Things That Make You Go “Buh?” – Fort Wayne

Every now and then I read an article that reports a situation that is so absolutely baffling all I can do is think to myself "Buh?" As such, I’ve decided to start a new series of articles entitled Things That Make You Go "Buh?". The inspiration for this series stems from a well written article appearing in the 06/27/06 edition of by Kevin Leininger…

Kevin’s article reports on the curious events surrounding a recent decision by the Fort Wayne Philharmonic board to reject the membership of an avid donor and long time supporter of the ensemble. According to the article, the board voted down the nomination of Don Willis, a self made man responsible for giving over $6 million to local nonprofit and public works projects. Among those donations included a $90,000 gift to the Fort Wayne Philharmonic during the 2005-2006 season.

But wait, there’s more. According to the article, Willis appears to be blessed with a mindset that seems to be in short supply these days: vision and responsibility. To that end, he put his money where his mouth was when he gave his donation last season. The article reports,

"Last year, subsidized with $70,000 from Willis, the Philharmonic offered discounted season tickets, and 40 percent of the people who purchased them renewed this year for a full season – at full price."

Here we have an excellent example of an individual that understands an organization doesn’t cut its way to excellence. Apparently, in the face of an ongoing deficit, that can-do attitude may be what the current Fort Wayne Philharmonic board is concerned about.

Apparently, when asked about to manage the organization’s $500,000 operating deficit, the article quotes Willis as saying,

"…but the only solution the board wants is to cut expenses. The board doesn’t function well when it comes to finances, vision, management or relationship with the orchestra."

Apparently, that mindset constitutes fighting words in that part of Indiana as current Fort Wayne Philharmonic Board Chairman, Dr. Michael Mastrangelo, was quoted in the article saying "some board members were worried Willis would have tried to take control of the organization if elected."

So you have someone that wants to join your board and shows up with the following characteristics:

  • is predisposed to philanthropic activity
  • is a self made man
  • has already donated five figure gifts to fund a marketing campaign that successfully turned around slumping ticket sales
  • wants to do the thankless job of serving on a board; and by the way, the musicians even organized themselves enough to pass a resolution supporting his nomination.
  • Tell me again why these are bad things? Are these not the qualities organizations would want board members to possess? "Buh?"

    Aren’t board members supposed to be guardians of public trust? Aren’t they supposed to put aside personal issues in order to promote the good of the organization? Isn’t there a great deal of complaining these days that there aren’t enough interested, affluent, dedicated people to sit on our orchestra boards? "Buh?!?"

    For an outfit that doesn’t have the luxury of turning away large sums of free money, the Fort Wayne Philharmonic board is going to have to come up with some better reasons than the "we don’t like him because he disagrees with us" excuse. Or even worse is the "he’s only trying to buy his way onto the board" excuse (Don Willis is reportedly 68 and retired from business, what’s he going to do with a board seat, hand out business favors to old cronies?).

    This story isn’t finished yet, there’s obviously more lurking under the surface and it will be interesting to see what pops up and when (as it always does).

    In the meantime, if you’re interested in learning more about how an orchestra board functions and how exactly an individual gets onto a board, here’s some good reading from past Adaptistration articles: Orchestra Governance Essays – The Board

    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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    2 thoughts on “Things That Make You Go “Buh?” – Fort Wayne”

    1. >From the article:
      “The board has no vision and leadership, but it’s not unrecoverable,” Willis said. “The orchestra will survive, and I can play a part in its future.”

      In the face of this rejection, one has to admire Mr. Willis’ continued enthusiasm and desire to serve.

    2. As an Indiana native, I can tell you that it is the most “go along to get along” place I have ever seen. The establishment in places like Fort Wayne or Indianapolis invariably close ranks behind whatever course is being taken and nothing will get you ostracized more quickly than rocking the boat. This is one of the big reasons the place is going down the tubes economically and in so many other respects.

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