CASE STUDY—Non-Profit Branding & PR

Non-Profit Philharmonic Gains National Prominence With Creative Programming, Well-Orchestrated PR

The challenge of the Fredericksburg, Va.-based University of Mary Washington (UMW)-Community Orchestra in 2010 was how it could create awareness, maintain or build its audience, and fund student scholarships on a slim budget and dependence on a board of volunteers. Additionally, the country was in a deep economic recession. Even though concerts were usually free, the audience was mostly composed of senior citizens.

Media deadlines were frequently missed and there were no relationships with local entertainment reporters.  The organization’s long-standing volunteers wanted to promote the orchestra in the same way as always via printed materials and postal mail. They were not fully using all traditional media channels and there was no social media engagement.  The website also was not current. When Susan Carol, APR, joined the Board of Friends several years ago, she assumed leadership for promotional activities. With the board president’s encouragement and the music director’s support, she formed a committee of volunteers who met regularly, created a strategic plan, divided tasks and collaborated with talented university staff to meet objectives. The plans that they developed were based on the creative and professional vision of the orchestra director, who had his focus on the university’s overall strategic plan and its interests in community relations and music education.

Goals established included:

  • Attracting the next generation and family audiences
  • Creating media relationships for more regular coverage
  • Expanding geographic reach, creating community awareness
  • Establishing new music student scholarships

Strategy and Tactics:

We arranged for the music director to meet with local journalists, and hired a photographer to obtain a library of high quality photos that the journalists said they needed. The orchestra’s website was revised and kept current. Well before each concert, our newly formed PR committee embarked on the following simultaneous tactics with our focus on consistent branding around a common event theme:

  • Press releases were issued; event dates were posted in online sites
  • A public service announcement was provided to the largest radio station
  • Posters were hand delivered to major community gathering spots
  • PDF posters were emailed to schools, groups of orchestra friends, the arts community and local influencers
  • For one event we invited the Next Generation Group from the local chamber of commerce, provided them with special seating, a trolley ride to and from the concert, and we ensured photos were taken for social media coverage and the chamber’s newsletter.

Photos Susan Carol took at the instrument petting zoo with the Bee from B101.5 our media partner. These were posted on Facebook with the subjects’ permission.


We added student talent to the PR committee, established a Facebook presence for the orchestra, and the name of the orchestra was changed to the UMW Philharmonic. It was realized after meeting with local reporters that the original name was just too long to communicate.  The original name was:  The University of Mary Washington-Community Symphony Orchestra.

Creative concert themes and coordinated promotion quickly expanded awareness among all age groups, and this has given the Philharmonic greater respect within its university and within the association of university orchestras in which the music director became a recognized leader.

The PR committee met regularly and every member had an assigned responsibility for each concert’s promotion. These categories included the management of brochures and printed materials, as well as advertising, publicity, online calendar postings, poster distribution and social media. In a very short time everyone realized the power of having a single theme and message come forth at each promotional touch point.  Our annual advertising and promotional budget was $10,000 or less, and most activity was accomplished by volunteers. The university provided printing and some design services.

Messaging was expanded and revised to focus on how contributions to the orchestra helped fund scholarships, and concert themes were created to appeal to a younger audience. One of the primary radio stations agreed to become a media sponsor and brought their mascot to the Orchestra’s petting zoo for children. We captured this event in photos and displayed them on Facebook and used them in brochures. Other themes included honoring our community’s Miss America winner and a tribute to Disney’s Fantasia with color film on a big screen while the musicians performed.  A Down-Home Christmas program featuring Appalachian Christmas tunes appealed to PBS and this was later broadcasted through the national cable channel in 2012.


Evidence of success lies in the following documented results:

  • The Philharmonic has nine scholarships and these grew from $650,000 to $1.4 million in the past three years with three new programs added. The orchestra was invited to perform for a PBS Television broadcast which has had 500 airings around the country including prime times in Virginia, California, Boston and Connecticut.
  • Outlying publications carry stories now about the events, and the local paper gave almost every major concert event a front page or front section page story.
  • A local radio station became a media sponsor and allotted hundreds of dollars’ worth of free air time, which was valuable when the orchestra had changed its name and was re-branding.
  • Christmas shows are now at over-flow capacity, largely a family audience.
  • Students are now selecting UMW to study music and then coming back to join as community members of the orchestra.
  • The university provides more support to the orchestra and recognizes it as a main attraction for the institution’s branding and marketing.
  • Tie-ins with the tourism center, arts organizations and student groups has helped to keep audiences so strong that the Philharmonic was able to begin charging for its concerts, and enabling them to fund scholarships and the budget for future programming.

The UMW Philharmonic, composed of university and community musicians, has become an example in the movement to develop new audiences for classical music.  The fact that this university orchestra includes community musicians makes it a unique “town-gown” model, but it was the collective efforts of the talented orchestra, its director, and its board of volunteers that enabled the UMW Philharmonic to not only survive the recession, but advance to become a model for university orchestras nationwide.