I have written that the true deficit that leads to an orchestra’s downfall, is the deficit in leadership. There is something else that also is a huge contributing factor that can also lead to major systemic problems, and potentially can lead to the deficit in leadership: The erosion of a collective conscience. It takes on many forms, but the whole pension debacle puts it into a very sharp focus….
The end game is always, “well we can’t afford it now”. However in the beginning, the collective conscience of a board was one that wanted to provide a pension to the musicians to honor them for giving the best years of their lives to an orchestra and its community (which is often not where they’re originally from). The pension is a form of gratitude demonstrating that a musician’s contribution will not be forgotten and that they deserve a prosperous retirement or at least an assist. The saddest part of all is that a current board who makes the decision to get out of the pension obligation, is not the same board who’s conscience created it. With the current board there is little to no tangible connection to the people who are relying on that pension, and the message sent is that they are only concerned with the now. The community notices how people are treated, and the musicians in the orchestra do have a tangible connection to those who have left, and are now realizing that the board has little or no concern for them personally. That is a huge deficit that is hard to overcome in terms of the kind of organization you appear to be and how you treat “your people”. It creates an atmosphere of distrust which is contagious and becomes mutual in a big hurry.
Criticism if often leveled at former board members who implemented an idea that is now challenging to pay for. The one’s who join the same board years later know going in that they have to pay for it! (or at least they should know). It really bothers me that a board thinks that a pension payment is simply something owed and is optional, when in fact it is owed because it was already EARNED and should be MANDATORY!!! Sure it’s challenging to meet financial obligations at times (we all know that!), but the pressure of performing is also challenging, and you rarely if ever see a musician bail on that. In short, a board with conscience should see the pension not as an obligation but as a mission, a policy that their people come first, that life security is more important ultimately than job security.
Signs that a board’s conscience is fracturing takes on many forms, anything from the personal agendas and beliefs of individuals determining big decisions, all the way to the accepting of a large donation in return for changing the mission (they are bylaws, not BUYlaws!), or the withholding of a donation if it isn’t changed! When those things are allowed to seep into the culture of an organization, then potentially big trouble is ahead. (As an aside I would choose fifty $1000 donors over one $50,000 donor). Naturally leaders on a board will emerge, but there is a big difference between a Leader who has an open mind to different ideas but always refers to the governance, past practice in place and accepting change based on consensus, over a Ruler who has a closed mind to any idea except their own and who has little regard for governance, past practice or the current leadership. There has to be an investment in board synergy and a total respect for the hierarchy too. Even if a person in a leadership position is not respected, the actual position they hold needs to be, otherwise that position has little meaning going forward and again decisions that are based on personal feelings over the greater good and due process spell trouble. The best people will leave when that happens, and it will be very difficult to recruit solid board members when a board is being Ruled.
With mandated board turnover there needs to be a transference of not just the book of bylaws, but also the transference of the respect for a value system and system of governance that took many years to craft. Add the collective conscience that protects the people who serve now, but also honors in a tangible way those who have served the organization in the past, and what will be in place is a solid foundation, a consistent message and a clear mission which are keys to sustainability. More importantly the organization will be seen by the community as one that cares, and therefore worthy of support.