Opera Philadelphia on planning for growth

Managing Director of Opera Philadelphia, Annie Burridge, talks fundraising tactics, managing growth and sustainability, and building for success.

Opera Philadelphia on planning for growth

What are you currently…


I’m very eagerly awaiting the next season of Game of Thrones, and I’m crazy about The Leftovers.


I just finished 13 Moons by Charles Frazier and am now reading Music/City by Jonathan R. Wynn, which is a scholarly exploration of the impact music festivals can have on cities.


I’m a big believer in the apple and usually have one in my purse. But candidly, I’m a working Mom so sometimes a fistful of goldfish crackers is the best you can hope for.


What were some of the key challenges and opportunities you saw when you first joined Opera Philadelphia in 2007?

There was plenty of opportunity to improve the consistency and quality of what we were producing, as well as to differentiate and try new offerings both in and outside the opera house.

The key challenge was attracting the major investments needed to make that happen while simultaneously providing evidence that we would be able to deliver on both things. This made our fundraising cycles short and frenetic, but it also served as the catalyst for the thrilling momentum the company is experiencing today.


You’ve transformed Opera Philadelphia from a regional producer to a nationally influential company with an international reputation. Was this your ultimate goal, or a happy bi-product of a change in direction and strategy?

Our General Director, David Devan, established a BHAG (big, hairy, audacious goal) upon his arrival in 2006 of becoming one of the five most influential opera companies in America. It seemed very audacious at the time!

Our management team is very driven by strategy, and one of the things I think we do well is to ensure that our entire company understands our key strategies and values in a way that enables everyone to make decisions in their work each day.


Talk us through a couple of the key tactics you used in your role to achieve the very impressive increase (75%!) in contributed income.

At the most basic level, we tied philanthropy to our art in a tangible way for the first time by working with donors to underwrite specific artists and initiatives that they were most excited about.

We re-branded our giving programs so that they each have a unique sense of belonging and purpose. Our Patron Program fosters a tremendous sense of camaraderie among our supporters through intermission receptions, exclusive events and travel opportunities.

Members of our General Director’s Council collectively underwrite a production each year and participate in strategy sessions twice a year so they are incorporated into the company’s planning. And members of the Chairman’s Council and Leadership Circle (our major giving programs) are extraordinary philanthropists who fund 50% of what you see on our stage.

We have become adept at incorporating our Board into every aspect of our operation so that they are informed and helpful each time we arrive at a critical decision-making juncture. They have also led every fundraising initiative by being the first and largest contributors. They are our true champions.

Finally, I would add that at Opera Philadelphia our love of opera and our belief in it as a powerful contemporary art form is evident every time we open our mouths. A conversation with us will likely reveal a great deal of authenticity and passion, and it most definitely will not reveal any sense of entitlement or expectation. Our momentum is built through a relentless, positive focus on the future of our community, and the important role opera can play within it.


You’ve said this increase in philanthropic investment was inspired by a change in not just the business side of the company, but the entire institution. Is this kind of whole-of-organisation change necessary for long lasting success? How did you go about getting buy-in for your strategy from all areas of the business?

I believe that effective change can only be realised organisation-wide. When we first started reexamining our brand, we decided that we wanted to change perceptions of our company from Turner Classic Movies to HBO. This was an institution-wide strategy that impacted our repertoire selection, production choices, marketing materials, fundraising messages, event strategies, etc.

As we grow larger, the time required to achieve institutional buy-in grows as well, but it is immensely important to the management team and we do our best to foster it through all-staff meetings and discussions. While we have an established hierarchy in our organisational structure, we welcome and encourage ideas and input from all levels of the organisation at all times.


You led the charge in conducting groundbreaking consumer research exploring the factors influencing today’s entertainment purchasing decisions. What findings or insight surprised you the most? How did your development and fundraising strategy change as a result of this research?

While there is a clear correlation between demographics and purchasing mechanisms (i.e. how people buy their ticket), there is no real correlation between demographics and what someone is looking for in their operatic experience. Everyone is interested in new experiences – but the definition of ‘new’ changes significantly by segment.

There are also some interesting variances between what patrons participate in and what they are most enthusiastic about.

Many of our subscribers have no interest in personally attending our annual outdoor Opera on the Mall broadcasts, but they are immensely proud that we do them. They love opera and are thrilled to see it shared with 10,000+ people in an outdoor setting.

All the staff at Opera Philadelphia are well versed in our contextual segmentation findings so we can more readily understand the motivations of our donors and have some informed ideas about projects they may be most interested in supporting. Of course, our number one job is to be listening and getting to know our supporters as individuals!


Let’s talk about sustainability. What do you see as the main challenges in hanging on to sponsors and donors?

It’s certainly important to remain diligent in your stewardship efforts and to ensure that you are going beyond acknowledgement to consistently inform your contributors about the impact of their generosity.

I spend more of my time working on strategies to build affinity in audience members across our many product platforms so that we are constantly expanding our prospect pool. Maintaining a relationship after someone has decided to make an investment feels easy compared to that!


Administration is your focus now, but you’re also an artist, having performed with numerous opera companies and orchestras, including Des Moines Metro Opera. Does being an artist make you a better arts administrator?

I’d like to think so – or else that decade wasn’t very well spent on my part! It definitely helps to intimately know the product you’re selling, but probably more important for me is that my entire adult life has been focused on opera, and my love affair with this art form drives my work each day.


What’s on your wish list for Opera Philadelphia in 2016?

2016 is a big year of testing and preparation for the annual opening festival that will be added to our season beginning in 2017. The O17 festival will offer seven productions happening simultaneously throughout the city in six different venues, so we’re undergoing a great deal of change and infrastructure investment.

We’ve run out of office space so I would put that on the wish list. We are also close to completing our $15M festival launch campaign, so securing those remaining gifts is our top priority.


If you could go back in time, knowing what you know now, what would you tell your younger self?

I’ve got a bit of Hermione Granger in me, and I would tell my younger self that knowing the right answer is only half the battle. It’s equally important to know how to communicate information in a way that others are most inclined to listen to it.

Want to know more? Annie will discuss the strategies guiding Opera Philadelphia’s transformation from a regional opera producer to a nationally influential opera company at Culture Business Sydney, a leading international conference for the arts and fundraising on 22 and 23 March.

Coaching and mentoring

Contact your state manager to enquire about one-on-one, tailored consultation.