Making a case for your organization through the power of language.

Our founding director announced her intention to retire at the end of next year, and total panic ensued. Our board meetings were filled with comments like, “She is the face of this organization… it is nothing without her. When she leaves, she will take our donors and supporters with her. What do we do???”

There is perhaps no truer test of an organization’s relevance and value to the community than the departure of a founder or longtime leader. If the organization is a particular individual’s brainchild, chances are it has been publicized as such: at the mention of its name, people say, “oh, that’s Jane Doe’s organization, right?”

The term “Founder’s Syndrome” is often associated with overly puffed-up nonprofit directors who derive a disproportionate sense of self-importance from their work. However, there is another kind of Founder’s Syndrome that can be potentially as dangerous if left unaddressed: the fear that a nonprofit’s constituents experience when a beloved leader departs.

Susan Lape, Executive Director of the Lake Forest Symphony

Susan Lape, Executive Director of the Lake Forest Symphony, was named 2014’s Executive Director of the Year by the Illinois Council of Orchestras.

This topic came up in a session on artistic director searches at this weekend’s Illinois Council of Orchestras conference. The presenter, Susan Lape, talked about her experience as Executive Director of the Lake Forest Symphony when the organization’s longtime Artistic Director announced his intention to retire. She spoke of the anxieties that board members, donors and audiences expressed when they learned the news – and of her organization’s smart, empathic response to these fears. Her overall message was to be as transparent as possible with constituents about the process of engaging new leadership and honoring outgoing trailblazers.

Attending on behalf of a young client organization whose founder will hopefully be around for many years, I asked what nonprofits can do to avoid this type of mass-Founder’s Syndrome when the time comes. The most salient point that Ms. Lape made was this: if you want to avoid panic when the “face of your organization” leaves, make sure that your organization has more than one face. 

Nonprofits have a lot to gain by making sure that multiple staff members and leaders get face time with funders, clients and/or audiences, and the broader public. This ensures that constituents always have someone else to turn to when a key founder, director or president leaves. Relationships are not lost when one leader bows out; rather, they are shared, transferred, and nurtured through the transition. Board presidents, executive, development and program directors should all make every effort to meet constituents, introduce one another to their contacts, and build rapport with key supporters.

At Detroit Chamber Winds & Strings, our organization had many faces.

At Detroit Chamber Winds & Strings, our organization had many faces.

Savvy, memorable leaders understand that, in order for their legacies to continue, succession planning is non-negotiable. For that reason, they make a concerted effort to share their relationships and bring new organizational leaders into the “circle of trust.”

My first boss in the arts, Maury Okun of Detroit Chamber Winds & Strings, really did this well. I was a 22-year-old, entry-level staff member, but he was already personally introducing me to donors, taking me along on meetings with funders, and providing opportunities for me to speak publicly at events. He took the same approach with my colleagues,  and I think the practice saved him time in the long run. Instead of always turning to him, our audience members and donors knew they could contact any one of us for assistance and information.  We also learned very quickly about different aspects of the business, so that he could confidently delegate important tasks.

If you are a founder or director of a nonprofit, start thinking about your eventual transition as early as you can. Introduce your colleagues to your contacts. Allow them to speak publicly in your place. Be generous with your relationships, rather than defensive or guarding. By doing so, you will instill confidence in your supporters, and show the community that your organization has staying power because of its mission rather than individual personalities.

The Lake Forest Symphony chronicled its search for an artistic director in a documentary series, The Search, produced by Chicago’s WFMT 98.7 classical radio. This story of how a whole community came together to choose a new conductor is truly inspiring and worth a listen, even if you are a nonprofit manager outside of the arts. 


Aaron Dworkin, founder of the Sphinx Organization, welcomes attendees to the inaugural SphinxCon.

Over the weekend, I had the pleasure of attending the inaugural SphinxCon, a national conference focused on issues of diversity in the arts.

Founded by Aaron Dworkin’s Sphinx Organization and over a dozen national partners, the event featured speakers from across the country and beyond, each with a parcel of wisdom to offer. From successful artists and administrators to a Google exec, each was selected for his or her diversity-building prowess.

Aaron Dworkin, founder of the Sphinx Organization, welcomes attendees to the inaugural SphinxCon.

Aaron Dworkin, founder of the Sphinx Organization, welcomes attendees to the inaugural SphinxCon.

In my career as a grant writer, I have often found myself in the position of having to defend a nonprofit’s approach toward diversity (or lack thereof). Most foundations ask for demographic information in their application guidelines; some explicitly ask the applicant to detail a comprehensive strategy for improving diversity. For some of the organizations I’ve worked with, reaching diverse audiences is a true priority; for others, it is an afterthought that comes up a couple times a year, when applications are due.

In the context of the latter, the idea of diversity is completely dehumanized, reduced to numbers on a page. “Can we count John Doe as Asian? He has a Chinese grandmother, doesn’t he?” “We really need to find a black person to serve on our board. Asians are better than nothing, but the foundations really want to see African Americans.” Perhaps more than anything else, SphinxCon helped to put the humanity back into the dialogue around diversity in the arts — a dialogue that, paradoxically, often involves a group of white people talking about funding.

Truth about diversity in the fine arts

Paul Freeman recently retired from his post with the Chicago Sinfonietta after 24 years. "According to a survey by the Juilliard School," said Freeman, "We are the only orchestra in the U.S. to have diversity in its mission statement."

Paul Freeman recently retired from his post with the Chicago Sinfonietta after 24 years. “According to a survey by the Juilliard School,” said Freeman, “We are the only orchestra in the U.S. to have diversity in its mission statement.”

The most compelling parts of SphinxCon were the true stories of people who have cultivated intentionally inclusive artistic practices. Jim Hirsch of the Chicago Sinfonietta related the story of its founding artistic director, Paul Freeman, who was the first black conductor to appear at over 50 of the world’s great orchestra halls. Drawing on his experiences, Maestro Freeman established the Sinfonietta with a mission to remove participation barriers that limit artists of color. The Sinfonietta is now known as one of the most diverse ensembles in the world. Aaron Dworkin carries on his legacy with the Sphinx Organization, which provides rigorous training programs and performance opportunities to young black and Latino classical musicians.

In his opening address, Aaron Dworkin highlighted some staggering statistics about minorities in the field of orchestral music. One that really floored me was this:

Among works by North American composers performed each year, the percentage written by composers of color is statistically insignificant.

In calculating the percentage, North American Composers were specified, because of the dominance of European composers in classical music. Yet, even when limiting the pool this way, minority composers are so inadequately represented that the number of times their works are played each year may as well be “0” in the eyes of a statistician.

After they refused to let Marian Anderson perform at Constitution Hall, Eleanor Roosevelt resigned from the Daughters of the American Revolution and invited Marian to perform at the Lincoln Memorial.

After they refused to let Marian Anderson perform at Constitution Hall, Eleanor Roosevelt resigned from the Daughters of the American Revolution and invited Marian to perform at the Lincoln Memorial.

Over the course of the weekend, I heard many inspiring stories of minority dancers, singers, conductors and musicians who historically defied such odds and made names for themselves as successful fine artists. It feels good to hear stories like this, and to think about how far we’ve come since celebrated African American contralto Marian Anderson was denied permission to sing at Constitution Hall, or Janet Collins brokenheartedly refused a position with the Ballet Russe after being told she’d have to dance in white face.

But statistics like the one above remind us that we have a long way to go. African Americans still make up less than 3% of orchestral musicians in America; those who do enjoy successful careers are mistaken repeatedly for singers, as described by African American musicians Anthony McGill (clarinet, Metropolitan Opera) and Kelly Hall-Thompkins (violin, Mark O’Connor String Quartet) in an  interview with  WQXR New York’s Terrence McKnight.  Ballerina Misty Copeland has recently risen to fame, not solely for her tremendous talent, but because she is the first African American soloist for the prestigious American Ballet Theatre in twenty years.

When the people on the stage mirror the people on the streets, audiences will come

The United States is changing, and demographers estimate that by mid-century, non-whites will make up the majority of our country’s population. Some researchers and scholars estimate that the change in demographic makeup will happen much sooner; recent census data shows that the majority of babies born today are children of color.

African Americans are not the only group underrepresented in the fine arts — Latinos, Native Americans, Arabs, South Asians, East Asians and many others are often left out of the picture. During SphinxCon, Maria López De León of the National Association of Latino Arts and Culture made a plea to those in the room: “When you see us as a community, you will embrace us. What is the fear?”

In ten or twenty years, the predominantly white organizations that are currently viewed as the quintessential authorities on their art forms may be making a similar plea. As more than one speaker emphasized this weekend, successful organizations are those that look, feel and sound like the communities they serve. Concert halls, opera houses and art galleries are particularly intimidating places when one doesn’t fit the mold. With lower ticket prices, more laid back dress codes and attempts to integrate social media into performances, that mold is slowly changing. But it does not seem to be keeping pace with America’s rapidly changing demographics, and as a result, some of those “quintessential” organizations are floundering.

Denyce Graves sings the role of Margaret Garner during the opera's premiere tour.

Denyce Graves sings the role of Margaret Garner during the opera’s premiere tour.

Others, however, have the right idea. Rather than cling to the eerily eugenic idea of preserving the “purity” of classical art forms, they create programs and works that authentically involve artists of color, and speak to the heritages of our country’s growing non-white populations. A model example highlighted at SphinxCon was the commissioning partnership between the opera companies of Detroit, Cincinnati and Philadelphia that resulted in Margaret Garner, an opera based on the heartbreaking story of a fugitive slave in pre-Civil War America. With a libretto by Toni Morrison and a racially diverse creative team, Margaret Garner set records for opera attendance in Cincinnati, sold out in Philadelphia, and played to unusually large and diverse crowds in Detroit.

Similarly, Rackham Symphony Choir presents an annual production called Too Hot to Handel: The Jazz-Gospel Messiah each year at the Detroit Opera House. This energetic and uplifting piece is a modern-day take on Handel’s baroque-era masterpiece, The Messiah. Blurring the lines between jazz, gospel, pop and classical music, it has returned due to popular demand since its premiere in 2001. With world-renowned African American soloists, a Filipina-American conductor, and an orchestra comprised of classical musicians and Detroit’s finest jazz talent, Too Hot To Handel is one of the most authentic artistic representations of a community that I have seen. Everyone can find something to love, and each year diverse audience members sing, dance and cheer together. In a city that still reels from its history of racial mistrust, violence and segregation, the joyful spirit of the event contributes to the process of racial healing in its own small, but significant, way.

The elusive “how” of building diversity

Rackham Symphony Choir unites the best of Detroit's jazz, gospel, and classical music scenes in its yearly production of "Too Hot to Handel - The Jazz Gospel Messiah."

Rackham Choir unites Detroit’s jazz, gospel, and classical music scenes in its yearly production of “Too Hot to Handel – The Jazz Gospel Messiah.”

As stated by almost every speaker at SphinxCon, there is no easy or obvious path to improving diversity in the arts. All we can do is stay humble and openminded, and learn from our successes and mistakes. But how can we learn from them if we don’t share them?

This was one of the questions that gave rise to SphinxCon, and the conversation sparked by the event represents an unprecedented learning opportunity for all of us.

Presenters spoke to the importance of multicultural programming, collaborations, and leadership. Some organizations have been successful at achieving the first two, but not the third. Periodically highlighting the work of an artist of color does not automatically transform an organization’s demographic makeup. Experience suggests that minority artists and leaders are precursors to audience diversity; yet there is no definitive strategy for improving minority representation in the upper echelons of arts organizations.

Aaron Dworkin raised the thought-provoking idea of formalizing diversity policies, both within single organizations and across the sector. In support of this idea, he spoke of the National Football League’s Rooney Rule, which requires NFL teams to interview minority candidates for head coaching and senior management jobs. Established in 2003, the Rooney Rule requires nothing more than an interview with one minority candidate for each pertinent position. Violators of the rule are subject to hefty fines.

Since the Rooney Rule was put in place, the percentage of high-level positions held by people of color in the NFL has jumped from a mere 6% up to 22%, in a matter of less than ten years. In contrast, noted Dworkin, the number of minority orchestra administrators increased by less than one percent, constituting less than 2% of those in the field today.

Could a policy like the Rooney Rule be effective in the arts?

It wouldn’t be as easy to track, in the absence of a governing authority to oversee compliance. Nevertheless, the possibilities are intriguing. What if arts organizations publicly pledged to try such a policy for a period of time, even just on the honor system? Board members could take responsibility for compliance, and organizations could use a buddy system to monitor progress and support each other in developing more inclusive hiring practices. There would, of course, be the inevitable kinks; but if the results were even a quarter as impressive as the NFL’s, the sector would be a much more inclusive one.

We could call such a policy the “Dworkin Rule.” Given Aaron Dworkin’s beloved status, I don’t think anyone who was in the room this past weekend would dare violate it! To me, this was one of the most unique, out-of-the-box ideas raised at SphinxCon. It is no wonder that it came out of the conference’s innovative namesake organization.

The inaugural SphinxCon came to a close on Sunday. Looking forward to next year's conference!

The inaugural SphinxCon came to a close on Sunday. Looking forward to next year!

Thank you, Sphinx!

This weekend in Detroit, I heard dozens of ideas and opinions. Snippets of speeches and video clips continue to whirl around in my head. As I slowly process them, deciding which ones to carry with me and which to leave behind, I am glad that I heard them all. As Monica O’Connell of the Center for Black Music Research said in her presentation: “A conference of this type and scope is long overdue.”

During his closing statements, Aaron Dworkin had us each send ourselves an email or text message, containing only the word “ACT.” This was to remind to us, after we travelled home and settled back into our routines, of everything we learned at SphinxCon. He urged us to ask ourselves, again and again: “Am I being silent about something that matters?”

I think these are words worth revisiting — ideally, every day.

This afternoon in Lansing, a tremendous arts advocacy effort came full circle. 

The Michigan Council for Arts and Cultural Affairs (MCACA) announced $5,675,400 in funding for 312 grants to arts organizations throughout the state. Over 75% of applications received were funded, making for a lot of very grateful artists, performers, arts educators and nonprofit professionals — including yours truly!

What makes this cycle of grant awards so special, however, is that it represents the culmination of a very effective statewide advocacy effort. In 2009, the state budget for arts was slashed by 71%, leaving hundreds of MCACA grantees uncertain about the future of what was once a reliable annual source of funding. The maximum request amount for FY2010 grants was drastically reduced, and many grant writers (myself included) were left wondering if the application was even worth the trouble.

The tone of the Council meeting that year was somber. News of the drastic arts budget reduction came on the heels of the devastating recession, which had hit Michigan particularly hard and stripped many organizations of vital support from corporate sponsors.

Sensing our discouragement and hesitation, John Bracey, Executive Director of the MCACA, made a quiet, yet impassioned plea for us to submit our applications as usual. Doing so, he explained, would be a crucial demonstration of the need for state funding, and a statement of our commitment to bringing it back.

Those of us in the room understood that our very livelihood was on the line.

Throughout history, governments across the world have invested in the art of their people. Seeing the state’s mark of approval on promotional materials, contributor lists and financial statements gives donors a sense of security in supporting the arts. Even the biggest opponent of government spending is likely to be unconsciously validated, when he or she makes a contribution to the arts, by the knowledge that the state also deems this a worthy cause.

In Lansing that day, we understood that the potential elimination of the MCACA could mean the loss of our jobs, and the degradation of our treasured cultural sector. Teetering on the edge of financial ruin, our sponsors were pulling away, and so was our government. Who would be left to set an example for individual philanthropists?

What began that day was a cohesive, comprehensive advocacy movement. It began with submitting our MCACA applications, and continued with countless phone calls, emails and letters to legislators. We circulated evidence of the need for strong arts organizations in Michigan, and told our own stories of how the arts have supported us and our families.

Most importantly, we documented hard evidence of the fact that every dollar that goes into the arts sector is leveraged to drive at least $51 back into Michigan’s economy. By using the tools available to us through the Michigan Cultural Data Project, 211 arts organizations documented the economic impact of their existence. The financial data collected from these organizations revealed compelling facts such as the following:

  • In 2009, the group of organizations represented in the Creative State Michigan report contributed nearly half a billion dollars to the state’s economy through expenditures alone.
  • That same year, the sector paid $152 million in salaries for 15,560 jobs.
  • In 2010, arts and culture accounted for $2.1 billion, or more than 17%, of Michigan’s total tourism spending – more than golf, skiing, hunting/fishing, boating and sporting events combined.

Even staunch fiscal conservatives, like Governor Rick Snyder, couldn’t argue with these numbers. For years, our organizations had been touting the social, educational and emotional benefits of the arts, which to us are the most compelling reasons for our sector’s existence. Our touchy-feely elevator speeches weren’t doing it for our state’s new administration, though; we had to reach out to them in terms they could relate to. In this case, those terms were numbers.

Lansing heard us, and earlier this year, we learned that the 2013 budget for MCACA would be more than double what it was in FY2010. Maximum grant requests were increased, and we wrote our applications with renewed hope and enthusiasm. I wrote MCACA applications for two clients this year: Rackham Symphony Choir and the Scarab Club. Both organizations received grants more than twice the size of their FY2012 awards.

So, as a beneficiary of the cultural sector of Michigan, I want to say thank you to all of my colleagues. Thank you for taking the time to fill out the Cultural Data Project forms, for talking to your legislators, and for faithfully applying the MCACA when it seemed like a lost cause.

And thank you, most of all, to John Bracey and the staff and members of the MCACA. Your commitment inspired us to action, and now the organizations we love are reaping the benefits.