Progressive, proactive board guides symphony’s success past COVID | Notes on Nonprofits

Tori Schneider/Tallahassee Democrat

In this week’s column, I invited Amanda Stringer, CEO of the Tallahassee Symphony Orchestra (TSO), to share how she and the TSO board have made important decisions before and during the pandemic to serve the community and advance their mission. She shares four principles about how to manage a vibrant nonprofit.

Several years ago, when I proposed a balanced budget to the Tallahassee Symphony Orchestra’s Finance Committee, one committee member challenged me. Her comment? “I don’t see vision or aspiration in this budget. It doesn’t tell me a story about where we’re headed.”

I was perplexed, a little miffed, and almost insulted by this. I was so proud that I’d counted every penny and had such command of the numbers, yet to this board member, the budget was a disappointment, without aspiration and vision.

In retrospect, I see what a wonderful learning opportunity this was for me, and I’ve grown in my understanding of the nonprofit world as a result of this push-back from a board member.

This meeting subsequently led me to understand four principles about how to manage a vibrant nonprofit: 1) if you’re not growing, you’re dying; 2) venture capital should be a part of a nonprofit’s budget; 3) nonprofits shouldn’t just balance their budgets, but should strive for surpluses each year, and 4) vision must always drive decision-making.

Now, having come out on the other side of the COVID pandemic, I look back on all the ventures at which the Tallahassee Symphony Orchestra (TSO) has tried, failed, succeeded, and thrived.

Without a doubt, it is because of the tough questioning of an informed board, the members’ thoughtfulness, and ultimately their willingness to be proactive and progressive that the TSO has been successful. It has become part of the DNA of the TSO board to discuss, debate, bring hearts and minds to the table, and then make important, sometimes difficult decisions.

Over the years, the TSO has embarked on social awareness projects that have made our organization face hard questions about our mission and willingness to “lean in.” For instance, our 2017 “Requiem of Resistance” concert, which powerfully told the story of Jewish prisoners at Terezin, compelled the Board to approve hiring security officers to scan attendees to ensure no concertgoer walked in with a weapon.

Two years later, despite the concern of some prominent community members, the TSO board voted to move forward in presenting Joel Thompson’s “Seven Last Words of the Unarmed,” a work that not only quotes seven Black men as they lay dying at the hands of authority figures, but also captures a provocative emotional intensity.

This was nearly two years before the tragic death of George Floyd and the reckoning our country has faced in the past twelve months. The TSO’s performance of the work skyrocketed from 7,000 views to 61,000 on YouTube following Floyd’s death.

There have been less public successes that are equally proactive and ambitious. The TSO board was one of the first symphony boards in the nation to approve an entirely virtual season for our ensemble, recognizing as early as April 2020 that in-person events were not likely to happen in the foreseeable future.

And just this past month, the board has taken the prescient step of requiring musicians to be vaccinated to perform on the 2021-22 season to protect our musicians and audiences.

Finally, I come back to “venture capital.” In April 2020, the TSO board approved a budget with a significant deficit to keep musicians playing, initiate a virtual season, invest in the technology necessary to do so (and quickly learn how to use it), and, most importantly, to move forward boldly and definitively in the face of crisis.

We took a leap of faith to spend our reserves and, ultimately, were instead able to utilize grants from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, Council on Culture and Arts, Florida Department of Cultural Affairs, and Leon County CARES. These sources, along with two PPP loans and the generous support of our patrons and donors, enabled us to end the season with a surplus.

This early investment in technology through the “venture capital” was crucial to our success during the pandemic. Because of the board’s willingness to make tough calls during tough times, the TSO’s 2021-22 season was an artistic and financial success.

And certainly, the board’s decision to pivot to a new kind of season was a courageous one considering it was made over a Zoom meeting, not one where members were seated across the table from one another. To me, this demonstrated the incredible level of trust they have in one another-trust that underpins their admirable tenacity.

As we emerge from the COVID pandemic, the TSO is moving ahead with an in-person 2021-22 season despite having no guarantee that our normal sources of revenue will be available. But also with a plan to aggressively pursue new dollars and renew existing support.

Our orchestra, replete with a broad representation of artists, is joyfully moving through a new landscape, led by an undaunted board of directors. We believe progressive, proactive boards must take the bold steps necessary for nonprofits to thrive and look forward to the new challenges of a post-COVID world.

By Amanda Stringer | Courtesy of the Tallahassee Democrat