Opinion » Commentaries

Silence is golden, except when it's not

It's time for people to speak up about the SLO Symphony and why things have changed

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Editor’s note: This is one person’s opinion about what happened with the SLO Symphony and why. 

According to Board Source, a Washington D.C.-based national organization that focuses on good governance practices for nonprofits: “Members on the board of directors of a nonprofit corporation hold a fiduciary responsibility. Fiduciary duty requires board members to stay objective, unselfish, responsible, honest, (and) trustworthy. … They need to exercise reasonable care in all decision making, without placing the organization under unnecessary risk.” 

For the first 50 years, the San Luis Obispo Symphony was sterling in word and deed. It was the true definition of a pillar of our community. Widely respected, it was a successful nonprofit, which focused on producing MUSIC. The San Luis Obispo Symphony was well received and well funded by huge numbers of donors and subscribers. Its efforts included a music education program with the schools, and a full youth symphony. At that time, everyone mattered. Kids mattered; teenagers mattered; moms, dads, dentists, business owners, schools, staff, board members, the maestro, and the orchestra members, all mattered. This was a viable and well-knit community, open to every single person who wanted to be involved. Everyone believed they were stakeholders, and everyone was. Trust and passion were the rules of the day. The symphony experienced great financial successes beyond anyone’s wildest dreams. Money is one reflection of how well you are serving your community. 

So, what happened? Actually, it is something that can happen at any charitable nonprofit. It happens when the collective community’s vision is pushed aside and a vacuum is found in the core accountability structure of the leadership. 

Let me say that again. When there are no accountability clauses built into your structure of bylaws and policies, you are at risk. At the symphony in 1961, no one thought this was necessary. Everyone was there for the right reasons. What could go wrong? Why prepare for something that has never happened? But that fundamental lack of accountability in any leadership system is like a parasite. It can infect anyone or anything or any organization. The lion may be king of the jungle, top of the food chain, seemingly impenetrable, and yet he can be destroyed by a parasite from within.

Six years ago, the symphony’s leadership began to change. It was imperceptible at first. As the leadership gradually changed, so did the vision and then the priorities. What was once a completely transparent organization that welcomed everyone at any time, day or night, gradually began to be less transparent. The first time it happened, it looked like a closed meeting of three board officers needing to discuss a possible large donation. The next time it was a closed meeting of the same three officers, without an agenda or information being shared. A few months later, it was an entire board meeting closed to staff and the executive director. This is a small community where businesses depend upon good will and networking. A hushed silence overcame those who recognized their networking opportunities would be at risk if they were to challenge these changes. 

That silence allowed a power structure to crystalize and then formally move from being inclusive to being exclusive. Bylaws were changed and then changed again. With each change, decision-making once held by the entire board of directors, the executive director, and the music director, gradually came to reside in a select small group of directors called the executive committee. Orchestra members serving as board directors had their voting rights removed, and while bylaws may be amended in California, voting rights can’t be changed (CA Corp Code A-5150). Other directors were allowed to stay in the executive committee for four to six years, rather than the previous one to two years. 

Some staffers left, some board members left, and the silence began to win. In this silence, the fiduciary role of the board blurred, and accountability became a struggle. This struggle forced out those who dared to speak up in protest. The leadership dropped its collective commitment to our community.  As this continued, it became noticeable that the community was responding by slowly withdrawing support. Gossip and innuendo became valued throughout the organization. And finally, communication—once open and cherished on all levels of the organization—is now through the spin of a press release, newspaper editorials, radio show commentaries, and Facebook posts.

It is an outrageous thing to have witnessed this small select group of people take actions that have resulted in a breaking apart of our beloved symphony. Beloved! I now realize that silence condones, so I am breaking this silence. To quote Edmund Burke, “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good [people] do nothing.” It’s time for good people to become the accountability arm of our many charitable nonprofit organizations. If they are succeeding, help them become sustainable. If they are falling apart, it might be time to create something new and better. Caring matters. Start by fully understanding fiduciary responsibilities.

Barbara-Jo Osborne was a member of SLO Symphony’s audience and a musician sponsor for the past 12 years. Send comments through the editor at clanham@newtimesslo.com.

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