FWSO WTF

That Amy Adkins… CEO of the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra (FWSO)?  More and more I’m convinced she just ain’t right.

The FWSO musicians are currently on strike, and in a recent article in the Dallas Observer, Ms. Adkins faces hard questions about her and her administration’s actions leading up to the strike.  Are the punitive cuts she’s seeking from the musicians just a cover for her own wasteful spending and fundraising blunders?

Rather than justifying her actions, or justifying the necessity for further cuts to the musicians’ paychecks, Ms. Adkins engages in a bit of jaw-dropping spin.  And I’ve come away more convinced than ever that she has no business running an arts organization.

A few responses to most egregious statements.

* * *

“Adkins says corporate mergers and acquisitions have resulted in a loss of $350,000 annually; the grant the FWSO received from the Arts Council last year, $155,000, was half of what it received in 2009.”

Wha…. Do we remember what happened in 2008-2009?  The economy crashed.  It got some coverage in the press, where it was frequently referred to as the “Great Recession.”  I’m sorry, was she expecting the level of state-provided funds to continue at pre-recession levels? Or that these levels would continue seven years after the economic crash?  Was she continuing to build a budget around state-provided funds at that same pre-recession level?

Was she also expecting these checks to be delivered by leprechauns riding unicorns?

I’m stunned that someone would say that out loud, let alone use it as a justification.  Yes, obviously there is a kernel of truth to it, but nearly every arts organization I’m familiar with made the leap to post-recession budgeting years ago, and did so with a cold, realistic sense of what they could realistically raise.

More to the point, these various and sundry groups are financially thriving… around the country, and in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. As I’ve mentioned before, around the same time frame that the FWSO began stalling negotiations with its musicians, the Dallas Symphony Orchestra announced a balanced budget with $7 million in annual fund contributions, plus more than $25 million in contributions and commitments to a long-term initiative to provide a sustainable future. Plus, a few weeks ago the Fort Worth Opera successfully completed its 90-day, million dollar match campaign.  It exceeded its goal to bring in $500,000 in three months, with 100% participation by the board and staff.  Significantly, this all led to a 100% increase in its donor base.

If all these groups were able to find replacement revenue streams to make up for losses in corporate and government funding, why didn’t Ms. Adkins?

 

“This deficit is puzzling because there seems to be steady demand in Fort Worth, even with competition from the Dallas Symphony Orchestra. Sales were up 14 percent from last year and their most popular event, Concerts in the Garden, broke attendance records and raised over a million dollars.”

Yes… “puzzling.”  Many groups would leap with joy to receive a 14% bump in attendance.  Or to break attendance records.  And to do both at the same time…?  In most cases, that would help close the financial gap, not augment it. So what happened? What else is missing in this story?

 

“As an example, they point to a billboard on Forest Park Boulevard in Fort Worth that the orchestra leases to promote its events. Unger says it has been blank for some time, despite being paid for through April.”

Ms. Adkins has paid to use a billboard for months but has chosen to leave it blank?

 

“Adkins says that the decision to leave the billboard blank was made after the musicians went on strike in early September and performances were beginning to be cancelled. The cancellations are unavoidable because the FWSO could not afford to hire replacement musicians. ‘In order to conserve our lean marketing budget, and to avoid further patron confusion, we temporarily suspended the use of the billboard so as to use our marketing funds to promote future concerts,’ she says.”

The problem is that most people, when faced with a strike or some other labor dispute, seek to resolve it.  That is, in fact, exactly what happened with the Philadelphia Orchestra; when the musicians went on strike, the management flew into emergency negotiation sessions that resolved the strike in less than 48 hours.  And significantly, no advertising was impacted.

In Fort Worth, however, the management cancelled all concerts through the end of the year, and clearly had already made arrangements to leave the billboard blank—outdoor advertising is planned out well in advance.

So, it’s pretty obvious that this “unavoidable” black hole in terms of concerts and advertising was planned well in advance.

 

“Adkins adds that management entered the Oct. 22 meetings hopeful about what might result. ‘The board and management were encouraged that the union wanted to come back to the table, and we were hopeful that it would lead to productive discussions and a resolution to the strike,’ she says. ‘However, the union had not altered its position, despite its knowledge and recognition of the Orchestra’s financial condition.’”

I have the distinct impression that Ms. Adkins’s medical condition referenced in this article wan’t an “emergency appendectomy,” but rather a case of her falling and hitting her head.  Hard.

Ms. Adkins, do you remember how over the last 15 months of negotiations the FWSO management never deviated once from its “best” offer, to the frustration of musicians… and the federal mediators brought in to try and find a solution? You were attempting to impose a contract unilaterally on the musicians, which is why they declared a strike.  In a previous story in the Star-Telegram, you stated: “We cannot allow a threat from the union to coerce us into fiscal irresponsibility.”

It is astonishing that you are trying to label the musicians as recalcitrant.

And the line “despite its knowledge and recognition of the Orchestra’s financial condition” is also astonishing.  The Orchestra’s “financial condition” isn’t an inalienable truth, but your opinion… and your starting position in negotiations.  It is the key point of contention.   And given the weakness of your argument in support of it, I’m not surprised the musicians don’t agree with it.

 

“‘We have contributed at the Circle Level for several years and previously received quarterly hard copy updates from management on the state of the symphony,’ says donor Jean Hadley. ‘We ceased getting those or any targeted communication about a year and a half ago. We did not receive the annual fundraiser request in September 2015 or 2016 and did not make our regular donation.’

Phil Hoskins, a season ticketholder at the FWSO for 25 years, says despite having contributed in the past, he has not been asked to donate either. ‘The only contact we have had, in terms of giving, has been recent invoices for our tickets with the suggested $100 contribution; never anything from a fundraising drive.’

Scott Chaney, who bought a table for the gala last year, worth a $4,000 donation, said he was never thanked or asked if he was interested in making a more substantial donation.

‘I think my wife had found out something about what the musicians were being paid and it’s not like they’re getting rich,’ he says. ‘We bought a table to try and support. With the lack of follow-up it became clear to us that maybe they don’t have people who do that kind of thing to keep the ball rolling. Maybe it’s easier for them to cut salaries than call people.’”

This is perhaps the most stunning portion of this whole piece.  It goes without saying that the best way to receive contributions is… to ask people for contributions.  And any fundraising professional would tell you that it is far, far easier to raise money from people who have already donated—they are already committed and clearly already support you.  Why snub donors?  Why on earth wouldn’t you send them a renewal letter?  Or cultivate them into becoming larger donors? This seems yet another example of Ms. Adkins’s cavalier attitude to donors she displayed a few months ago when she outright told her board members not to pay attention to people whose average gift was less than $109.

 

“She cited that the FWSO raised $3.1 million from individuals alone last year, including 1,200 new donors. She directly disputes the idea that the orchestra has not been aggressively fundraising.

‘The organization conducted more than a dozen distinct fundraising campaigns including three special events that raised more than $1 million,’ she says. ‘Data provided from the FWSO development office conservatively estimates that the Orchestra made more than 225,000 solicitations during the 2015-16 season that ended on July 31 through direct mail, email, tele-fundraising and major gift campaigns.’”

Ms. Adkins response is one of those statements that seems to make perfect sense… until you think about it.

In the aggregate, and without any context, $3.1 million and 1,200 donors sounds impressive.  And 225,000 solicitations?  Wow! That sounds like a lot!

But what do those numbers really mean?  The $3.1 million… was it what the FWSO should have brought in? Could have brought in?  And what was the goal?  What was needed?  Ms. Adkins herself seems to argue elsewhere that this total was so insufficient that the organization is on the brink of financial meltdown, and here she defensively holds it up as a point of pride.

A few follow-up questions.

Did the FWSO gain 1,200 donors who gave smaller gifts at the expense of larger, already-committed donors who could have given more had they only been asked?  How are those new donors being cultivated to donate again next year… how is she growing the pipeline?

And the 225,000 solicitations… from mail, email and telemarketing calls?  Okay, I’ll bite.  What “counts” as a solicitation? What percentage of that 225,000 number represents emails that were sent out?  What was the open rate of those emails?  What was the response rate? What were the costs associated, and the cost of staff time?  What was the overall rate of return on investment?  Similarly, how many telemarketing phone calls goes into that 225,000 total, and what was the answer rate, and the rate of conversion?

It’s astonishing that when faced with evidence that actual donors are expressing surprise that they haven’t been receiving fundraising solicitations over the last couple of years, Ms. Adkins responds by saying, “Well, we’ve sent out 225,000 emails!”  That’s meaningless.  Talk about segmentation! Percent growth! Percentage to goal!  Real numbers!

Also, fundraising campaigns are run off of data.  Is she sure that those 225,000 people went to the right people?  That they used the correct contact information?  That they reached out at appropriate times? That the people who received these contacts were capable of and interested in responding? Barraging a family with repeat emails, sending out dead letters, or harassing people who have no interest in making a gift would count to the 225,000 total, but not the contributed income total.

And… what do you say to those specific donors who were so astonished to have not seen a solicitation that they would talk about their bewilderment to the press?  In the modern world it takes three seconds to check your donor database and see if those people were, in fact, solicited.  Ms. Adkins wouldn’t necessarily want to give these donors’ giving history to the press, but her obvious answer should be: “My goodness, I’m horrified they feel left out! I’ll look into their records immediately and re-engage them!” Instead, she shrugs and says, “Hey, I sent out 225,000 emails.  It’s not my fault they feel left out!”

 

“Adkins adds that the deficit the FWSO has been operating under for the last five years is so great that it cannot be resolved through individual contributions alone.”

So… why is she fundraising?  And how does crippling your core product—music concerts—help in any way?  Doesn’t that simply provide an even less compelling case for funding next year? I mean, what does she put in her solicitation letters? Something like: “Last year, your gift of $100 ensured that we produced 30% fewer concert, engaged 5,000 fewer students, and dropped 10 more musicians than ever before!  We invite you to give a new gift of $100 this year—just think of what it will enable us to cut this year!”

* * *

I get that the FWSO is at a tense moment—a time where emotions are riding high, developments are moving fast, and folks are particularly cautious in their public remarks.  But something really troubles me about this piece… it’s not just that Ms. Adkins points are so flimsy, so easily batted away.  The overall tone Ms. Adkins is using here is just… off.

To be blunt, she isn’t acting as if she wants to save the organization, but simply to be clear that she is right.  This is also evident from her other statements to the press… but most importantly from her actions.  If she truly believed that her actions were a desperate, and desperately-needed remedy to save an organization on the brink… she would convey that.  We’ve seen this in other situations where arts organizations really were on the brink.  If ruin is imminent, and you know your plan is the last one, you don’t argue and throw out defensive justifications, you become an evangelist.  If your data unassailably proves your plan is the only one that will work, it should speak for itself, right?  All you’d need to do is to make your proof available.  You’d ceaselessly engage with negotiation partners, because everything supports your last ditch effort, right?

If your ideas were right… people would believe you.

But instead, the community is saying, what the heck is going on?  It’s not just the musicians, but donors, former board members, and members of the press who are raising objections.

That makes Ms. Adkins’s feeble justifications seem even more feeble.

.

Xochipilli

 

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5 thoughts on “FWSO WTF

  1. I think you’re right on the psychology. Her public comments reveal that she wants it both ways: she defends her shrinking, understaffed development department and its constant churn with the comment that the CEO is actually the chief fundraiser….then goes on to emphasize the reduced donations. She claims responsibility but is never ever at fault.
    Adkins also has harped on dwindling corporate gifts – never acknowledging that individual giving has always been the mainstay of support, just as it is for most nonprofits. That group on the FWSO board could solve this crisis by going through their couch cushions.
    Perhaps one of them could gently tap chair Mercedes Bass on the arm and suggest such a thing.

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  2. Ms. Adkins only course of action at this point is to submit her resignation and allow the board to hire someone with fresh innovative ideas on fundraising who is not furiously hiding their blunders and inadequacies. Hopefully she possesses enough self awareness to make this decision and move on. And hopefully the board reconsiders their stance and possesses enough gumption to admit that perhaps there are other options than the erroneous position they have roped their selves into by following her directorial roadmap.

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  3. My thought is that usually these sorts of impasses are being orchestrated (pardon the pun) by a strong board member who is trying to force union-busting policies on an arts organization because they think it should be run like a for-profit business and they hate the idea that the musicians’ union can make any kinds of demands. What we tend to forget is that arts organizations like these are BUILT to NOT show a profit, and ALWAYS depend on donations. That is the whole financial setup: it is a NON-PROFIT, and there must always be a fantastic development department who is continually out there to drum up the community (and financial) support. I wonder if there is someone on the board who is pushing this, rather than just the ineptitude of Adkins’ managerial and fundraising prowess. You don’t neglect to hire the development staff that EVERY OTHER comparable arts organization has if you are not trying to starve the organization.

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  4. I support the musicians over management. However, when you post a blog like this, please check your information very carefully. I went and read the article you quoted because it was far more insightful than your post. For example, you wrote:

    “In Fort Worth, however, the management immediately cancelled all concerts through the end of the year”.

    This did not happen. Only a portion of concerts were cancelled when the strike was first called. On October 22, following further failed negotiations, the remaining concerts were cancelled through the year. They weren’t “immediately cancelled” as you wrote.

    Please correct your information so that your point can be made more clearly. Once again, I agree with you, but it’s just poorly presented.

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    • Thank you for the comment. My apologies if this was unclear… and I often forget that for many readers, these posts might be the first time they are running across this information. My comment here is a bit of shorthand, based on the assumption that the details have already been hashed out more fully. You are correct… the FWSO management did immediately cancel several weeks of concerts, and then in October cancelled concerts through the end of the calendar year. I’ll happily edit that statement, but I very much stand by my original point… the fact that the FWSO management has chosen to cancel concerts—during a time of year that is usually chock full of profitable holiday concerts—instead of returning to the negotiation table is unconscionable. And very much shows that it is not trying to resolve the situation, but to play hardball with the musicians. Again, the cases of the Philadelphia Orchestra or the San Diego Opera show just how fast a management can resolve a dispute when it is motivated to do so.

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