HomeBuilding An A Cappella Organization, Not Just A Group

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When I first joined my collegiate a cappella group, I joined to sing. Plain and simple, I wanted to sing with a talented group of ladies. It wasn’t long, however, before I realized how much more there was in the a cappella world. Within months, the ensemble wanted to tour, compete, record, collaborate. We needed money and that’s all I knew and focused on as I came into the Presidency of the group – we needed to fundraise. So we started selling t-shirts, performing at local restaurants, and focusing on revenue-generating workshops. The group forged ahead with little planning or evaluation, and it showed. One might describe it as “living paycheck to paycheck.” Having gained new perspective as an arts administrator, however, I now call this “living as a group, not as an organization.”

Thus, the start of this new series – Building an A Cappella Organization, Not Just a Group. Contemporary a cappella is built in a rich choral tradition with strong music theory roots. Moreover, it is rare that an ensemble only performs. I frequently see semi-professional and professional groups making a difference in schools and communities, plastering communities with posters, filling up our newsfeeds with performance events. So why don’t more a cappella ensembles organize themselves as a legitimate performing arts organization? This series will teach ensemble leadership the basics in educational outreach, community engagement, artistic programming, development (not just fundraising), marketing, and more. But first, we’ll start with the basics: mission and vision statements, SWOT analysis, strategic planning, evaluation, establishing a board of directors, and incorporation. Whether you’re starting your own group or looking to enhance the administrative leadership of a group that has been singing for years, this article will be a good foundation for the bare bones of creating a well-functioning organization.


•    Why? The mission statement is the purpose of the organization – it details what the organization is designed to do, its place in the community. Mission statements serve as an affirmation point and can be used to dictate whether the current operations of an organization are necessary. As a side note, when applying for grants and/or asking for individual contributions, money is rarely awarded to organizations without at least a mission statement.

•    What to do? As for the mission, keep it short, clear, and measurable. Making music will likely be everyone’s primary focus, but choose a secondary focus on and operate the organization to fulfill the mission statement.  And MAKE IT VISIBLE! Put it on your website home page, on your Facebook, your letterhead, EVERYTHING!

-Good Example? The mission of the Fairfax Symphony Orchestra is:
To explore and present the symphonic repertoire, both traditional and modern, for the diverse audiences of the Northern Virginia region while building the musicians and audiences of the future through education and outreach programs throughout Fairfax County.

Why is it good? This is extremely clear and measurable. In measuring, almost everything can be answered with a yes or no. Is the orchestra performing traditional and diverse symphonic repertoire? Is the audience diverse? Is the younger audience growing? Are we reaching out to schools and communities in the county? This mission will easily help guide the operations and strategic planning of the organization.

•    How can this work for a cappella? Consider the aims of your a cappella group. What does the group value? And more importantly, what does your community need? For instance, I currently work for a symphony orchestra in a community where music education is actually highly valued and there are many opportunities in the school district. As such, the orchestra can focus on audience development and financial health, and on proving the economic impact the orchestra has on the community. So here are some thoughts, depending on your group and community:

o    To perform a diverse repertoire of contemporary a cappella music in a highly artistic style.
o    To educate students at schools in the county on the art form of contemporary a cappella.
o    To provide highly artistic contemporary a cappella performances to a growing and diverse audience.
o    To strengthen the economy of our community through enhanced tourism and increasing business at local shops, restaurants, and hotels.
o    To develop financially sound operations.


•    Why? Vision statements are also key factors in determining the operations of an organization and measuring whether or not the tactics an organization uses meets not only the mission, but also the vision. A vision statement declares the foremost goal(s) of the organization for the future. To create a vision statement, consider the following:
o    Why is your mission your mission? What is it designed to do?
o    What are the values of the organization and the community?

•    Going Forward: With these answers in mind, formulate words together until you find a fitting vision statement. One of my favorites – simple and, again, measurable, comes from the Annapolis Symphony Orchestra: “To be a leading artistic treasure in Maryland and a national model for regional orchestras.”

•    For consideration: Here are some thoughts for possible vision statements for a contemporary a cappella ensemble:
o    To be the foremost vocal arts organization in the ________ community
o    To be a musical leader in the contemporary a cappella field

SWOT Analysis

•    Huh? For those unfamiliar with this, SWOT stands for “strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats.” In evaluating the needs of an organization and community, this is a 100% necessary first step. For some organizations, it may even be beneficial to do this before establishing a mission and/or vision statement. Delving a little deeper, it’s important to understand what each step of the SWOT actually stands for. So:

o    Strengths: These are the internal strengths of the organization. What benefits do you have? Skilled graphic design artist? Strong history with a recording artist? Great financial development tactics?
o    Weaknesses: These are the internal weaknesses. For instance, what does the organization lack? Does the group lack a skilled web designer? Are finances low? Does your repertoire leave audiences bored?
o    Opportunities: These are the external opportunities of the organization. Look outside the group – is there an untapped demographic to be targeted for marketing purposes? Is there a concert series looking for an additional recurring artist ensemble? Is there a performance space that looks for contemporary performers to join the ranks?
o    Threats: These are also external. Are there other a cappella groups that are competition? Is the recession hindering the arts community beyond a point of repair?

•    How? I suggest putting this in a survey format (with guiding questions – individuals tend to confuse strengths with opportunities and threats with weaknesses). Next give this survey to board members, administrative staff, and perhaps outsiders that know some about the organization but may be less biased about the operations from an outsider’s perspective.

•    Next? Analyze the information – look for patterns in the answers, there are always patterns. I suggest then pairing strengths with weaknesses, strengths with opportunities, strengths with threats – and so on, combining all parts of the SWOT. Use this to establish the operations of the organization, leading in the creation of a strategic plan.


•    Why? Far too often, groups go blindly into a “season” (which, many a cappella ensembles may not even have established seasons) without any idea as to where it will be performing in the next three months, who will be in charge of setting up education initiatives, or how performances will be promoted. Strategic plans are formal, thorough documents that set an organization up for success. A good strategic plan maps out the operations of the organization for the next 3-10 years. They include timelines on the main thrusts for the organization, and include who will be responsible for certain tasks.

•    What’s in it? Depending on the mission and vision statement, some of the “thrusts”
found in a strategic plan may include: performances, educational outreach, audience development, financial development, CD production.

o    Then what? Each of these areas include specific goals, timelines, and personnel. For instance, in the educational outreach category, the overarching goal may be “to create a collection of lesson plans depending on grade level, and to extend our reach to schools in (whatever the next county over may be).” As such, over the next three years, you may have a Director of Education that coordinates with local teachers to draw up lesson plans for certain grades. In the next five years, that Director of Education may be responsible for establishing communication with schools in the nearby county to research the possibilities of presenting workshops to the students there and offering free/discounted tickets to students that attend an upcoming concert.

•    Evaluation! In arts organizations, I consider two forms of evaluation – on-the-spot evaluation and post-evaluation (these aren’t official terms, but they help me better understand the two necessities of evaluation).

o    On-the-Spot: This evaluation is part of the strategic planning process – evaluating the means by which a certain aspect of the organization is established, implemented, etc. For instance, in striving for a diverse board that is a good representation of the community, organizations evaluate the board composition by recruiting board members based on occupation, age, gender, income, race, etc. As members are recruited, certain requirements for board composition are crossed off the list. Other organizations look to evaluate their repertoire. For an a cappella ensemble looking for a diverse repertoire, it may look to fulfill categories such as classical choral pieces, pieces from other cultures, pieces from a variety of genres (country or jazz), pieces from different time periods, etc. Then, the ensemble may program the pieces for adequate representation at each performance.
o    Post-Evaluation: When a strategic plan is created, well established goals with well-thought procedures may not result in the kind of success intended. It is important, at that time, to evaluate the effectiveness of – let’s say – the marketing technique being used if it does not result in higher audience turnout after a few months. Evaluate the effectiveness, survey your audience, survey the target market, and discover what worked and what didn’t. Make adaptations to your strategic plan from there.

•    Evaluation and adaptation are necessary for the survival of any arts organization. In the 1970’s, a marketing genius named Danny Newman wrote what became the bible for selling subscriptions, Subscribe Now! His book caused 100’s of arts organizations to fully subscribe their halls and establish a loyal audience. While many of Danny Newman’s methods may still work, most of the procedures in his book are no longer plausible, and the book does not account for the changing lifestyle and values of our culture today. Those organizations that now refuse to adapt are now performing for 70% empty seats. Make sure your strategic plan allows room (and plans for) evaluation and is easily adaptable, and that your personnel understands the importance of adaptation.


*A great source for easy-to-understand information on boards: http://www.scoreknox.org/library/board.htm

•    Why? In my experience, it is best to have an administrative staff with the skills and knowledge to carry out the strategic plan and operations, while a diverse board of directors constantly evaluates the mission and strategic plan, and serves as a liaison from the organization to the community. I have seen many boards in which the board also fulfills the administrative tasks – that’s alright sometimes, but I’ve seen it result in huge areas lacking in skill or knowledge. Moreover, the board ensures adequate resources and helps to manage those resources, to monitor and evaluate the programs and operations, to enhance the organization’s image in the community, and to ensure legal and ethical integrity.

•    Who? Often, an organization’s board of directors is comprised of people with time and resources to spare in order to strengthen and promote the organization within a community. Board members often come from wealth and donate that wealth to an organization. Some organizations even have a donation requirement for board members. When selecting board members, it is important that individuals that want to be involved are strategically targeted and that face-to-face communication is made. A relationship must be built between the organization and the individual. Consider the following when looking for board members:

o    Skill sets, knowledge of field
o    Wide range of contacts within the community – can open doors to various opportunities (corporate sponsorships, donors, in-kind donors)
o    Genuine interest in the organization
o    Can operate without bias and are open to adaptation
o    Positive teamwork skills
o    Willing to donate significant time to the organization
o    Can recruit other board members and volunteers
o    Able to communicate effectively with potential donors, sponsors, and board members

•    Finally: The board of directors should be well-informed of its duties, and the individual board members should be well-informed of their specific responsibilities. The board should use proper parliamentary procedure. The head of the administrative staff should serve as an ex-officio member of the board, and the board should be willing to hear the input from the very knowledgeable administrative staff.

INCORPORATION: Becoming an official 501(c)3

•    Why? The most important reason for filing as a 501(c)3 is that donations then become tax-deductible. This serves as a perk to potential donors for your organization. Also, the organization is then exempt from business income and property taxes.

•    How? Here’s what you need to do:
o    Form a mission statement
o    Develop the board of directors
o    File Articles of Incorporation – these are an official statement of creation filed with the appropriate state agency. The articles protect the board and staff from legal liabilities by making the organization the holder of debt and liabilities. Contact your state Attorney General or state Secretary for information on your own state’s requirements.
o    Draft bylaws, commonly formatted as: name, mission, membership, board of directors, committees, procedures for amending bylaws, date bylaws were adopted by the board. I suggest collaboration between staff and board for this.
o    Draft a budget (if new, draft a potential income)
o    Develop a strategic plan
o    Conduct a SWOT analysis
o    Established vision, values, goals, objectives, strategies, and programs
o    Develop a record-keeping system of financial documents and board minutes
o    Develop an accounting system – if you don’t have this skill within the staff or board, work with an outside accountant familiar with non-profits
o    File for 501(c)3 status – obtain Form 1023 and Publication 557 from the local IRS office – you may need an attorney’s help, these are important legal documents
o    Obtain an Employee Identification Number (even if the organization does not have employees)/ Federal ID number. This is used to identify the organization when tax documents are filed. It’s best to apply for this after incorporation, or you’ll have to reapply for a new number. Use Form SS-4.
o    File for local and state tax exemption – the organization may apply for income, sales, and property tax exemption. Contact the state, county, municipal, or local Department of Revenue, as well as county or municipal clerk’s office.
o    Fulfill charitable solicitation law requirements – Often, a permit is required by local and/or state government for fundraising. This is in the form of a permit or license, and requires the filing of an annual report and financial statement. Contact the state Attorney General, Department of Commerce, state and local Department of Revenue, or the county/municipal Department of Revenue for more information.
o    Apply for a non-profit mailing permit – 2nd and 3rd class mailings for non-profits are greatly reduced (important for mass mailings). Contact the U.S. Postal Service and ask for Publication 417.

•    This is a lot to do – it’s important to plan well ahead and to have various people of various skill sets available to assist in this task. But once established as a 501(c)3, it will be well worth the money-saving and fundraising benefits.

Completing the basics of forming a non-profit organization is an extremely difficult task. I always suggest that individuals collaborate with local arts organizations on how to go about all of this – from forming a mission statement to filing for 501(c)3 status. In the near future, I will have more information on how to operate once the organization is officially founded, and I hope that you will utilize these documents as helpful resources for running a financially and administratively sound organization. Lastly, if your organization needs assistance with coordinating the process, please do not hesitate to contact me at erin.shults@gmail.com.

About the writer:
Erin Shults got her start in contemporary a cappella eight years ago as a member of the award-winning co-ed high school group, BeyondMeasure at Dryden High School in New York.  From there, Erin continued her a cappella participation as a member of Ithaca College's only all-female group, Premium Blend.  While in college, Erin became an avid arranger and presided over Premium Blend in her senior year.  As the group's president, Premium Blend released their third studio album, "Ten," which received a CARA nomination and made its way onto CASA's "Top 10 Female Albums of 2010" list.  She graduated from Ithaca College in 2010 with a Bachelor's degree in Music and a minor in Speech Communication. At SoJam 2010, Erin presented a workshop on all-female group management, served on the first ever "I Am Woman" panel, and was a clinician for a masterclass.  Currently, Erin is finishing up her Master of Arts degree at the Florida State University College of Music, where she studies Arts Administration. She has assisted the Tallahassee Community Chorus and Pensacola Symphony Orchestra in various audience development and community engagement endeavors, and currently serves the Tallahassee Civic Chorale as the Executive Director.