, and NBC gave us the go ahead to make our event a bit bigger.

Taking a nod from JP’s playbook, I called up the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities, with NBC behind me, and asked if we could use a historic theatre to host a public viewing party of the broadcast. The city, to our surprise and delight, said this is exactly the kind of programming they want to fund, and gave us some money to help put on the event. We quickly rallied the chorus members to don nuns habits and act as ushers and carolers, convinced some friends in the press to give us free promotion leading up to the event, and despite one technical glitch, hosted a really fun and memorable evening for an audience that wasn’t completely familiar with our chorus until then.

The event itself, however, did not stand alone. Our upcoming holiday concert featured the same nuns singing the Hallelujah Chorus. Our March musical will be Von Trapped, a smart gay parody on the Sound of Music. And with a stroke of good timing, Laura Benanti (who starred as Frau Schr├Ąder in the NBC Version) will be our guest singer in May. 

Not only are JP and Ryan tenacious, they think ahead. We were able to create a marketing through-line for our three biggest shows, reach new audience members through a non-traditional event, and deepen our relationship with the city agency responsible for funding the arts. 

I first learned an important mantra in fundraising, and now see its application in every aspect of an organization: all you have to do is ask.

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