I expect that your choir, like most amateur choirs in my experience, would describe yourselves solely in social or musical terms – and no way as a choir business. This is understandable, but risky. Ensuring the longer-term health and viability of your choir is not much different to that to running a small business.
So, it makes sense to learn from the world of business and use what works there. In this post I have highlighted a few examples, but I expect some of you can think of others – so please join in the discussion by commenting at the bottom of the post.
Strategy and Tactics
Is your choir run by a single person, probably the founder, who does everything? Or do you have a committee whose members discuss all manner of topics from the long-term objectives of the choir to how much to charge for the tickets at the next concert? Business has found that both approaches are flawed. The former because development is limited by time available to the individual and their own skill mix. The latter slows change and progress by mixing management and governance.
Separate governance and management
In the business world you have a Board of Directors who direct the strategy of the company and have legal accountability for it. The Board will consist mainly of executives who have roles in the management of the company, but also can have non-executive members from outside. The operational management of the company are selected by the Board but are left to carry out the day-to-day business tasks without the need to refer everything to the Board.
The same split is relevant to the choir business. I would recommend having a Board that is elected by the choir members and whose responsibility is to direct the strategy and development of the choir. They also, if your choir is a registered charity, will have legal accountability as Trustees as required by the Charity Commission. It would be good to have a spread of skills (financial, marketing, musical etc) in the Board and that they are choir members, but you could bring in non-member Trustees to fill gaps in expertise. It is also very useful to have a choir representative member of the Board to provide member feedback or concerns. Limit the Board to a maximum of about 6 people and you are more likely to be efficient – do not have huge group as nothing gets done.
The operational functioning of the choir business is then carried out by ‘Managers’ who have expertise in a particular function and they are “left to get on with it”. They should be guided in direction by the Board, but do not have to refer every decision to the Board. These include the Musical Director and for example, marketing, recruitment, section heads, social secretary.
So how do I characterise the differences?
Here are some examples:
- High level aims and strategic objectives, for example
- What is the choir purpose?
- Musical style
- Recruitment criteria and strategy (e.g audition or not, need for reading music or not)
- Should we enter competitions?
- Should we tour outside the area?
- How many concerts a year?
- Branding strategy
- Setting budgets for the next 6/12 months and by activity
- Setting the membership fee
- Financial monitoring and reporting to the Charity Commission
- Data privacy, equal opportunities etc policies
- Decide/appoint operational management, including the Musical Director.
- Translate the Board strategies into action, for example
- Concert venue research and selection
- Ticket pricing
- Tour destination identification and costings
- Producing posters
- Placing advertisements in local press and/or on social media
- Musical repertoire selection
- Concert action plans
- Concert administration
- Negotiating with third parties (venues, guest performers, ticketing agencies, printers, transport companies etc)
- Stage management
- Membership administration
- Music Library
- Archive administration
- Social events
Why separate governance and management?
In my experience choir committee meetings love to debate what colour a poster should be or the price of the next concert tickets but rarely give any sort of meaningful time to discussing where the choir is going strategically. That is understandable – it is difficult! But what it means is that the choir never progresses or changes with the times and so may just fade away.
Also, in my experience finding volunteers for the committee is very difficult. Few people want the responsibility, or legal accountability, of being a Trustee. They often think being a member of a committee is going to be a drain on their time, energy and will to live! However, if you ask an individual choir member to carry out a particular task, such as book a venue or arrange printing of a poster, they are more than willing to help. By separating the duties, you can capitalise on that willingness.
The music sub-committee should go
This may be a contentious one!
As you can see from what I have said above, I believe in letting people with the right skills just get on with their job. If they do it well then that’s great and if not, you change the person. Micro-managing in commercial businesses doesn’t work, and that also applies to selecting the music in a choir business.
The person in your choir with the right skills to decide on what items your choir should sing, based on the ‘style’ direction from the Board along with knowledge of the size, balance and capability of the choir is the Musical Director. A good MD will invite opinions from, for example, accompanist and section heads, but should have the final decision.
My advice is to disband your music sub-committee!
Section Heads can be a key to success
In businesses with a reasonable number of employees the role of the team leader or department head is a key one to getting the business strategy translated into results. They provide the communication and motivational channel for decisions from the Board to be converted into action. They also are a feedback route from the ‘front’ back to the Board. I
f you have a reasonable sized choir of, perhaps 20-30 or more members the you would probably benefit from appointing similar roles in your choir business – the Section Heads. They should be the ‘leaders’ in their section – confident but approachable, well organised and computer literate, good communicators and willing to ensure choir communications are cascaded to all members. They should be appointed by the Board on the recommendation of the Musical Director and should be seen as supporting the Board and MD.
Choir business finances
You don’t have to be a professional accountant or financial expert to be the treasurer of the average amateur choir, but it is worth using some of their best practices from business.
Understand your financial health
It can be very tempting to think that the financial health of the choir equates simply to the cash balance in the bank. As any business leader knows, that is just where your bank account is at this point in time and doesn’t directly prove that you should be happy, or unhappy.
You need to understand what costs and incomes can be expected over the next few days, weeks and months. You need to be able to see what the trend in your financial situation is. Then you need to be able to answer questions such as “how much do we profit from a concert?”, “what would the impact of recruiting a new MD?”, “what would be the result of increasing our member fees?”, “how much can we afford on marketing and promotion?”, “what should we set concert ticket price at?” and many more. This means that you have to set financial goals and keep the right sorts of records.
Your financial strategy
In order to know whether you are financially healthy or not you need to set objectives that you can measure and be able to state how you are going to meet those targets. That is what I mean by your financial strategy.
An example of a simple strategy could be:
- Choir membership fees must cover the ongoing running costs of the choir. This means that you need to understand how much it costs to run the choir if all you did was to rehearse and never perform. You then set the choir membership fees at a level that would pay for all that:
- Costs of rehearsal venue
- MD and accompanist fees (for rehearsals)
- Instrument costs
- Concerts must be profitable (either for the choir or for a charitable cause). This means that all the costs of putting on a concert must be more than covered by predicted ticket sales. You then set the ticket price at a level that produces the desired profit level:
- Cost of concert venue
- MD and accompanist fees (concert fees)
- Incremental instrument costs
- Transport costs
- Marketing and promotions costs
- All other activities must be self-funding. This means that, for example, if you have a social event, or go on a choir tour all the incremental costs must be covered by the income, whether it be from member contribution, ticket sales, donations, sponsorship or whatever.
- We will maintain a fund level that covers against unplanned costs and events. To do this you need to identify what may constitute an unplanned event and how much it would cost. It may be the need to replace an aging keyboard, recruit a new MD, find a temporary accompanist. An alternative strategy may be to state that you will maintain a balance that could fund the ongoing costs of the choir for a period (e.g. two years).
The only way you will be able to answer the sort of questions I listed above is by keeping good records.
This does not have to use an expensive accounting application – for most amateur choirs a simple spreadsheet will do.
What you do need to do is record every transaction into and out of your bank account (this is “cash accounting”) with an amount against the date of the transaction. Have columns in your spreadsheet that identify what the transaction was for, in particular split out various cost and income types. It is far easier to put an entry into the correct column at the time than it is to come back to a list of transactions 12 months later and try and work out what they were for.
Make sure that you record each individual transaction – do not ‘lump them together’. So, if you have a number of cheques to put in the bank identify them individually. For example, one could be from a choir member for subscriptions, another could be for concert tickets and you need to be able to analyse these separately against your financial strategies.
If you are a registered Charity then you will also have record keeping needs dictated by the Charity Commission.
If you claim on gift aid, then you will also need to keep sufficient records for that purpose.
If you are going to give individuals managing operational activities the freedom to do their job, as I have advocated, then you need to give them guidelines for what they are to do. In a financial sense this means telling how much they can spend on an activity or how much income is expected from that activity.
For example, for each concert you need to tell the publicity officer how much he or she can spend on promotional activities based on anticipated audience levels and ticket revenue.
To really understand your choir’s financial health, you need to be able to forecast forward. If you have been keeping good records, then you should be able to make a credible estimate for your choir’s income and expenditure over the next year or so. You can then test that forecast against a few variables such as:
- Changing choir membership
- Changing audience numbers
- Increasing costs of venue hire
- Unplanned events such as loss of an MD
In this way you will be able to decide how you might need to prepare for these changes before they happen. If it looks like your choir is running out of money, you can consider where you can cut costs, and where you can increase income before it becomes an emergency.
This might seem a weird way of describing what a choir does, but in many ways the performance of a concert is a product.
Just as a good business continuously develops their products so should your choir. Obviously, this is primarily the responsibility of the MD to action, but does your Board review with him or her, for example, how to improve the quality of singing, the repertoire or even their own personal conducting and tuition skills?
I shall not repeat the content elsewhere on my site, as the majority of my posts have been about using my experience of marketing in the commercial world to help choirs, but you might like to read, for example:
- Understand your target audience
- Why should they come? Build your choir promotion value proposition
- A concert promotion checklist
The choir business
The above are just some areas where I think groups running choirs can benefit from lessons from the commercial world. Have any of you got areas of business experience that lend themselves to running a choir? Please share them in the comments section below.