You Have to Love Your Product

Recently, a fundraising letter from the Minnesota Orchestra went out, inviting people to make a donation to the organization.  In normal times, there would have been nothing unusual about this—this is the time of year when all non-profits reach out to the community for just one more gift before the end of the year.

It is sad to report that this simple, innocent letter seems to encapsulate everything that is wrong with the Orchestra’s leadership right now… not just in how it is dealing with the organization’s finances, or how it is behaving in the labor dispute, but how it thinks about the Orchestra itself.

I’ll explain, but first let me say a few things about the letter itself.  And I want to make clear that I’m not trying to slam the individual letter writer—letters of this nature are generally a collaborative effort.  As such, I’m looking at this as less of personal correspondence than a window into the thinking of the organization as a whole.

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“Remember why the Minnesota Orchestra is important to you.  That reason applies today.  …Take a moment to write your story on the enclosed insert.  You may also consider telling us:  What does the Orchestra mean to you and why should it be preserved?

What is so worrisome about this statement is that you the organization don’t put forward a reason to love, value or support the Orchestra.  Bizarrely, you ask us to come up with a reason of our own, and to reflect on it.  Instead of actively convincing us to support the organization through the power of their words and imagery, you are telling us to convince ourselves, which seems to be an oddly passive approach.  But worse, you then ask us to feed these warm fuzzy stories back to you—presumably so they can be added into the next fundraising letter.  Can’t anyone in the back office come up with something of their own that might be compelling?  This doesn’t inspire me, nor does it inspire confidence that you really know your audience.

“One more season of memorable music and memories is not enough.”

Agreed.  But… I’m not sure who is saying one season is enough.  Is anyone proposing there should only be one more season?  Would anyone’s proposal result in only one more season?  Even in your most vehement criticism of the musicians’ proposals (as well as the proposals from your hand-chosen moderator that you later dismissed), you never indicated that the plans were so reckless that the organization would fold in 12 months.  It is standard practice to add a bit of urgency to fundraising appeals, but this seems a bit overstated.

“We cannot compromise on our future.”

Not long ago I posted a hard-hitting blog that argued that the Orchestra’s leadership had no interest in solving the underlying dispute… instead, they were simply fighting to win.  This comment essentially proves my point.  How do you propose to resolve this dispute without a compromise of some kind?  May I remind you that your “no compromise” posture has by all objective standards brought the organization to a crisis point?  Let me be blunt—your future is already compromised.

“You can help ensure, that when the negotiations end, the Orchestra has all the resources it needs to resume playing at the level we all remember.”

Why would donors have to give money now for some nebulous future event that may or may not take place, that may or may not take place in a timely manner, or that may or may not take place in accordance with the spirit in which the contribution was given?  The only way this approach could work is if you put the funds in escrow, but you don’t suggest that that will be the case.  Or, couldn’t people just give later, when they are sure their contribution will used correctly?

But another thing bothers me about this sentence.  You indicate that the Orchestra will have all the resources its needs once the dispute is over.  Well, right now it doesn’t have its music director, a quarter of its musicians, goodwill, a record of keeping its word, fiscal leadership, prudent management, an engaged board, a positive reputation, or allies in the community.  I don’t mean to be glib, but will my $25 contribution bring back any of those things, too?

“I ask you to remember why the Orchestra is important to you.”

I ask you the exact same thing.

This last comment isn’t snark—it gets to the real problem with this letter.  One the one hand, it is smoothly professional, and hits all the essential elements of a textbook solicitation letter.  It has a warm anecdote, it seeks to elicit a personal response from the reader, it offers choices for giving, it makes its points… but ultimately, it misses the entire point.

The thing missing from this professionally-crafted letter is… the Minnesota Orchestra.

Take the opening. The quote from “Joan” brings to mind a warm personal memory of a young girl’s excitement, but the Orchestra itself is tangential.  We have no sense of what the concert was like.  There is no mention of the ensemble, what they played, how it sounded or any of the emotions the music inspired.  Yes, she felt honored to go to the concert, but did she end up feeling elated, excited, agitated, joyous, or awestruck?  Could she feel the loud portions rattle her ribcage?  Did the rhythms make her want to jump out of her seat and dance? Joan’s anecdote could be describing a field trip to the state capitol.  How does this speak to us as readers—who are, presumably, music lovers?  For this letter, the organization has applied a generic fundraising formula, slapped on a new masthead that edits out Osmo as the Music Director, and dropped it in the mail.

Unfortunately, this is not an isolated incident.  Based on my own observations, conversations, and the materials coming out of the Orchestra, I have to say that this same kind of thinking has deeply permeated the Orchestra in all areas.

The orchestra is absent.

From the management’s perspective, there is a sense that the orchestra is a single monolithic entity, and that it either turns on or turns off.  It doesn’t matter who’s playing in it.  It doesn’t matter who’s leading it.  It doesn’t matter what it plays, or how it plays it.  All the management needs to do is shout “Orchestra!” and they expect that we’ll respond as if we’re in a Pavlovian experiment.

This thinking carries over into the marketing strategy as well.  Based on observations, conversations, and a thorough look at the Orchestra’s strategic plan, I’ve noticed a disturbing trend… everything is impersonal, mechanistic and pre-determined.  Don’t get me wrong—the materials are highly professional.  But the overall thinking seems to be that the organization will produce a lovely brochure, and that will drive sales.  The brochure, and not the actual product.  There is a troubling through-line that the product will not—and cannot—sell itself.  Therefore, it needs to be wrapped up in flashy packaging that will somehow minimize all of classical music’s presumed failings.  As a result, it feels like the focus of all the marketing is to drive up metrics, like email open rates or marketing code efficacy, rather than to bring the concert experience vividly to life.  These tactics are not in and of themselves bad, but the overall strategy behind them is severely flawed.

Beyond fundraising and marketing, this “orchestra-less” line of thinking also characterized the reconstruction of Orchestra Hall.  Yes, I know that people gave money specifically to that project.  Yes, I know that there are lots of people will give to a capital project who will not give to general operating expenses.  Yes, I understand that some of the funds were time-sensitive.  But as many people have shown over the last two years, the management engaged in a whole host of actions that destabilized the organization’s finances over the long-term simply to get the building completed now.  This episode has dramatically demonstrated that the Minnesota Orchestra’s leadership prioritized the building over the actual music.

And finally, there is no better example of how little the management values its core product than the fact that it re-wrote the Minnesota Orchestra’s mission statement to remove the words “orchestra” or “orchestral music.”

This is all wrong.  And to use a tired cliché, it means the Orchestra’s leadership is not seeing the forest through the trees.

I have argued many times before that the organization’s first priority should be in securing a great product.  It is a basic business truth that cutting your product’s quality is ultimately self-destructive over the long-term.  Our community is far more savvy than the management believes—it can certainly perceive different levels of quality, and has shown itself more than capable of responding accordingly.  I say with confidence that the community does value what the Orchestra plays and how they play it.

But more importantly, our community values who is performing it.  That haunting clarinet entry in the third movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony—that’s not some disembodied sound coming over the PA system.  Burt Hara made that sound, and we audience members know it.  The ecstatic violin line that soars at the opening of Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Serenade to Music? That was made by Sarah Kwak, and we know that, too.  We’re also well aware that the reason Alex Ross of the The New Yorker called the Minnesota Orchestra one of the finest ensembles in the world was due directly to the leadership of Osmo Vänskä—his artistic vision and his willingness to do the hard work necessary to achieve it.

And we also know that because of management’s actions, all of them have left the ensemble.

The Orchestra needs to put its product back at the center of its mission, its vision, and its strategic plan.  Celebrate the music.  Honor the people who make it.  Don’t apologize or minimize the orchestra—boldly put it front and center.  Shift your thinking so that your fundraising and marketing materials bring the concert experience to life.  Be proud of who you are and what you do.

Unfortunately, the “orchestra-free” thinking that has permeated everything the management has done over the last few years has been a colossal waste.  It has focused the organization’s time, energy and attention on all the wrong areas, creating a structural problem every bit as dangerous to the organization as the fiscal problems that management finds so worrisome.  A basic rule of business is that you have to have a good product in order to sell it… but the administration has flipped its priorities.

Sadly, I have to conclude that the Minnesota Orchestra leadership is more in love with its promotional materials than its actual product.

 

Xochipilli

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12 thoughts on “You Have to Love Your Product

  1. Actually the most disturbing to me is the comment about “…giving now this holiday season to ensure when the negotiations are over…..” The only reason to need to give now vs when negotiations are over would be for funds to keep the operation going while there is no Orchestra (like the $13M burn rate last year during the lockout). So as you suggest unless they are being escrowed until performances resume there is a risk this generosity will not go to the Orchestra, but rather the administration.

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  2. Part of the $13M spent in the last year included a $200,000 bonus for the CEO presumably to reward him for his excellent work. This is the person who heads a board that decided it was a good idea to spend $52M to remodel the lobby and then stiff the musicians and the citizens who actually support this entire enterprise. It’s time to dissolve the present organizational structure and regroup as a world-class symphony orchestra. This has been accomplished in many cities recently and it looks to me that the main obstacle to successful resolution to our situation is management.

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  3. The orchestra has lost not only musicians, but resources in administration: the stage manager and personnel manager have retired, the assistant personnel manager and the education director and others have taken new positions elsewhere. I wonder how many staff positions, key to the success of every performance and the ongoing vitality of the organization, are currently empty?

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    • And you have to wonder if the board and management aren’t a bit like the frog in the pot, as the water increases in temperature to the boiling point: they have gone completely into siege mentality, and truly and clearly are destroying the institution in what they see as their effort to “save” it. We must wonder for whom they think they are “saving” it. Experts of national stature have labelled their strategy as “flagrant mismangement” and as reflecting “the very worst of modern executive culture.” Should they and their Felhaber attorneys succeed in defending their shiny remodeled bastion of mediocrity from takeover by the City of Minneapolis, and suceed in retaining (what has now become their inequitable and improper) control of the endowment, and succeed in what is clearly their primary goal of “busting the union” – IF all of that: what have they won? Having destroyed a major cultural institution, tarnished the national and international artisitc reputation of the Twin Cities, and ultimately established a new second-rate orchestra in their new “business model” (note that no reference is made to changes to the “artisitc model”) – WHO IN THE NAME OF EMIL OBERHOFFER is going to support this organization and feel anything positive about attending their concerts! IF they win this battle (God forbid) are they so delusional that they cannot see that they have already lost the war?

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