Sunday, September 04, 2011

Building a Budget that Empowers via Flexibility

Each September, a great deal of my focus migrates to budgeting for the next fiscal year. Even while the current fiscal year is just getting its start, many senior managers at Arena Stage are focused on the following year, knowing that in just under four months, a new subscription campaign is set to launch. As summer comes to an end, and the new theater season begins, I find myself already thinking about how in many cases, budgets are created to restrict, rather than to provide, flexibility.

If there is one thing I have learned since 2008, it's that success is greatly dependent upon one's ability to adapt quickly to changing circumstances. I've always been fascinated by people who consistently make the choice to stick with a strategy that isn't working instead of leaping into the unknown. In doing so, many believe they are mitigating risk, however refusing to adapt when a strategy is clearing collapsing only ensures failure, and what could be riskier than that? Those that are change adverse often times use a rigid budget to fortify their position, but a good budget lives and breathes with an organization, thereby providing plenty of flexibility when needed.

When budgeting, common practice at many non-profit performing arts organizations allocates revenue and expense into two categories: contributed (development) and earned (marketing). In doing so, each department is assigned resources and given revenue goals with a simple charge--use the resources provided to generate the targeted revenues. In my career, I have observed that this system of allocating resources and establishing revenue goals for separate and distinct departments can lead to inefficiencies that reduce, rather than maximize, return on investment.

Let me give an example:
Organization X anticipates that a certain production will achieve a significant single ticket revenue target, and as such, budgets higher than average expenses for advertising. The production opens to less than stellar notices, and word of mouth isn't helping either. After several weeks of slow sales despite the considerable investment in advertising, management concludes that the additional expenses set aside for marketing aren't providing the necessary return on investment, and asks that you reconsider your strategy. Meanwhile, you've begun to hear from the development department that the first annual fund campaign of the season is substantially over-performing, although they don't have the additional funds needed to grow the campaign beyond what was initially budgeted for.

In these types of situations, many marketing directors would reallocate funds from the under-performing production to productions later in the season, even though those productions, if budgeted properly, should already have plenty of resources allocated to support them. Fearing that they won't receive adequate resources in future budgets if they "give back" money in their expense budget, marketing directors can feel like they are incentivized to ineffectively spend resources on a struggling production or to reallocate them to productions that are already resourced appropriately. Meanwhile, the development department has struck gold, and could desperately use an infusion of additional resources, but none will come.

To avoid situations like the above, I believe budgets should be created with minimal essential resources allocated to each revenue stream, ensuring that each is supported adequately. Resources traditionally budgeted above the minimal level for campaigns that are anticipated to do well, should instead be used to fund a reserve that is used to allocate additional resources to over-performing revenue streams based upon actual highest achieved return on investment. Why religiously stick to a budget that 10 months prior allocated additional resources to anticipated successful revenue streams when current reality indicates that the additional expenses aren't warranted? Wouldn't it be nice to be able to move resources across departments to invest in activities that are actually over-performing rather than those that we thought would over-perform?

In addition, chief development officers and chief marketing officers should share responsibility for the total revenue goal of the organization, thereby eliminating any territory related issues that may arise. Together, they should be charged with shifting resources on a regular basis to fund activities that reduce cost of sale, maximize return on investment and best position the organization to achieve the annual institutional revenue goal.

At the end of the day, performing arts organizations are having to use their limited resources much more wisely than in previous years, and that reality should force all senior managers to reexamine how resources are allocated and spent.

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