The Managers’ Dance: Choreographing Engagement

Editorial note: This spring we asked several members of Dance/USA committees and the board to provide their personal take on the four program envelopes that will be offered at “Design It. Dance It: Be the Architect of Your Future,” the July 2011 conference: Management, Artistry, Technology, and Audience Engagement. Here Harris Ferris, executive director of Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre urges that managers re-commit themselves to cultivating and engaging those volunteers closest to their companies with old-fangled communication skills rather that hot technology applications. In coming weeks, these articles will help ignite your thought processes to get you ready for the conference.

With the July 2011 Dance/USA conference in Chicago focused on designing our future, we are being asked: “What will managers in the future need to succeed?” Command of the rapid changes in technology, social media, the generational shifts in marketing behavior, and the volatile funding picture are white-hot topics on the agenda. But amid the intensity to embrace and understand the new, it is worthwhile to consider enduring dynamics that apply to an old yet evergreen story: the care and feeding of a volunteer patron base. With an eye toward continuous improvement in how we manage relationships and cultivate commitment from patrons, it is worth reviewing – and recommitting to – skills that have always made a difference in forging strong relationships with our most dedicated supporters: our volunteer boards and regular donors.

It’s not a new idea that people want to be heard and share their unique connection to the art form and the organization that disseminates that art. It can be rewarding and fun to hear stories from your donors,  board, and audience. Asking the right questions and showing interest in the answers is a conversational skill that gets better with practice. Within the pressure cooker intensity of maintaining a dance company, no matter how large or small, which seems normal to many of us, many managers are striving to carve out moments of relative tranquility for meaningful reflection and the fostering of individual feedback from those closest to us. Sometimes just asking your board or volunteers for their opinion, even if you don’t follow their advice, can be immensely meaningful and may reap rewards down the road.

Our uniquely American system of civic engagement through volunteerism and philanthropy is the cornerstone of a sector that employs 10 percent of America’s workforce, constitutes 5.5 percent of U.S. GDP, and controls combined assets of $4.3 trillion (according to The Independent Sector, a consortium of charities, foundations, and corporate-giving programs). Volunteers gave 8.1 billion hours at an estimated value of $169 billion in 2009. It can be very exciting for managers to discern and foster the often deeply personal commitments and meanings that our organizations, our missions, and our art hold for these committed stakeholders.

Capturing the imagination of our donors and drawing them into our community of the dance is, of course, a never-ending objective. Listening, we hear clues about what will likely resonate for specific individuals and audiences. With this knowledge we design experiences and strengthen bonds. This strategy is now successfully expanding with the clever deployment of technology and new media.

In Chicago next month, dance managers of member organizations will convene in a cross council with trustees from around the country to once again take on the topic of board engagement. The next day, July 16, 2011, a recap of this conversation with time for more discussion will be open to all from 11:45 a.m. to 12:45 p.m.

As managers we, too, are choreographers striving to get everyone into the dance. What kinds of new steps will we discover in Chicago? I am looking forward to the discussion.

Harris Ferris is completing his fifth season as executive director of Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre, where he has helped lead the 42-year organization toward increased fiscal and artistic strength. Since taking the reins in FY 2007, a perilous trend of deficit operations have been replaced with consecutive annual operating surpluses, the accumulated deficit has been reduced by 30 percent and the company has taken on several milestone artistic projects, including Jean-Christophe Maillot’s Romeo & Juliet, the U.S. premiere of Derek Dean’s Alice in Wonderland and next season’s U.S. premiere of John Neumeier’s A Streetcar Named Desire. Ferris is credited with restoring PBT’s Orchestra, which had been eliminated in the 2005-06 season. Ferris was previously executive director at the Las Vegas-based Nevada Ballet Theatre and was managing director of Princeton New Jersey’s American Repertory Ballet. A former professional ballet dancer, Ferris holds a BA from SUNY Buffalo and an MBA from Rutgers University. Married with dog and cat, Ferris is an avid horseback rider, skier and biker and enjoys all manner of recreational dancing.


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