Blow Hard

Posted by Laura Otten, Ph.D., Director on April 21st, 2011 in Articles, Thoughts & Commentary

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I feel sort of shallow saying this, but don’t judge me until you read it all:  what boiled my blood in reading The Philadelphia Inquirer article reporting on the Board of Directors of the Philadelphia Orchestra voting to declare bankruptcy and file for Chapter 11 reorganization was not the fact that the Board was risking losing this city—and the world—a world class orchestra.

Very, very sad, but it wasn’t what revved my juices.  It wasn’t the fact that the Orchestra was in the position of needing to file for reorganization, despite $140 million in endowment funds (restricted funds, according to the Board).  Again sad, as they hadn’t tried or been able to convert some of those endowment gifts to unrestricted operating costs.  And it wasn’t even the fact that the Board has hired Brian Tierney to do its public relations, something that will be sorely needed in this post-bankruptcy era as it undertakes a $160 million fundraising-campaign.  This is same Brian Tierney who brought The Philadelphia Inquirer to its bankruptcy knees when he was publisher and CEO of that paper and did such a fabulous job handling the PR there.   Incredulous and infuriating, but I think I know why.

No, what boiled my blood was a statement by John Koen, chairman of the players committee.  He voiced what so many nonprofit staff members think:  that management “has not turned over every stone—they haven’t gone to any donor outside their comfort zone—to get the broad-based support” needed to survive.  I read “outside their comfort zone” and the blood just started boiling.  And what about the board?

Honestly? Fundraising, in general, is not in most board members’ comfort zone.  But with time, education and training, practice, and, most importantly, a deep, passionate belief in the mission of an organization and the benefit it brings to society, we can move board members out of their discomfort and they can become decent if not great fundraisers.  After all, fundraising is simply talking.  Talking about your memory of the first time you hear Appalachian Spring by Aaron Copeland or Dvorak’s Symphony No. 9 and how your life was changed forever.  Talking about the transformation of a child who goes from flunking to passing a test, the family living shelters and cars moving into its first home or the homebound elder who now receives healthy meals and regular conversation with the delivery of those meals.  Through that talking you are ultimately allowing people to share your passion and be part of your solution.  If we believe and can communicate, we can raise funds that will allow that mission to continue long past our own service on that board.  Only after you have done all of this talking over a good period of time, do you actually ask for money.

That is the first movement out of your comfort zone.  But for too many board members, even this is too difficult or too much trouble or something, because it isn’t getting done.  Recently, I was speaking with a board president who 150% leads by example; he is exceedingly frustrated (and that is putting it nicely!) with the rest of the board members’ refusal—if failure to do something can be interpreted as a refusal—to fundraise.  When I said he has seven months before the organization’s annual gala and suggested he should challenge every board member to start identifying ten new people to invite to that gala, giving him the names as they are identified, he sighed with great disgust.  Last year he asked for names from that first circle—family, friends, colleagues—and got nothing.  He realized he had a very big problem:  h was he going to move them yet further out of their comfort zone?

The second is step out of your comfort zone is moving to the next ring of familiarity from those we know well, who may give because they know and like us as people, to cultivating relationships with others you don’t know so well but who actually believe in the organization’s mission as demonstrated by a variety of things, from having attended the gala for four years running to having made a $25 gift for the 15 years to having made a six figure gift to a like organization where she previously lived.  To do this, however, you, yourself have to a) truly believe in the mission and the social good that mission seeks to accomplish and b) you have to understand that one of your many responsibilities as a board member is to ensure there are sufficient funds to deliver on those mission promise.  Don’t get that, I can guarantee no one will ever move out of their comfort zones.  And more and more staff of nonprofits will find themselves in John Koen’s position:  facing bankruptcy—or worse, going directly to closing—with board members never having moved out of their comfort zones.

While not wanting to make light of the Orchestra’s situation, as I am personally mourning the tarnishing of its luster and coping the disquiet I feel at the thought of its possible disappearance, there is an important lesson here for the tens of thousands of other nonprofit staff and board members who regularly dream about having a board like the big guys—the world recognized orchestras, ballet companies, art museums, etc.  The dream is fueled by the mistaken thinking that they have it easy:  they have rich people on their boards who know rich people and, therefore, all their money needs are answered.  The reality, as demonstrated here and so many other places as well, is very, very different.  Board members are board members are board members, regardless of how much money they purport to have.  At the end of the day, a good board member is one who is passionate about the organization’s work, understand all aspects of her/his job as board member, executes fully that job, and is absolutely willing to move out of her/his comfort zone.



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