Ochestra Board Members Need to Step Up

Volume 114, No. 11November, 2014

Tom Olcott
Trombonist Tom Olcott is the Recording Vice President of Local 802 and the supervisor of the union's concert department.

Trombonist Tom Olcott is the Recording Vice President of Local 802 and the supervisor of the union’s concert department.

Musicians in the freelance classical community have expressed legitimate alarm and complaint about the dwindling number of gigs in recent years. There remains the very real impression that work has steadily evaporated over time. Not only are members understandably upset with lost work, they also see this state of affairs as a loss of respect for the dedication, diligence and expertise of professional musicians. Let’s be totally honest: some professional orchestras only exist today because Local 802 members have agreed to major concessions in wages and benefits.

It’s the easy way out for employers to try to save an orchestra by cutting musicians’ pay. Ultimately, when an orchestra starts to fail or goes bankrupt, we believe it can be strongly linked to the inadequacy, disinterest and lack of imagination of the orchestra’s board of directors.

On the other hand, some employers are asking for Local 802’s advice or assistance in fundraising efforts. This can be seen as an interesting and perhaps positive development. At least it shows that the employer is thinking creatively and outside the box.

Considering those real conditions and events that I witness every day, I willingly signed up for a recent workshop, sponsored by Regent Atlantic Investment Advisors, which intended to address various issues faced by nonprofit organizations. (Full disclosure: I am a private client of Regent.) I signed up for this free workshop also because I wanted to get more into the mindset of an orchestra board of directors.

Here are a few things I learned at the workshop:

We probably underestimate the size and variety of the vast nonprofit world in which music organizations compete with other charitable organizations for donations and funding. The list includes YMCAs, health care assistance organizations, community preschools, speech therapy schools, small local theatre groups, addiction service organizations and small local museums. Representatives from all of these were present at my workshop.

It became clear that donors find social services, health care and education to be the most desirable places to give. I find it interesting, and a bit alarming in the wider political sense, that these are precisely the sectors that were adversely affected by the 2008 financial crisis and its highly partisan aftermath. These are the areas where there is concerted effort to reduce governmental participation. As donors invest their money in these sectors, the arts community might very well be the biggest victim of this post-2008 redirection and reallocation of charitable giving.

That means that orchestra boards now operate under a very challenging philanthropic environment that is quite different from what it was 15 or 20 years ago. Those boards need to realize that their world has changed.

Each speaker at this event emphasized the absolute requirement that nonprofit board members need deep, lasting and enthusiastic commitment to the organization’s mission statement, and also must show a real dedication to fundraising, whether directed toward an immediate geographical community or to personal relationships with deep-pocket donors.

One interesting item from the workshop was a bit counterintuitive. It was said that a cooperative and respectful relationship between an organization’s CEO and the chair of its own board is more important than how much money an organization raises. Personally I am not totally convinced of that assessment, but I do understand that the core relationship may be a better indicator of future success than the current bottom line.

However, I do agree with another point that was made: any board member who is underperforming, uninterested, distracted by other concerns, or otherwise showing a lack of interest, needs to be removed. Every nonprofit needs a mechanism to remove underperforming board members and to find more committed replacements as soon as possible. Long-term planning and governance require enthusiastic and committed board members.

I don’t seek to chastise any specific freelance orchestra board members. However, I do wonder if the actual commitment of board members is something seriously considered and prominent in an orchestra’s thinking and planning. I invite the various orchestra boards to show musicians that they understand how the nonprofit landscape has changed and to demonstrate true enthusiasm and fervor in their fundraising efforts. With that commitment, we can all thrive.