Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Take Risks

A mentor of mine, Michael Kaiser, is known as the Turnaround King. That’s not hyperbolic, as he has saved many an arts organization from spiraling into failure. He even wrote a book about it. I am ashamed to admit that I have two copies (one he even signed), but I’ve never read it. I know, I know…bad mentee. Fortunately I have had great face time with him and I read his Huffington post blog religiously.

So, am I going to spend the rest of this blog post praising Michael? Well sort of…it’s because of his guidance that I’ve been able to achieve a turnaround in my own organization – the Gay Men’s Chorus of Washington. I could probably spend much more time on this than just a blog post (any grad students need a case study?), but I hope the few of you who read this will find it interesting, maybe even useful.

1.5 years ago, I became the Executive Director of an organization that had a multitude of problems not uncommon to arts orgs.

  • Debt had accumulated over several years and had grown to nearly $150,000, which represented 15% of the operating budget.
  • Ticket sales were declining, donor engagement wasn’t happening, and board morale was low.
  • To help compensate for unexpected losses, the reserve fund was depleted.
  • Trust had been abused by staff, leading to a board that was scared, angry, and loath to take any kind of risk (after all, risk requires trust).
  • A culture of finger-pointing, micro-aggressions, and publicly criticizing the staff and Board leadership was rampant.
  • While there was a high level of artistry, the programming was not addressing a new reality as public opinions around the LGBT experience were changing for the better.
  • Marketing was uninspired because the product was less and less relevant.
  • In an attempt to save money, there were calls from singers and board members for cutting staff positions, cutting concerts, performing in small and cheap venues, and even giving up office space to move into the corner of a church basement. 
In essence, the organization was scared and wanted to shrink its programs and infrastructure to try to re-start growth. We all know how that would have turned out.

I would like to say that some of the issues above were easy to fix, but there weren’t very many easy wins. The easiest thing I could do from day one was to start rebuilding trust. To do this, I simply didn’t do anything to jeopardize it. Honesty is the best policy.

But trust alone does not a balance sheet fix, so we went right to the heart of the matter. As anyone who reads my blog knows, it’s all about the programming. The Artistic Director, who brought the chorus to a very high level and is credited with more than a decade of organizational growth, was unsure how to reach an audience whose perception of the LGBT experience changed more quickly than any of us could have imagined. His departure had been rumored for a couple of years, and as the new guy with no baggage it was up to me to quiet the rumors and make sense of reality.

When a search for the new Artistic Director was announced in my first year, there was both excitement and fear. But mostly excitement. Anytime you make a change, people take notice – whether it’s changing your hair color, or your musical leader. The fact that GMCW appointed a straight female AD seven months later made people take even more notice, so we had a little bit of press again. She brought to us a new programming language, a renewed sense of energy, and a more three-dimensional vision of what a concert looks and sounds like. Her reputation spread quickly, and with it ours.

The changes that occurred during the past two seasons were not only artistic. GMCW saw 75% staff turnover, moved into new concert venues that better reflected the audience we were trying (and failing) to reach, created a budget that included payoff of the debt, and began an aggressive process of listening to our singers, donors and audience to hear what their dreams are for the organization. These listening sessions were part of the search for the new AD, but also helped inform us of what our strategic growth points should be over the next several years.

Contrary to what many board members and singers initially suggested (and what many arts orgs do), we did not cut programming, infrastructure, or staff. We reshuffled the budget to spend more money on activities that make money, and cut costs that had ballooned unnecessarily due to lack of oversight. We negotiated brand new rehearsal and office space with little impact to the bottom line, helping to revitalize the highly-depleted morale of the singers. We added performances so our audience had more opportunities to come see us. We made our presentations more portable, leading to shorter tech weeks and reduced production costs. In short, we got lean on expenses, but not on dreams.

One of our dreams was to start another chorus – a youth chorus. So with no budget for it, while still carrying a debt, and with visionary musical leaders, we did just that. Fundraising for this effort was a piece of cake, which comes as no surprise. I always say, if you want to fundraise all you need are kids and puppies. That's not the reason we started this chorus of course - it was a natural extension into our future, and there was demand for it before we began. When you create fantastic programs, the funds just come.

Another dream of the organization was to be a “national voice.” So we engaged the White House and Embassies more often to sing in high profile public events in Washington. Eventually, with a strategic partnership and a bit of chutzpah, we accepted an invitation to represent the United States on a concert tour in newly opening Cuba to promote LGBT rights on the island. Already we've seen a 50% increase in foundational funding as a direct result of this effort. Again, when you create fantastic programs, the funds come.

GMCW is about to close our season with higher than projected revenue, healthy profit to reinvest into next season, an insane amount of press, a record number of new singers, great cash-flow, and a well-articulated vision for the next five years. This kind of growth would not have been possible if the organization had cut programs and infrastructure. The very notion that you can grow while shrinking is silly, so our courageous board and staff chose to grow by implementing growth

New and challenging music, more concert offerings to reach more audience, an entirely new chorus made up of young people, a newsworthy diplomatic concert tour, varied and popular concert venues, and a well-articulated vision for the next several years have all made it possible for GMCW to be a vibrant and relevant institution.

For anyone that might be facing a similar situation of fear, financial constraint, brand fatigue, etc…if I could distill this blog post into one phrase, it would be this: don’t be afraid of growth, take risks.

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