Breaking through the ‘Fourth Wall’

Dec 18, 2015
Meaghan Williams used a class project in her MBA program to create a stronger donor relationship within the symphony orchestra in which she performs.

Meaghan Williams used a class project in her MBA program to create a stronger donor relationship within the symphony orchestra in which she performs.

Symphony musicians, to their audience, would appear to have a simple job: in black and white uniforms, arrive with their instruments, play with passion and perfection, receive applause, then leave for home.

However, with arts funding ever-perilous, and a bright, dedicated SFU Beedie MBA student, a simple play-and-go proposition became much more, and an outstanding success. Meaghan Williams, soon to be an SFU Beedie School of Business graduate, is that person.

Meaghan’s MBA courses, focusing on Leadership, Marketing and areas where good business administration can be employed, led her to a role within her music world that she never imagined.

Meaghan’s orchestra had an existing fundraising technique: loyal and important Chair Sponsors could sponsor an individual musician, ensuring essential funding was there for that position.

Said Meaghan: “My Leadership course required that I find a project where I could see ‘a gap’, and build a successful bridge to solve an issue. Naturally, I looked first to the symphony, and my passion there as a musician.”

She realized that while her Chair Sponsor had supported her, she’d never met her donor – nor had many of the other sponsored musicians. At the same time, her MBA Leadership project called for making a change or action that generated a significant, beneficial effect to the organization she chose. Naturally, given her musical passion, Meaghan’s first thoughts turned to her symphony, and her project has made a profound change to its donor base.

“I was lucky enough to have a brilliant Executive Director, who thought the seed of my idea was a good one, and an effort that would endure. In short, he said: ‘go for it!’”

“I didn’t find the notion of the project frightening. While this was an area very much outside the traditional role of a musician, I drew on my MBA learning in Leadership and Marketing to see the project through.”

Meaghan addressed a key element of all nonprofit organizations: donor recognition. She thought a one-to-one message between sponsored musician and Chair Sponsor could generate a stronger relationship between donors and the symphony. But given a shortage of funding and manpower – how to do it?

“My first thought was thank-you cards: when people do something nice for you, you should thank them. It was that simple – although ‘how to get there’ was much more complex.”

Contacting a local printer, Meaghan asked for a pro bono project (an “in-kind gift”, in fundraising terms): the task of printing thank-you cards designed specifically for her brand-new initiative.

Her printer more than delivered on Meaghan’s request. She had clearly mastered her Leadership and Negotiation skills from her MBA program: the printer-entrepreneur not only agreed to produce the thank-you cards, but also promised to provide future pro bono work.

With thank-you cards ready, Meaghan rallied her fellow musicians – who were Chair Sponsored – to write personal thanks to their supporters at the end of the symphony’s season.

“Those individualized cards from musicians to donors made a large impact, I believe. The personal touch goes a long way, and I really want to continue with this program to build community support.”

Meaghan drew from her Beedie MBA learning. “This is such a small step forward, but I learned from my Marketing class that conversations between ‘marketer’ and ‘consumer’ is critical. I really feel we have to engage in a two-way dialogue with the wonderful people who support us.”

“When you’re a performer, it’s very common to talk about the ‘fourth wall’ – an invisible wall between the front of the stage and the audience. I think we’re beginning to cross that fourth wall, and bring the symphony and the community closer together.”

Meaghan’s instructor, lecturer Donald Durand, talks about this unique and innovative project in leadership. “In the MBA program, we dispel myths about leadership, that leaders are people with inherent ‘leadership’ qualities. It takes a Meaghan, who is committed to cause a brand-new outcome. She didn’t have all the answers at the beginning; instead, she had to figure it out as she started to act on her commitment. That’s true leadership.”

And Meaghan’s not done yet: “I feel this is really a work in progress. I’ve got a lot of ideas I’d like to develop. It’s the beginning of a much stronger donor relationship – our audience and supporters, who sit beyond the stage lights.”

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