PSO is fundraising in the midst of a strike by musicians
November 12, 2016 12:22 AM
A billboard for the Pittburgh Symphony Orchestra stands Friday in Lawrenceville.
Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra musicians picket outside of Heinz Hall in late October.
By Elizabeth Bloom / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
The Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra’s work stoppage is now more than six weeks old, and even as seats at Heinz Hall remain empty, the orchestra’s administration is trying to fill the coffers.
In recent weeks, the organization mailed annual fund appeals to patrons, solicited gifts through billboards that otherwise would have marketed concerts and posted open telesales positions on the websites LinkedIn and Craigslist.
“As you have probably heard, the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra faces a critical financial crisis,” the mailing said. “We are appealing to the community to help be a part of the solution. The best way to support this historic institution, its musicians, its community impact, and its iconic home — Heinz Hall — is through the Annual Fund. Join us in our vision of providing Great Music in Every Life by making a gift today. Every gift makes a difference. Thank you!”
PG graphic: Other orchestra labor disputes (Click image for larger version)
The musicians and management have returned to the negotiating table and are currently in a media blackout. A spokeswoman for PSO management confirmed that the end-of-year fundraising efforts started earlier than usual — the mailings, which went out on Nov. 2, typically are sent in early December — although she would not comment on the timing.
Continuing to raise money during work stoppages is common, ensuring the orchestra remains at the top of donors’ minds even if those patrons decide against giving, said Drew McManus, a Chicago-based arts consultant.
“The only thing that’s unusual when it comes to annual fundraising during a work stoppage is when an organization shuts down those efforts entirely,” said Mr. McManus, who writes about the orchestra industry for the blog Adaptistration. “Even in the worst work stoppages, everybody assumes you’ll be back to work eventually, and if that’s the case you’re going to need to raise money for that.”
Development efforts during labor disputes are “almost always lower than what the projected goals were before the work stoppage started,” he said, especially since donors often withhold their gifts to see how the matter is resolved. Once orchestra activity resumes, it is more difficult and expensive to raise funds anew, he said.
Continuing to seek gifts during work stoppages allows organizations to stave off basic cash flow problems, and, somewhat counterintuitively, to show how difficult their financial prospects are if they don’t get strong returns on those efforts. Mr. McManus assumed that the PSO is simply trying to keep business going at Heinz Hall and prepare for its own post-strike fundraising realities.
“You can’t turn off fundraising without that hurting the organization far more in the long run than not, so you have to keep those efforts going even if those revised fundraising goals are lower than the original estimates,” he said.
Fundraising is a significant component of every non-profit organization’s budget, and ticket sales represent about a quarter of the PSO’s revenue. Growing the donor base is a major piece of the administration’s strategy going forward, and it has had some success in recent years, posting a record-breaking annual fund drive during the 2015-16 season.
But as the organization’s audits show, the PSO board and management historically have engaged in some self-cannibalization, dealing with immediate shortfalls by reconstituting large restricted donations that could have shored up the organization’s endowment. For example, in 2012, one board member allowed the PSO to borrow a $5 million restricted gift, on the condition that it eventually be paid back to the endowment.
Now, as the labor strife continues for a seventh week, both sides are attempting to steer the course of the fundraising conversation. Musicians have urged supporters who are interested in donating to the union to write to PSO vice president of development Jodi Weisfield and president and CEO Melia Tourangeau instead.
“Tell them that you would like to donate to the Pittsburgh Symphony, but you are withholding your gift until management agrees to a fair contract for the Musicians!” the musicians, who have been on strike since Sept. 30, wrote on their website.
In the meantime, the administration continues to reach out to patrons.
“They’ve been after us, there’s no question about that,” said symphony subscriber Jane MacLeod, a strong supporter of the musicians’ cause.
While she typically donates each year, the Point Breeze resident had already decided against making a gift before the strike began because she was disappointed by what she felt was conservative programming for the planned season. The labor strife has left her even less inclined to donate, and when she received a call from the PSO asking for a gift, she used it as an opportunity to express her concerns about the orchestra’s management and programming.
Alice Gelormino, a subscriber who has been walking on the picket line with musicians, has not pulled back on her recurring gifts to the organization, but she plans to make a larger donation once she sees what deal the two sides reach.
“I will give once the musicians have reached a settlement that is worthy of what they deserve,” the Shadyside resident said.
She also wondered whether donors would want to support the PSO at a time when the orchestra’s board “is trying to move in a different direction with the symphony” and shrink musicians’ salaries.
“They’re making it sound like a sinking ship,” she said. “People don’t want to jump on board a sinking ship.”
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