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Karen Eber Davis

About Karen

Lightning and Thunder--Making Partnerships Work For You

Oil and vinegar? Zombies and ballet? An orchestra and a hockey team? Have you ever changed your image and reached your goals by surprising people?

Let's explore an unusual partnership between a nonprofit, The Florida Orchestra and a for-profit NHL hockey team, The Tampa Bay Lightning. The sports team partnered with the arts group to, among other activities, play its new theme song, Be the Thunder.

Their ongoing partnership brings together two of Tampa Bay’s greatest assets.

This Month’s Strategy

Over the past two decades, symphony orchestras have struggled. The public attends live events, performing arts, and sports, less frequently, and when it does attend, purchases smaller ticket packages. In response to this “climate change,” The Florida Orchestra decided to help people see their orchestra in new ways as part of their strategy to thrive. It began offering a rock series featuring the music of Pink Floyd, Queen, and Led Zeppelin. It started a cultural exchange with Cuba’s Music Institute of Havana. It also created a partnership with a professional sports team—the focus of this column.

Unpacking The Strategy

What fundamentals create this strategy? So that you understand how you might adapt it to benefit your nonprofit, let’s stop and explore this partnership to understand its success.

A key component of this strategy is a partnership with an unexpected bedfellow, and the surprise of the unexpected. This partnership mixed a for-profit and nonprofit, a music group and a professional sports team. It involves experts that specialize in fine finger movements and experts that specialize in using large muscles to move a hockey puck across the ice. Not the usual partnership. Offering the unexpected brings attention to both.

This partnership also succeeds because it creates a discrete product. In this case, the product was a recorded theme song played at the hockey games and in the Bolts’ marketing materials. The product creates the opportunity for spin-offs, such as press releases and a special concert for youth where the musicians wore hockey jerseys and ThunderBug, the hockey team’s mascot, conducted. In turn, the theme song offers opportunities to engage the media and expose the hockey team’s audience to the power of the orchestra.

While not apparent at first glance, when we dig deeper we learn that the two groups had more in common than just geography. The connection between the two began when a board member and the owner of the hockey team met at a luncheon. They were both aiming for audiences that overlapped. The Florida Orchestra was trying to speak to a broader audience and the Tampa Bay Lighting was trying to rebrand itself as being less blue collar. Hockey fans, compared to other sports fans, are the most upscale. This partnership involves more than picking another entity to create surprise. Furthermore, these deeper commonalities offer the potential for continued engagement.

Most importantly, from the nonprofit’s perspective the partnership is part of its larger strategy to help people see their orchestra in new ways. By itself, developing a partnership with a hockey team, while fun and innovative, might have just been a distraction from the orchestra’s goals. By creating a partnership that fits with its goal to help people see the orchestra in new ways, the partnership became a tool to help it reach its vision. During its last full year, The Florida Orchestra sold out seventeen concerts. In the last two years, its subscriber base has grown by an astounding 29 percent.

To use this strategy, seek out and be open to unusual partnerships and create a surprise to help you further your most important strategies. Next month in Your Profitable Nonprofit, I will share the story of a nonprofit that found an innovative way to reach out to potential donors in their homes.


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