TSO’s Young Leadership Council blazes new path for sustainability

publication date: Jun 22, 2012
author/source: Lisa MacDonald
Most people would agree that it's better to try something and fail rather than not try at all. But, what if your professional and organizational reputation is on the line? For Denny Young, senior director of development at the Toronto Symphony Orchestra (TSO), the jury's still out on whether the TSO Young Leadership Council will provide the hoped-for legacy for his organization.Lisa MacDonald photo

The final story may not be apparent for years. Yet, Denny knows that as a case study, the multi-year initiative already has many practical applications, not only for his arts organization but for other nonprofits seeking to engage Gen Y as donors and volunteer leaders. He shared his experiences with a roomful of fundraisers at AFP Greater Toronto Chapter's Fundraising Day 2012.

A question of perception

Young, a self-deprecating Boomer, uses research highlighted in The Globe & Mail to address five misconceptions about Gen Y workers that can make charities fearful about engaging the millennial generation in charitable activity:
  1. They don't want to be told what to do.
  2. They lack organizational loyalty.
  3. They aren't interested in their work.
  4. They are motivated by perks and high pay.
  5. They want more work-life balance.
Research has shown age to be less of an influencing factor in work force motivation and commitment. Instead, position in the work force and overall shifts in societal norms explain some of the inaccurate impressions that currently exist.

As a teacher at Humber College and Ryerson University, Young has a front-row seat to observe Millennials in their natural habitat. Here's what he's noticed:
  • They have an active communication style that makes them easy to interpret. If they want something they will say "I want this." No interpretation of passive-aggressive behaviour is required.
  • They are easily distracted, but so are we all. This is the time we live in.
  • Their experience is significant but with gaps. The challenge is to manage the fact that they don't know what they don't know.
  • They are curious and eager to learn. The fact that this generation values education and participates in it makes them more likely to become life-long learners.
  • Gen Ys have a view of philanthropy that is transactional in nature.
Support from the top

What led the Toronto Symphony Orchestra to adopt an initiative that will ultimately lead it to address operational silos and abandon traditional philanthropy processes?

It began with the success of the Soundcheck Program: a "dark-hair strategy" aimed at changing the TSO's audience demographic by offering $14 tickets online to anyone 15-35 years of age who registered in the program. When the board asked itself how that younger generation fit into the future of the symphony, it realized that it had to involve them in the conversation.

The strategy initiating the TSO Young Leadership Council was born out of a recognized need to start a dialogue with Gen Y: to better understand how young people want to interact with the arts, to provide a "farm club" for the Board of Directors and to gain feedback on ways to grow Soundcheck.

One step at a time

Young shared the steps that the symphony undertook to create the Young Leadership Council.
  1. Define the value proposition by undertaking a cost/benefit analysis
  2. Recruit co-chairs  and begin mentoring at the first meeting
  3. Design objectives. Collaboration begins here, but that doesn't mean it's easy to reach consensus.
  4. Pause, reflect and write an executable plan. Then report back to internal stakeholders. At that stage, board and senior management may need to be re-engaged as initiators of the strategy.
  5. Recruit the council - carry out interviews, communicate expectations and begin mentoring.
  6. Allow time for the council dynamic to gel (or as Bruce Tuckman would model it, "forming-storming-norming-performing")
  7. Define executive roles: in this case, a hybrid model of the TSO board with an injection of Gen Y ingenuity.
  8. Recruit council executive through a serious competition involving interviews and nominations.
  9. Create the Impresarios Club.
The Impresarios Club not only marked the first initiative of the Young Leadership Council but launched a whole series of firsts that challenged some of the TSO's pre-existing norms. It was the first time ever that a single package combined a ticket purchase with a donation. Marketing and development departments needed to re-engineer processes, and re-define recognition norms and the status quo of receipting and reporting.

Young says that so far, results of the Impresarios Club reflect a "slow burn" of success. The current roster of 50 club members is expected to increase to 90 by the third year. As a testing ground, it continues to offer more development opportunities.

Demonstrating vision

One danger of a case study is that it can condense time and effort into a package that looks deceptively simple. Yet I doubt anyone in this session left feeling like it was a low-work effort. He made the point that the strategy took five years to develop and launch. But the Young Leadership Council proclaims that the Toronto Symphony Orchestra expects to be around for a long time, and is prepared to invest effort in that future.

Lisa MacDonald is assistant editor of Hilborn's flagship newsletters, Canadian Fundraising & Philanthropy and Hilborn eNEWS. A degree in journalism and communications from Carleton University and more than 12 years of experience as a nonprofit communications professional inform her passion for and understanding of issues in this sector. Lisa welcomes your ideas and comments about this article.

Contact Lisa by email.

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