Loss Of Momentum

Among all of the gloom and doom talk mixed in with sunshine and rainbows there’s an important conversation that doesn’t get the attention it deserves in this industry.  I’m talking about the loss of momentum concerning fundraising on the board level.

Now I seriously doubt anyone in this industry is going to accuse
board members of not working to raise money for their orchestra.  But
there’s a fine line between working and working hard

Being a board member is a thankless job that, when done properly, costs individual board members dearly.

When done properly, their role requires them to expend their
political capital among their personal and business connections in
order to raise the kind of money needed to properly finance an
orchestra.

But lately, this attitude has seen some alarming changes; some
executive level board members are looking for ways out of their
commitments instead of ways up.  There have been a couple of recent
events which have exposed the tip of a potentially calamitous iceberg
below.

The "bad economy" excuse
Now
I know that I’ve been threatening to write a piece entitled "It’s NOT
the economy, stupid" for some time now.  And I will, (hopefully) soon.
But at least I’ll give you a preview of that piece today by pointing
out that it’s been a few years now since the tragic events of 9/11 and
their negative impact on the economy.

The economy has recovered and the stock market has improved since
then.  People are going out to see movies and go on vacation just like
they used to before 9/11.

So why are more and more board members saying that they simply can’t
raise money in their respective communities anymore?  Personally, I
don’t that’s really the case most of the time.  Perhaps some of the
individual executive board members are tapped out of political
connections and have no more personal money to give, but that doesn’t
mean there isn’t money in a community.

At the Colorado Symphony (an organization plagued by historical
financial problems among a metropolitan area that’s been experiencing
hyper growth over the past decade) their development department claims they have increased their donor base by 31% from last year, which puts them at only 715 people below their 2000-2001 numbers.

So what gives?  If they can start to turn things around in Denver,
then why is "a bad economy" still an excuse for not being able to raise
enough money to fund the financial obligations of labor contracts made
two – five years ago?

One Way Re-negotiations
Back in June, the board of the Jacksonville Symphony Orchestra rejected a request
by the musicians to allow some flexibility in their contract they
designed to help them earn back some of the income they will lose in
the upcoming years.  And those losses will be the result of a pay cut
the JSO board wants to enact, and the initial reason the contract was
reopened mid term anyway.

Then there’s the situation I’ve reported about in Columbus, Ohio.
The CSO board is attempting to reopen their contract (upon which the
ink is still drying) in order to institute large pay cuts.  But when
the musicians have found other possible solutions to their financial
problems, the board has been unwilling to seriously consider them.

An aside: Hopefully all of
this will change soon since both the Board Chair and interim Executive
Director at Columbus have both resigned.  A new Board Chair has been
appointed and the language coming from him seems to be a bit less
panicky than his predecessor.

And these two orchestras are just a few of many orchestras where the
board is attempting to reopen contracts in order to institute pay
cuts.  If executive board members believe that they can reopen a
contract whenever they feel like it in order to alleviate any
fundraising shortfalls, then what good is it to negotiate a contract in
the first place?

The last time I remember having unlimited use of "do-overs" was when I was nine years old playing baseball in an empty lot.

Making the "tough choices" excuse
I
doubt anyone would argue that admitting you’re not able to live up to
your promises is an easy thing to do.  But conversely, I don’t think
that cutting budgets, pushing for significant wage cuts, and firing
staff workers is necessarily a "tough choice" to make.

On the contrary, I think it’s the easy way out.  Being a successful
board member is a very difficult task, there’s an always increasing
list of goals and financial obligations to meet and you have to
constantly come up with new and creative ways to reach them.

But when things begin to become overwhelming for board members they
tend to get some very bad advice which dictates they have to put on the
black hat and go in there and make the musicians accept the "fact" that
what they want, they can’t have because it can’t be done.

Nonsense!  It’s always much more difficult to admit that you may not
be able to live up to the task and set your ego aside long enough to
allow someone else to come in and help.  Cutting budgets is the easiest
task any board executive or manager can do.  After all, I’ve never met
a CFO that didn’t meet a budget they couldn’t cut.

So it doesn’t do an orchestra (or the industry as a whole) any good
to try your best but then give up.  If your orchestra is doing poorly
because of bad management then fire the managers.  Yes, that means a
lot more work for you as a board member until you’re able to find a
replacement but don’t let that stop you from doing your job.  If you’ve
tapped out your sources for donations then you need to make new friends
or find someone else with more friends than you.

Conclusions
Orchestra
musicians love their board members.  They absolutely cherish them.
They know that without them they wouldn’t have an orchestra to play
in.  But they also know that they can’t let them out of their
responsibilities just because the going gets tough. Yes, there are
times when some cuts need to be made.  But that is always, always the
final solution in the face of absolute collapse.

It all boils down to a lesson I remember my father taught me when I was a boy:

I had $0.25 saved up and I wanted to buy myself a toy, but I also had
to buy a present for a friend’s birthday party and I didn’t have enough
money to do both.  When I complained to my father that it wasn’t fair
because I didn’t have a choice he just looked at me as said "of course
you have a choice, you just don’t like it very much".

There’s always a choice. And in the end, whether board members
decide to do everything possible in order to raise the necessary money
for their orchestras or not, it still comes down to just being a choice.

About Drew McManus

"I hear that every time you show up to work with an orchestra, people get fired." Those were the first words out of an executive's mouth after her board chair introduced us. That executive is now a dear colleague and friend but the day that consulting contract began with her orchestra, she was convinced I was a hatchet-man brought in by the board to clean house.

I understand where the trepidation comes from as a great deal of my consulting and technology provider work for arts organizations involves due diligence, separating fact from fiction, interpreting spin, as well as performance review and oversight. So yes, sometimes that work results in one or two individuals "aggressively embracing career change" but far more often than not, it reinforces and clarifies exactly what works and why.

In short, it doesn't matter if you know where all the bodies are buried if you can't keep your own clients out of the ground, and I'm fortunate enough to say that for more than 15 years, I've done exactly that for groups of all budget size from Qatar to Kathmandu.

For fun, I write a daily blog about the orchestra business, provide a platform for arts insiders to speak their mind, keep track of what people in this business get paid, help write a satirical cartoon about orchestra life, hack the arts, and love a good coffee drink.

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