Called “one of the irreplaceable music ensembles of our time” by Dana Gioia, past chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, VocalEssence (Minneapolis, MN) is renowned for its innovative exploration of music for voices and instruments. In late 2006, VocalEssence commissioned WolfBrown to conduct a Public Value Audit (PVA) as part of a larger long-term capacity-building effort supported by the Bush Foundation.

The idea of a Public Value Audit builds on concepts advanced in the book “Creating Public Value” by Harvard Professor Mark H. Moore. Moore suggests that public benefit institutions should work to understand what “public value” their “authorizing agents” (i.e., policymakers, taxpayers and constituent groups) seek from them, and use this information to allocate resources and create programs and services that maximize public value. Based on these concepts, WolfBrown created the Public Value Audit as a means of assessing a nonprofit organization’s non-financial outcomes and understanding what value the organization creates – either currently or prospectively – for its stakeholders. The PVA is an extraordinarily robust methodical and qualitative process for taking stock of one’s value proposition in the community.

This specific PVA sought to answer important questions about VocalEssence’s value, stakeholders, and creative resources. To answer these questions, an advisory committee of the board of directors worked with the consultant to define stakeholders, identify and recruit key individuals to consent to be interviewed, attend interviews, and receive and deliberate a report. Ultimately, the PVA process aimed to lay a strong foundation for VocalEssence’s strategic planning efforts.

The advisory committee identified two categories of stakeholder groups: community stakeholders and art form stakeholders. Community stakeholders included: elected officials, businesses, civic leaders, educators, the spiritual community, and social service and cultural organizations. Art form stakeholders spanned: leaders of area music organizations, national and local choral conductors/organizations, composers, the public media, singers, and teaching artists. Individuals from these areas were then chosen to be interviewed, and this data, along with wider analysis, was presented in the final report.

Synthesizing a large amount of qualitative interview data produced significant themes and observations. Stakeholders widely regarded VocalEssence as a well-run organization; in general, the org sits atop a large pyramid of choral music activity in the Twin Cities. In terms of programming, however, VocalEssence’s producing paradigm for its core work was described as a series of one-off programs. Several interviewees suggested that the current producing paradigm is inefficient in the sense that the programs do not reach a large enough audience within the choral music field. The belief was also expressed by several interviewees that artistic director Philip Brunelle’s talents as a creative programmer were not benefiting the choral field as much as they might, and that further efforts to share this gift with young conductors, singers, and other choral organizations would be a great help. The Witness program, supporting both school programs and public concerts, was also found to be deeply valued by stakeholders, if in need of expansion re: developing creative leaders. In particular, these interviews brought to light the importance of developing wider impact in VocalEssence’s future.

Insights contributed greatly to VocalEssence’s capacity-building efforts. Overall, WolfBrown determined that if VocalEssence wanted to define itself more as a resource to the international choral music field, then the true value of its programs laid not so much in the impact created through public performances in the Twin Cities, but in the impact that might result from making their work accessible to choral music programs worldwide.

Consultant: Alan Brown
Year Complete: 2007