This is the first of a series of informational interviews on the five pro bono projects the Improve Group is working on in 2010.  These clients have a wide range of locations, missions and needs.  We had several goals for our pro bono work:
  • Give back to the community in a way that honors our decade of service 
  • Gain additional depth in the fields we’ve worked in most frequently by working with small or new organizations in those fields
  • Have the opportunity to try out new methods and approaches that wouldn’t be considered in funder-driven work
We hope our other clients and our readers who share similar issues may gain some insight on how to approach their project needs through our experiences with pro bono clients. Our first interview is with Liz Radel Freeman, Research and Evaluation Director at Improve Group. Which organization are you partnered with? I am assisting San Francisco Opera's Education Department.  In the last 2 and a half years they launched a new department and a new program created to offer opera education to students in K-12 schools. In 2009, they started a program called Opera ARIA (Arts Resources in Action).  Opera ARIA aims to connect professional, artistic, and creative elements of opera with classroom curricula.  This Professional Development and teaching artist-based program places an artist in the classroom with classroom and/or arts teachers.  The teachers and the teaching artists participate in professional development sessions together.  This process prepares them to eventually co-teach the classes.  Residencies last several visits (a minimum of 5) to as many as one visit a week for the entire year, depending on the classroom.  They have a great model for teaching artists which has them meeting with the teachers every week to discuss how things are going.  The San Francisco Opera also brings in a number of resources to the participating schools, such as additional guest artists or a trip for the class to the Opera House or the Scene shop. Why were you interested in this pro bono project? I was involved in a little work with our past client the Chicago Opera Theater and what they did intrigued me.  I learned about what opera could bring to education.  I am learning a lot more working with the San Francisco Opera.  It is exciting to see how engaging it is for the students.  They (the SF Opera) can make opera accessible and exciting for any child in K-12 education. What issues did they need assistance with? The San Francisco Opera began evaluating its education programs immediately, but had created several surveys as a need arose (for example, at the conclusion of a professional development process).  The Improve Group is helping them to consolidate their surveys into a few key questions that will be asked every year, so that they can begin tracking trends and measuring key benchmarks. What are the beginning approaches or tools you are using to help your client? We began with a kick-off meeting in California in May.  They already had tools, such as questionnaires evaluating what the class did or didn’t like during the residency.  They also had a huge volume of information gathered and wanted help in how to process it.  Our current Improve Group Intern, Ying Lu, started with cataloguing all the tools the Opera was currently using. At this time, we are helping them to revise and streamline their tools. For example, they had a survey for principals and another one for parents.  We worked on creating one survey that was useful for both constituents. They also had a list of questions they recommended secondary and elementary teachers ask of their students; of the list of 20 questions, teachers would pick which ones to include on their student surveys. From this list we have put together one tool for elementary and another one for one for secondary students so there is consistency across classrooms.  In our work with San Francisco Opera we try to use as much of what they already have and make these things easier to use. What are the next steps for this pro bono partnership? We have worked on streamlining 6 tools so far.  The Opera has liked the changes we suggested.  They are now reviewing the tools to add their input.  We will then create a tracking system for the Opera to use in analysis.  We will also assist them in figuring out how to pull out specific data pieces that will be of interest to funders. Are there any differences in working with a pro bono client? I look at them as I look at any other client.  They have committed resources and time and I want to honor that as I would for any client.  We have designed our work plan together and it meets all of our needs.  There has been a lot of phone work because they are based in San Francisco, but the electronic communication has gone very well.  I enjoy the work and they are a fun group. You can learn about our other pro bono project in upcoming issues of the Improve Groove newsletter.