More Thoughts On Institutional Transparency

You have to love the AJ Blogs. My blogging neighbor, Tim Riley, posted something this week which, let’s just say, caught my eye…


Yes, sex does sell but what I wasn’t expecting is that one of the links from his page took me to an article in Wired magazine by Clive Thompson which should be mandatory reading for every orchestra executive, board member, and music director. The article, from their “Get Naked and Rule the World” series, focuses on how radical levels of institutional transparency have led to previously unknown levels of institutional success (BTW, for those of you who are fans of the show The Office, that’s actress Jenna Fischer helping to illustrate the value of “Getting Naked” on the cover of Wired).

There is a strong lesson to learn here for the orchestra business: exposure generates interest which results in higher profits. Or, when translated into nonprofit-speak: sincere transparency increases ownership among patrons and donors which results in higher attendance and increased contributed revenue.

To a large degree this idea has quite a bit in common with an article that was posted here a few weeks ago entitled “Making Stronger Connections Through Sincerity“. Both articles advocate the value of sincere, open channels of communication and what individuals/organizations stand to reap from adopting these principles. To this end, here’s a great except from the Wired article:

The Internet has inverted the social physics of information. Companies used to assume that details about their internal workings were valuable precisely because they were secret. If you were cagey about your plans, you had the upper hand; if you kept your next big idea to yourself, people couldn’t steal it.

To a large degree, the traditional orchestra practice of preferring cagey over inviting and vague over straightforward only ended up driving potential patrons away, not to mention the mainstream media and cultural consciousness. Consequently, orchestras – or more to the point, managers, board members, and music directors – who continue down that path are bound to arrive in the same location. And after all, expecting anything different is what Benjamin Franklin coined as the definition of insanity.

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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1 thought on “More Thoughts On Institutional Transparency”

  1. More transparency in orchestras would be great, but I have a hard time imagining a world in which orchestra musicians feel comfortable blogging about how they really felt about last night’s performance, or what they think of the conductor, or the management. If the transparency is going to be real, orchestra employees are going to have to feel comfortable giving their honest criticisms, without fear of retribution. From what I’ve heard, most orchestral musicians already don’t feel comfortable expressing their opinions within the organization, not to mention externally. Forward-thinking executives are willing to expose the inner-workings of their businesses, suffering potential embarrassment in return for greater profits, but I have difficulty imagining the leaders of an elite and prestigious organization like a traditional symphony orchestra, generally not being motivated by profits, being willing to do so as well.

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