Membership Has Its Privileges: The Institute of Music Reframes Its Narrative to Build Community

November 21, 2011

Today’s blog by the Institute of Music for Children shares an important lesson in making sure that your members  and audiences truly understand the value of the services you provide. We think you will find it a very useful reminder.

By Alysia Souder
Executive Director
The Institute of Music for Children

In the spring of 2010, the Institute of Music for Children was deep into its first ever Strategic Planning process, examining all its programs top to bottom with management consultant Alissa Baratta. The results were perplexing. Despite years of offering top quality arts instruction at significantly discounted prices and receiving consistently outstanding evaluations from students and parents, pre-registration was slow, revenue was down, and student attendance was erratic.

Alissa pointed out that our Summer Institute program, scheduled to begin in just a few short weeks, only had 11 students registered. “That’s not enough to make it worthwhile,” she told a quiet room. “You should consider dropping it.”

The Institute had begun 15 years before with that summer program; the community relied on it for affordable arts training in a safe environment. It was also our favorite program to run, not to mention it was core to the DNA of the Institute.

We simply could not drop it and stay true to our mission.

It was also our biggest expense, and it looked like it might lose significant dollars this year. “They’ll come. They always do,” said long-time Board members. “That’s fine,” Alissa said. “But if your community doesn’t understand the value of the programs enough to register early, you’ve got to make them understand.”

She was right.

Our average cost per client was $210 per semester, yet we charged only $96 and never made sure the families heard about the discount they were getting. We assumed they knew. But it went beyond mere numbers. We assumed they understood that we paid teachers even when students did not attend. We even assumed they realized the Institute was a non-profit organization – and that they appreciated what that meant. We all know what happens when we assume. We realized that we needed to fundamentally change the way we talked about our work.

In the fall of 2010, we developed the Membership Program as an effort to educate and inform our community. Member families would receive the discounted tuition, but more importantly, they would gain a true appreciation for the complete range of our work and multiple opportunities to invest in an organization about which they cared. In exchange, Members would pay an annual fee of $50 per student, offer one hour of volunteer time per semester, and commit to help the Institute raise an additional $50.

There was risk here. Rules were changing. Expectations were rising. Price per family was actually going up (repeating families were grandfathered into the Membership Program without fee for the first semester). Yet right from the start, our families responded to the challenge. New families immediately saw the value of the Institute plan, and sought out ways to get involved. Returning families understood the necessity of the changes and appreciated the opportunity to get more involved with the Institute as a whole. Clearly, we had been undervaluing our services.

We expanded the service, holding a series of Parents Meetings to explain the program. We talked about the Institute as a whole (particularly the 400 students we served offsite, whom many of our Member families never got to meet). We emphasized the importance of regular attendance and home practice. We offered assistance and support for families with transportation challenges and other practical issues. And we gave context to the financial math involved in our classes, and our mission to provide the best in arts education without regard to the ability of a family to pay.

As the summer approached, we waited with bated breath. Would our year-long experiment show real results? Were we still an assumed community offering? At the year anniversary of our Board Retreat, we parsed the numbers: 70 pre-registered students, including many students from the afterschool classes! Tuition deposits had been made, and we were on track for over 100 students in the program—by far our largest Summer Institute ever. We were relieved, elated, and too busy to think about any of it as we dove into setting up the program for all those kids.

As we move into 2012, enrollment in the Membership program has reached more than 95%, and families are communicating more regularly with us and with each other. Attendance has improved, particularly in our private lessons, with students arriving on time, carrying music that they had practiced at home. Parents stay longer at the Institute, stopping to talk with other Member families and to form social bonds amongst themselves. Enrollment is up more than 30%, too. Fundraising results have waivered, especially in these tough economic times. Yet through regular Members, we have been introduced to corporate philanthropic departments that are particularly motivated to give where their employees volunteer.

But more importantly, our students are thriving. They are engaged in the art forms in new ways, they are exploring multimedia and electronic music in digital environments, and they are building confidence onstage. Our teachers are making a real impact on their educational, emotional and spiritual development, and we are able to track programmatic effectiveness over the course of a year or more, rather than simply over one 12-week class.

The Institute began as a community outreach mission here in Elizabeth, and the Membership program has taken that initial impulse to the next level: by reaching out to the community and asking for what we needed, the community is getting more of what it needs.

Images courtesy Institute of Music for Children