Donors and Decision-makers: The Control Issue

In my continuing travels around the country to visit symphony orchestras--I have now spent a day or more with 145 different professional orchestras--I learn a lot. I learn what is working and what isn't. I learn that local issues and conditions are critically important in understanding any orchestra's problems, and that while there is no questioning the value of good governance and management practice (not to mention the value of a good artistic product), those practices must be applied with knowledge and understanding of the local dynamics.
It is very interesting to see how some problems occur repeatedly in different cities. One that I have observed can perhaps be described as the controlling donor. This is the very generous donor, perhaps supplying the largest gift to the orchestra, who controls and shapes certain decisions that appropriately belong in the hands of the management and board of directors.  

Because I was not around when the gift and the "control" actually occurred, and because I did not know all the parties involved, I find it difficult to judge whether the issue is a too strong donor or a too weak board or management. Did the donor really mean to exercise control, or did their suggestion get more weight than perhaps even the donor intended, because everyone said "uh oh, we'd better not annoy him"?

Whatever the truth, I've experienced tales of music director searches derailed because of the wish of a donor, and other major institutional decisions made not through clear-headed institutional thought and discussion, but because one donor wanted it. This cannot possibly be healthy for an organization, and donors and boards both need to know it. Surely one listens to one's largest donors (and to the small ones too, I might add). Surely they have earned the right to be included in the discussion. But the generosity of the gift does not give a donor the right to make the decision--and orchestras would be well advised to stand firm in the face of that kind of pressure. You might keep the gift now, but you've set a pattern for the future that could be dangerous, even fatal.

And donors must recognize that being wealthy and generous does not give them special insight into the needs of an organization. Please don't misunderstand: I have no problem with gifts that are restricted to support a particular purpose; in fact, I encourage them. But the purpose must fit within the overall mission and plan of the orchestra.  

November 28, 2008 10:26 AM |



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