Life in the Land of Non-Profit

by Jimmy Gilmore

I've lived in the land of non-profit for my entire career as a musician. After forty-one years as Principal Clarinetist with the North Carolina Symphony, I am now seeing life from the management side of the organization in my position as Senior Advisor to the orchestra. Serving on both the performing and management sides of the Symphony has deepened my understanding of non-profits and the problems inherent in running an organization in which breaking even at the end of the fiscal year is often a benchmark of success. Naturally we boast on those rare occasions when we have a surplus, but in the present economic climate, extra money is rare indeed. So, what do we do to give ourselves the best chance for meeting our budgets and facing the inevitable rise in expenses from year to year? Here are a few things I have learned.

There is no substitute for understanding and having a passion for the subject itself. This is certainly true in the arts. The more a person has delved into, and had artistic experiences, the more equipped they are to impart their passion to others. Believing in what you're doing is the basis of job satisfaction.

Of course it is essential for everyone in the company, and this includes boards of trustees, to have a clear understanding of the mission and how their job relates to accomplishing that mission. It sounds so simple, but I am amazed when I talk with people from a variety of non-profits who can't really articulate their role in the scheme of things.

For the most part, non-profits exist to support worthy causes. But worthy causes aren't things you sell to customers. Our difficult task is to ask people, foundations, corporations, and governments to make gifts to support our worthy causes. Orchestras are fortunate because promoting the greatest music ever composed not only supports our ideals, but also allows us to produce the live experience in the concert hall. In order to do this, we must sell tickets, make proposals to foundations, and ask patrons to support the orchestra with a donation above the cost of their ticket.

A non-profit organization is a distinctly different animal from its for-profit cousin. It is folly to think that the two can be run the same. Yes, good business principles apply, but when, for example, a non-profit runs a deficit, those in charge tend to panic and start indiscriminately slashing the budget. Any cut that compromises the ability to pursue your mission is a bad cut. If you can't perform your mission more cuts will become necessary as the public loses confidence in the organization. A balanced budget is a hollow victory if you have rendered the organization incapable of fulfilling the very purpose for which it was created. It is better to pick and choose cuts carefully, reorganize plans and people, and get moving to broaden the base of support, than to get caught in a downward spiral of cuts. So continue your mission and accept the fact that it may take more than one fiscal year to bring down a deficit.

One important key to success is what I call "casting". This means that managers and CEO's must know the background, strengths and weaknesses, and the character of those they oversee. Over the years I have seen so many mistakes made when the wrong person was assigned a job that didn't suit their talents or temperament. We should never ask Pee Wee Herman to play King Lear!

There is no doubt that many of those who work in the non-profit sector are idealistic, highly educated, and are seeking to make a difference in the lives of others. This indicates that most of their motivation comes from a desire to do something worthwhile in this world. If there are non-profit organizations around in a hundred years, it will be because of individuals who served in the name of a worthy cause.

Bottom Line: In arts organizations and across the sector, nonprofits' success depends on passion for the mission, clear understanding of roles, sound business decisions, and people who can pull it all together to make it work.

Jimmy Gilmore performed for 41 distinguished years as the Principal Clarinetist of the North Carolina Symphony and has recently transitioned to an administrative role as its Senior Advisor to the sympohony. Mr. Gilmore plays an integral role in fundraising and public relations.

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