Meeting the Economic Challenge: No Magic Pill, but Plenty of Resources

That these are difficult economic times is hardly a news flash. Symphony orchestras, like all other fields of endeavor, are facing challenges that are more serious--or, at least, might be more serious--than anything they have experienced in decades. Even the poor economy of 2001-2004 was not as challenging as what we appear to be going through right now. And perhaps the worst part of it is the uncertainty--the inability to know how deep and how long this will be, and exactly what impact it will have on our orchestras. 
Although the League of American Orchestras, the organization that serves nearly 1,000 American orchestras, has not found the magic pill that will cure it, the League is providing some guidance for those who make decisions in orchestral organizations. The information provided by the League is important, and should be seen by the managers and board members of every orchestra in the land.

It is very easy to make rash, wrong decisions--ones that appear sound on their face but in fact have a damaging effect on the organization, either in the long term or the short term. Cutting expenses without recognizing and examining the relationship between expenses and revenues can prove catastrophic. Certainly expenses have to be examined, and in many situations probably reduced. But this must be done intelligently, with open exploration of the effects and in an established internal culture that promotes debate and expressions of opinion, not one in which people are afraid to differ from their leaders.

On the League's website ( anyone can find this help. If you are not involved with the management or board of your orchestra but you care about the organization, make sure its leadership knows of these resources.  One critical piece is Good Governance in Challenging Times, a paper by League Chair Lowell Noteboom. Lowell is one of the finest and most thoughtful nonprofit governance leaders I have worked with or come across in my 45-plus years of involvement with nonprofit boards. In this paper he defines how a board should go about governing in times like these.

You can find Good Governance in the Knowledge Center section of the League's website. (Click here to link directly to the paper.) It was written in 2003, during the last economic downturn, and it is as good a piece as I have ever seen on the roles and responsibilities of boards. In these times, it should be required reading for all board members of all orchestras.

The League also offers considerable data and a number of other studies and resources, all of which can be accessed through the League's website. President Jesse Rosen and the League staff have assembled helpful tools and are organizing a free webinar. Here is some of what you or your colleagues will find:

    We have posted Guidance for Managing During Economic Downturns, prepared by League staff, faculty who led seminars during the post-9/11 downturn, and other knowledgeable sources.
    Also available is a new free webinar, Financial Management in Tough Economic Times. Designed to be watched at your convenience from any computer, this webinar is based on a well-received presentation at last June's NPAC Convention by the League's interim CFO, Steven Bronfenbrenner (principal, B-Squared Consulting).

While none of this material will immediately and easily solve any orchestra's problems in coping with today's economic environment, all of it will provide direction and wisdom. The art form that we all love--and for which we have a public trust to ensure not only its survival but its vitality for future generations--deserves our great care and judicious, serious thinking about the actions we take in difficult times. Knee-jerk responses are almost never the right ones.

Navigating these difficult times is a genuine challenge for all who have responsibility for the well-being of our orchestras. Anyone who cares about symphonic music has an interest in knowing that those in leadership positions are trying to meet that challenge responsibly, carefully, and intelligently.

January 30, 2009 9:51 AM |



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