I’ve had the… um, “pleasure” of witnessing several classical music labor disputes, in a variety of locales, in a variety of guises. Most obviously, my personal and professional connections to the Minnesota Orchestra gave me a front row seat to observe its near-disastrous, 16-month lockout… but I’ve also been drawn into similar battles in Atlanta, New York, and elsewhere. I thought I’ve pretty much seen it all.
Well, I’ve just witnessed a new low. I’ve never seen a CEO so openly denigrate members of the community, nor so deliberately and maliciously slander a private member of the public simply to score points in a labor dispute.
I have now. Let me explain.
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First, let me back up a bit and provide a bit of context.
One of the most exciting developments to arise from the recent wave of labor disputes has been the rise of audience advocacy groups.
These groups have sprung up everywhere, but they were particularly important during the Minnesota Orchestra lockout. As the lockout dragged on, many members of the community came to the realization that as ticket buyers and donors, they represented the lifeblood of the organization—they were stakeholders. As such, they demanded that their voices, concerns, and aspirations be considered. But even more important, they took action with a wonderful sense of “git-‘er-done” gumption. Groups like Save Our Symphony MN and Orchestrate Excellence scheduled community forums, brought in speakers, conducted deep financial analysis, led focus groups, and arranged meetings of all kinds… and they have continued their good work long after the lockout ended.
The key was that they did not wait for an invitation to the table, nor did they waste time justifying their presence there; instead, they simply rolled up their sleeves and began the hard work of bringing the dispute to a resolution.
One man in particular embodied this powerful mixture of civic pride, determination, and inventive problem-solving displayed by our local audience advocates—the late Lee Henderson. Lee, a local attorney, described himself as “just a guy,” but in reality he was a force of nature. At a particularly bleak moment in the lockout, he presented his own proposal to end the dispute in a way that acknowledged the financial concerns of the management, but spoke the importance of engaging the musicians and keeping the music central to everything it did. He asked for community support for his plan, and the public responded by pledging $350,000 to implement it… all in just a few days. When the lockout ended, Lee went to work putting his superhuman efforts into healing the organization. He proposed—and secured—$100,000 a challenge grant, which was used as leverage to bring in $300,000 to the Orchestra… made up entirely of gifts from the community at large. Lee was the very embodiment of civic engagement and a can-do attitude, and his passing last year was mourned throughout the community.
All this is to say that I’ve seen the power of a brave, resourceful individual… and know the value of people like them to help break the log jam of seemingly intractable problems. These people are to be applauded.
Which is why I find a recent turn of events in Fort Worth so outrageous. Here again, brave, can-do people have tried to make their voices heard… only this time they’ve been shockingly slapped down.
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Over the past few weeks, there has increased frustration with the leadership of the FWSO, particularly the actions of its President and CEO Amy Adkins. Some have taken to contacting the organization to express their concerns, and some have written in to individual board members. Interestingly enough, one of my blog posts discussing the FWSO situation—and the potential downside for the community as a whole—was passed along as part of these messages.
One person, a concerned member of the public at large, was particularly active in contacting the board members, reaching out to as many as they could.
And that’s when it started to get ugly.
In response to these people reaching to the board members, FWSO President Amy Adkins wrote the following email, in which she denigrates small-scale donors, urges board members to ignore the public, and specifically defames this particular individual. (As this person has already had their good name dragged through the mud, I have redacted their name, along with all direct contact info.)
From: Amy Adkins
Date: August 2, 2016 at 12:01:27 CDT
Subject: Recent Email Message from FWSO “Supporter”
Dear Members of the FWSOA Board of Directors:
I am writing to address questions and concerns posed by many of you in regards to the letters and email messages you have been receiving from “musician supporters” over the last couple of months. I recognize this has been an intrusive and often offensive campaign. Please understand that this is an unfortunate, but not uncommon, union tactic to exert pressure and create conflict.
Let me begin by sharing some information about the general profile of the supporters sending these letters. By my count, we have received 19 letters. Of these 19, four of these “supporters” are not in our database, meaning that in the past 20 years, they have not purchased a ticket or made a donation. Of these 19, eight are subscribers. Of these 19, 11 have never made a donation to the FWSO. Of the eight that made donations, the average annual donation is $109.
I am also aware that most of you have received a particularly offensive email from [redacted]. I strongly caution you from responding to [redacted]. During the labor disputes in Minnesota and Atlanta, [redacted] actively harassed members of the management and board. You may be interested to read the following blog post by an attorney in Minnesota who served on the orchestra board.
It is unfortunate that your private information was shared with an individual of this nature who has no stake or direct knowledge in FWSO matters. Again, I discourage any interaction with this individual.
Thank you for your continued support.
My very best,
[contact information redacted]
This email disturbs me on several levels… allow me to provide a few comments.
To begin. No… reaching out to the FWSO’s leaders is not some “union” tactic, any more than contacting your local store manager, school board representative, or senator is. You contact them because you want to bring a concern forward. As I mentioned in a previous blog post, the loss of the FWSO will have a serious impact on the community; as stakeholders in the community, members of the community have a right and duty to advocate for its well-being and success. The board is ultimately the controlling body of the organization—they are stewards of a public trust. So it is natural to petition the board members for redress. Where else would concerned citizens turn? And to be clear, community members aren’t just reaching out to board members to talk about the weather, but in desperation to stop the organization from ripping itself apart. This is completely understandable.
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Then there is the second paragraph. First, I am astonished that Ms. Adkins writes off anyone not found in the FWSO database… there could be a thousand reasons for why they are not there. Maybe the writers are patrons of the Fort Worth Opera, and afraid of what a prolonged FWSO strike could mean for other organizations. Or a guy who prefers a rodeo to a symphony, but has a daughter just starting to learn the flute. Or civic boosters who are afraid about what the strike could mean for the community’s reputation. Or a business leader who worries that loss of amenities could make it harder to recruit top talent. Or nonprofit professionals who fear the FWSO is making a gigantic mistake. Or someone who has seen first-hand how a destructive labor dispute can rip an organization apart.
Who cares? The real question isn’t whether or not the people writing in are the right people, but simply whether or not they are right. Are their concerns well-founded? Are their points valid?
Worse, Ms. Adkins casually dismisses—and insults—anyone who hasn’t donated what she deems to be a sufficient amount. I’m appalled that she is so dismissive of people who, after all, are still donating to her organization. Let me point out that people work hard for their money, and it is terribly bad form to look down on donors like that. Size doesn’t matter—to a grandmother on social security, a gift of $25 is substantial and meaningful. Ms. Adkins is implying that if you’ve only donated $109, you can’t have anything useful to say, cannot have real concerns, and your opinion doesn’t count. So shut up already.
I’m curious as to what dollar level you have to contribute before you’re allowed to have an opinion.
Plus, this thinking is remarkably short-sighted. Major donors rarely appear out of thin air… they almost always start off as small donors whose gifts increase over time. And this isn’t just a concern for the future—by casually dismissing the plebs as having nothing worthwhile to say, she is alienating a huge pool of untapped allies right now. As I pointed out in my example above, Lee Henderson was not on the management’s radar, yet he took the initiative, stepped up to the plate… and on two separate occasions spearheaded mini-campaigns that led to hundreds of thousands of dollars in new pledges.
I mean, this is the essence of crowdfunding—something that’s all the rage in fundraising right now (think of Kickstarter or GoFundMe). It’s predicated on the notion of gathering together a lot of small donations from large number of people. They key is that these people often go unnoticed and their potential untapped… because fundraisers spend all their time trying to chase down that one, big gift. But when large numbers of $25 gifts are aggregated together they can add up to large totals, as Lee so powerfully demonstrated.
How many Lee Hendersons in Fort Worth is Ms. Adkins turning her back on? How many people out there has she preemptively dismissed because she doesn’t feel they are important enough?
If this represents the FWSO approach to fundraising, I’m not surprised that the organization has burned through five VPs of Development in the last five years.
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And finally there comes a slanderous grand finale—an attack that calls out a private citizen by name, and then drags that person’s good name through the mud. Ms. Adkins quotes outside sources to imply that one of the people reaching out to the FWSO board members was mentally disturbed, a stalker, and probably dangerous. Don’t like the message? Smear the messenger.
The problem is… every bit of Ms. Adkins’s attack is completely false. For one, the “lawyers” that Ms. Adkins uses to support her accusations don’t exist. They are entirely fictitious. No one with either of those names practices law in the state of Minnesota. No one with either of those names has served on the board of Minnesota Orchestra.
I mean, this is bizarre. It took me all of three minutes on the Internet to show that these “lawyers” were completely made up, and the site Ms. Adkins referenced was a fraud.
But I didn’t even have to do the digging myself. Andrew Patner, the late music critic who wrote for the Chicago Sun-Times, wrote about his experience with these very same “lawyers” here, and elaborated on dealing with these Internet fakes many times, in many locations. He also references the work of a Denver writer who wrote extensively about his concerns about this fraudulent website. This information is certainly available to the general public.
But even without that background, why on earth would Ms. Adkins have put such stock into this site or any info she found there? Did she read the site? Even a cursory glance? I mean, a 30-year-old lawyer with no resume or connection to the Minnesota Orchestra… serving on its board of directors? The Minnesota Orchestra board consists of senior executives from Wells Fargo, US Bank, Target, Medtronic, 3M, and General Mills, along with several lawyers from the state’s largest, most prestigious law firms. Why would they need a no-name thirtysomething? But also, the blog has no pictures of the happy couple. And seems to have a single author who writes, as the Denver writer put it, “in the style of a 1860s steamship operator.”
It’s not like I need to visit Snopes.com to debunk this.
There are only two options here:
- Adkins was so anxious to discredit a critic that she uncritically bought into a fantastical story hook, line, and sinker… which displays a shocking lack of critical thought, strategic planning, common sense, or a basic knowledge of how Internet scams work.
- Adkins was so anxious to discredit a critic that she knowingly slandered this critic with patently false information, assuming no one would realize what she was doing.
I don’t really care which of these choices are true, but the reality is… she used information that was obviously false to run a smear campaign against an individual whose only “crime” was to reach out to board members and express concerns about the organization they were tasked with overseeing.
And Ms. Adkins does so in the same email where she denigrates donors, and counsels board members to disregard concerned voices from the public.
This is the leader of a multi-million dollar nonprofit?
I can’t imagine why she still has a job.