Tag Archives: guest bloggers!

The Special Case of the SPCO

Well, on the heels of the disappointing cancellation of EVEN MORE CONCERTS at the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, here’s an essay on the SPCO from SOTL reader Rolf Erdahl. You may remember him from his well-received guest-blog “What Can One Person Do?” (and if you have not read that already, I highly recommend you do so).


One of my favorite books is The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupery. It imparts important ideas about understanding, taking responsibility, discovering inner beauty, and connecting with and caring for the people and world around us. The Little Prince has a single rose on his small planet, “unique in all the world,” which he cares for, protects from dangers, forges a bond with, and loves. He discovers his rose is ephemeral, which means “threatened by disappearance at an instant.” His subsequent actions are always colored by the responsibility he feels to protect and cherish his rose.

During his journeys, The Little Prince meets people who can only see the world through narrow, skewed prisms, highlighted by how they view the stars. He meets a King who can only relate them by ruling them, a Businessman who wallows in owning and counting them, and a Geographer who catalogs stars and planets, but never visits them.

The SPCO is “unique in all the world,” it has a special bond with its community, it is ephemeral, “threatened by disappearance at an instant,” and we all are entrusted with the responsibility of its nurture and preservation. We must perceive it without biased eyes, see this miraculous ensemble for what it is and can be, and protect and preserve it.

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Filed under Labor Disputes

What Can One Person Do?

Seeing the Locked Out Musicians of the Minnesota Orchestra in Beethoven 9 was a hugely emotional experience, and I really need some time to process it before I write a single word on the subject. Needless to say, the musicians were fabulous…and so was the audience, if I may say so myself!

Sooooooooo, while I’m busy processing… Here’s an utterly fabulous piece to prove that last point. Here’s SOTL reader Rolf Erdahl, discussing both his protest at the Minneapolis Club at the Minnesota Orchestral Association’s annual meeting on December 6, and, even more importantly, what you can do. Don’t feel helpless. You have a part to play. I promise!


You know those cartoons about the crazy guy dressed is sackcloth and ashes carrying the sign “The End is Near”?

On Thursday, Dec. 6, I was that guy standing outside the Minneapolis Club where the Minnesota Orchestra Board was holding their annual meeting.


The crazy guy

The only difference was I was wearing white tie and tails, and my sign was a posterboard with the shape of a cello cut out from the top, and a message that read, “SOMETHING’S MISSING!!! BRING BACK OUR MINNESOTA ORCHESTRA”

I’ll now describe the reasons behind my actions and tell you how the day went. If you want to save time, skip to the important part of this message at the bottom for some suggested answers to the question “What can one person do?”

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Filed under Blog Stuff, Labor Disputes, Minnesota Orchestra

What We Know About Minnesota Orchestra’s Finances – And What We Don’t, Part III

Once again, I’m turning the floor over to Mary Schaefle, our resident non-profit number cruncher…


If you’ve been following the financial posts, you know the previous posts focused on income – endowment and investments in Part I, and ticket sales and fundraising in Part II. It’s time to take a look at Minnesota Orchestra’s spending habits, or expenses. We’ll be able to review detail in some areas but will more often be looking at expenses grouped into categories.

The Big Picture – What Got Cut?

The nonprofit tax forms (990, available via Guidestar.org) categorize costs, allowing us to see what increased or decreased between 2009 and 2011. The single largest drop, $966,802, was in travel (Part IX, p10). 36% of costs cut by Orchestra management were the result of the calendar and lack of an international tour.

The second largest decrease is “other fees for service” at $742,701. Fees for service are payments to any organization or individual providing a service to the Orchestra, for example legal or audit fees. The “other” subset includes payments to a guest artist, to a soloists’ management company, and to the architect and project management company for the Hall renovation.

We can look at “other fees for service” in a different section of the 990 where the highest paid contractors (Part VII, p8) are listed. The types of organizations shifted from 2009 with more than half of the contracts paying guest artists to 2011 when 4 of 5 were related to Hall renovation and capital campaign contracts. From my point of view, what’s important about this shift is the decrease in guest artist fees. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed seeing Orchestra musicians as soloists, but I don’t know if or how the star power factor – or lack thereof – impacts ticket sales.

Going back to line items with the largest cuts, advertising and marketing came in third with a decrease of $579,655. We know management cut the number of concerts (see Part II), but I’m not sure that would have a proportional impact on advertising. You still have to print a season brochure, advertise concerts and so on. It could be a shift to online promotions versus paper. It could also be more obvious – a decrease in the volume of advertising.

The second and third cuts – guest artist fees and marketing – are troublesome to me. When you combine these with the decrease in number of concerts, it looks like a recipe for decreased income for the Orchestra. There may be other reasons for those changes. My previous posts suggested an outside expert review of the Strategic Business Plan, and this is one more reason for the review.

Who Gets Paid How Much?

Musician base salary is eighth among symphony orchestras (2011 data). My comparison shows Mr. Henson’s pay eighth among US symphony executives (2011 990 data), while Osmo Vänskä is seventh among music directors (McManus, 2010 data). Viewed through this lens, pay seems comparable between groups.

In response to the recession, musicians agreed to a one-year pay freeze contributing $4.5 million in savings to the Orchestra. In exchange, Mr. Henson and Maestro Vänskä agreed to 7% and 10% decreases in pay respectively. Their actual decreases were 3.5% and 4%. Executive contracts often include scheduled annual increases (just like the musicians’ contract) which would explain the difference. Two additional paid staff are included on the 990. COO Neu took a slightly larger decrease of 7.5%, while CFO Ebensteiner saw a substantial increase of 25.5%. Compensation of the most highly paid musicians is also listed. When viewed as a group, salaries and total compensation were flat. I chose to look at them as a group since pay fluctuates with solo appearances. This only includes five musicians, so can’t be considered definitive.

Neither the financial statements nor the tax forms split musician and administration costs, but we do know that 74% of the Orchestra’s costs are salary and benefits. Management has pointed to rising musician costs as a critical issue in their financial challenges. A Star-Tribune business columnist jumped on board writing “Orchestra’s Disease is Economic”. If you want to learn more about the argument that orchestras aren’t or can’t be efficient, I highly encourage you to read Drew McManus’ recent blog post on the topic – including the comments section. As someone who has worked in nonprofit service organizations for decades, I can tell you that employee costs are always a significant portion of the budget, and the conversations about how to control those costs never seem to go away.

So – Is There a Conclusion?

Frankly, the reason it has taken me so long to write Part III is my attempt to define a conclusion. I’ve stared at the numbers over and over, waiting for something to pop out. I’ve charted, analyzed, sliced and diced. Is it income? Is it expenses? Is there something else we could or should change? Is it a tweak or are dramatic changes needed?

I decided the answer is in the title. My guest posts were intended to shine some light on the facts of the financials, and I hope I’ve done that. In labor disputes – or really any dispute – figures and percentages are thrown around to prove and disprove points of view. They can be taken out of context. Financials are facts to me, and should be verified.

Although they are fact, the financials do represent something I believe is more important. They represent how an organization chooses to do its work. I ended the last post saying we needed to get the Minnesota Orchestra playing and keep them playing. After working through their financials, I’m convinced that is possible, and also convinced that an objective, outside view will help us get there.


Amen, Mary.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this series of posts as much as I have. They’ve been a fantastic little peep into how the Minnesota Orchestra operates behind-the-scenes. A round of applause and a brava for Mary is in order.

Please feel free to join Mary in the comment section. I’ll be there, too, once I digest the information in this post.

And MOA…we’re looking at you. Let’s get a dialogue going. We’re adults. We can handle it!



Filed under Not My Writing

What We Know About Minnesota Orchestra’s Finances – And What We Don’t, Part II

Once again I’m turning the floor over to Minneapolis non-profit professional Mary Schaefle… You can read Part I of her series on the Minnesota Orchestra’s finances here.


I’m back with another installment on Minnesota Orchestra finances. If you haven’t seen my first guest post, head on over to learn about the Minnesota Orchestra’s endowment.

The last post focused on the endowment. According to the Orchestra’s strategic plan, endowment/trust proceeds are one-third of their annual income. It’s time to turn to the other two legs of the stool, ticket sales and contributions.

Ticket Sales and Other Earned Income

Management lists declining ticket sales as a significant financial challenge. It’s true ticket revenue declined 8.3% when you compare the season ending in 2009 with 2011 (990, page 9 available on Guidestar).

Let’s turn to the words of Orchestra management to learn why that happened. In 2011, the change was “due primarily to a reduction in the number of concerts”. This refrain was repeated in the 2010 report, when a reduction in ticket revenue was attributed to “16 fewer concerts, a dropoff of 9 percent.” Mr. Henson went on to say decreasing the number of concerts was part of their financial strategy to control costs. Sure, decreasing the number of concerts means lower costs for ushers, box office staff, concession staff and many other things. But it also means lower revenue. If your financial strategy is to decrease costs through fewer concerts, but that same strategy also means decreasing revenue, do you really come out ahead?

Orchestra concerts are not the only events at Orchestra Hall. Decreases in other earned revenue, things like the Jazz series and hall rentals, were more than double the drop in classical tickets, by more than $1.3 million or 18%. We don’t know why those things decreased (interestingly, concessions showed an increase). But it makes me nervous that the new business strategy plans to broaden “program offerings to respond to customer interest.” If the plan does rely on income that has been dropping more rapidly than concert sales, major revisions are required.

You may remember my suggestion in the last article for an independent financial analysis. The questions I’m raising here wouldn’t be answered by that kind of oversight. A respected leader in performing arts management, preferably orchestra management, would be the best person to review the strategic plan to ensure it is sound.

Contributions and Grants

If you go to the Orchestra’s tax forms (after all, I have been harping on them), you’d see huge dollar amounts in contributions. Those figures are a combination of all donations, including the Hall renovation, the endowment, and other restricted funds. The Orchestra’s management is correct that they can’t divert money from the endowment or any other restricted fund to pay for this year’s season.

We see a steady increase in government grants (990, Part VIII). My guess is this is due in part to the Clean Water, Land and Legacy Amendment, though we should give credit where it’s due to the grant writing staff at the Orchestra. Competition for those funds has been fierce.

If we turn to the financial statements, we get more details about what is contributed for operating activities (translation- things such as musicians’ salaries and concert expenses). Again, grant income is strong. Current year grants double from 2009 to 2011 – impressive. Grants released from restriction ($$ received last year for programs this year) increased to a lesser degree. Grant writing staff deserve kudos for the $1.75 million they brought in. Before anyone starts questioning or speculating, no I don’t know the individuals doing the work. I don’t even know if the Orchestra has staff grant writers or if they hire a consultant as some nonprofits do. But I think we should give credit where it is due.

Contributions, on the other hand, didn’t fare as well. Remember we are focused on unrestricted donations for current operations, not any of the $$ for the Hall or the endowment. Unrestricted gifts decreased by close to $750,000 in three years, or almost 25%. I wondered whether focusing on the campaign would have a dampening effect on general, or annual, contributions. We can’t say for certain, but it’s tempting to think that the same effort for the Orchestra as a whole would have eased or erased the deficit.

Wrapping Up the Income Side of Things

We know that ticket sales have declined as a whole, but aren’t sure how much of that is due to the decrease in concerts. There could have been other factors. We know that hall rentals and non-classical concerts fell by even larger amounts.

Grant writing is a bright spot, but annual or unrestricted donations have decreased while the Orchestra was focused on the endowment and Hall renovation campaign. Again we don’t know if there were additional influences causing the decline.

I’ll be posting a #1A in the ”Minnesota Orchestra Financials Series” (never thought I’d see those words together). I asked a colleague who works as a nonprofit investment analyst to review my previous post. The one thing I can share now is the 5 year return on the endowment is within a reasonable range. That is reassuring. But it doesn’t answer what I consider the most significant question – why did the Board use only half of the 2011 draw for current operations, and how was the remaining $6.1 million spent? After I look at the Notes with my colleague’s help (did you know they have such a thing in Financial Statements?), I’ll provide an updated and/or corrected view on investments and my questions about the 2008 stock sales and the Orchestra’s portfolio.

After all these words about income and revenue, what do we know? Management’s statement that revenue has decreased is true. But I believe there are enough questions posed here that the Board needs to take another look at ways to increase revenue in addition to considering cuts. They need to take a good hard look at the Strategic Business Plan. Is it a “Vision for a Sound Future”? We all want the Minnesota Orchestra back on stage and performing. We need a plan that will get us there and keep us there.


Here is Part 3

Thank you, Mary! Mary will be in the comment section to answer any questions or comments you may have.


Filed under Not My Writing

What We Know About Minnesota Orchestra’s Finances – and What We Don’t, Part I

There is an old stereotype that artists are terrible with numbers. Many enforce the stereotype (me, for instance), while others defy it. Happily, Mary Schaefle defies it, and she is today’s guest blogger!

Mary is a Twin Cities nonprofit professional and community violinist. You may have seen her name in the comment section here at SOTL, on Facebook, or on the Musicians of the Minnesota Orchestra’s website. I highly recommend reading the two letters she sent to Minnesota Orchestra management; you can find those here and here. I’ve been staying away from too much in-depth analysis of numbers, because I obviously don’t know much about non-profit nitty-gritty. Happily, however, Mary does, and she offered to take a look at some of the public documents discussing the Orchestra’s finances, so that we might at least try to figure some of this stuff out on our own. Hey, if management isn’t going to answer our questions, what else are we supposed to do?

You can take a look at some of the forms she refers to online. Unfortunately I can’t link directly to them, but if you sign up for a free account with Guidestar, and look up the Minnesota Orchestral Association, you can download some of the documents she mentions. If you have any questions or refutations to make, the comment section is open, and Mary will answer you directly, and I will edit the original article as needed. How’s that for service? I’d be so delighted if management would do the same for us, but for some reason that’s too much to ask… Anyway. Many thanks to Mary for contributing such an interesting piece. I hope we get some answers to the questions she raises, and soon.


Minnesota Orchestra’s management has told us they are making “difficult and necessary decisions” and can only spend what they earn. So what do we know about the Minnesota Orchestra’s finances? Tax returns and audited financial statements give us some answers, but unfortunately more questions. There will be plenty of numbers in this post, but I’ll try my best to explain terms.

Remember that I’m not an accountant and certainly not a CPA. I am a person who cares deeply about the Minnesota Orchestra, and who likes to dig through nonprofit tax returns and financials. They can tell you a lot about the organization as long as you have a lot of time and either a translator or a basic understanding of nonprofit finance.

Endowment Income – Is That the Problem?

Management has pointed to the 2008 recession and the resulting decrease in endowment revenue as a key problem. The Orchestra’s endowment lost $12.9 million that year (reported on the 2008-2009 tax forms which are available at Guidestar). They’ve since experienced modest gains of $6.3 and $5.6 million (990, Schedule D, Part V).

But endowment challenges are much larger than a one-time decrease in size. Organizations assume they will receive a certain amount of income from the endowment each year. Those estimates can be conservative, assuming smaller returns, or they can be wildly optimistic. Looking at the Orchestra’s strategic plan, those 2008-09 investments were projected to be $201.4 million. The actual assets were $135.3 million, a difference of $52.2 million before the market tanked. The $12.9 million loss was piled on top of that. The 2007 projections are somewhere between overly optimistic, flawed, and just plain wrong. Perhaps this was the genesis of the financial problems.

Let’s get to how that impacts us today. Back in 2009, our endowment “paycheck” was lowered by 13% compared to our projections. Then things got even worse and our 2012 “paycheck” is expected to be 45% lower. They know the 2007 projections are wrong, but just keep using them. Why do they appear in the 2011 Strategic Plan? Do management and the Board have a new set of projections for future years? A review by an investment analyst, which is typically not part of an audit, is needed.

The Endowment Draw and Two More Questions

Comparing tax returns to media statements and the Minnesota Orchestra website raises two more questions. The draw on the endowment (the income or “paycheck” I mentioned above) has been excessive according to management. They are correct that a 19% draw could deplete the endowment in just over five years. That one is simple math.

According to our friend the 990, the endowment distributions (read “draw”) were 16.3%, 9.4% and 7.8% from 2008-09 through 2010-11 (Schedule D, Part V). As I pointed out in the comments section of Emily’s earlier post on the endowment, the draw amounts released by Minnesota Orchestra do not match their tax forms. That means percentages are off as well. Yes, we once again need that accountant.

Now onto an item that – at least for me – is really troubling. Audited financial statements list “Board Designated Draws from Investments” in the Statement of Operating Activities. Think of this as the amount taken from the endowment (draw) to support concerts, education programs and the day-to-day business of an orchestra (operating activities). In 2008-09 and 2009-10, amounts reported on the financial statements are fairly close to those on tax forms.

But the difference in 2010-11 is just over $6 million. You read that right. The Board withdrew $12.1 million from the endowment, but only $6 million was used to run the Orchestra. I’ve scoured the financial statements and don’t know where the remaining $6.1 million was spent. The money was used somewhere – but where? Financing long-term debt? Expenses related to the Hall renovation? Why did the Board and management decide to withdraw such a large amount in 2011 and only use half for the operations of the Orchestra?

Now is a great time to reiterate that I’m not a CPA. A clarification from an accountant would be wonderful. Perhaps closer to necessary.

For those who like to verify my figures, unfortunately the audited financial statements are not available on the Orchestra’s website or on Guidestar. I’d suggest requesting a copy from the Minnesota Orchestra.

Turning To Investments

Minnesota Orchestra owns plenty of stock. In the 2010-11 and 2009-10 years, Minnesota Orchestra reported gains (or income) of $7.8 million and $2.8 million when they sold securities (Form 990, part VIII). We don’t exactly know how that income was used, but I think we can all agree that bringing in more money is a good thing.

Unfortunately, 2008-09 is again the spoiler. The Orchestra sold a large amount of stock at a $13.9 million loss. It is well known advice to buy stocks low and sell high, and the 2008 market was low as a contrabassoon. It’s possible the stock was on its way to becoming a penny stock. But why would they own such a volatile, risky stock? It could be a bad decision or bad investment advice – to the tune of almost $14 million. I know you’re ready with my next line. A review by an investment analyst would certainly help explain some things.

The Wrap-Up…And More Numbers Coming

For those who’ve stuck with me through this post, you might wonder why I spent so much time and effort on the endowment. It’s because the Orchestra’s management emphasized the shrinking endowment as a key factor in sending their books into the red. So far we’ve confirmed the endowment decreased during the recession. But we’ve also looked at faulty estimates, endowment draws not matching tax returns, some bad investment advice, and an endowment draw where only half the funds go to the work of the Orchestra. If you came here for answers…well hopefully the title gave you a hint.

There are other problems cited by management, including declining ticket revenue, musicians’ salaries, and donors’ restrictions on their gifts. But that means digging into the financials, tax forms and media statements again. Trying to digest too many numbers at once jumbles everything for me, so I’m going with manageable chunks. Check in later for the current state of Orchestral Apocalypse (thank you, Emily, for what you’ve been doing!) and for a few more facts and figures.


You’re welcome, Mary, and thank you!

So…what do you think? I’m in absolutely no position to judge; this kind of stuff is way beyond my personal sphere of expertise. (I do, however, trust Mary.) Are there any experts out there who can help to shed some light on what’s going on? Have any other patrons been looking at the documents that Mary references? If so, what did you find? Now would certainly be an excellent time to hear directly from the MOA…

You can read Part II of Mary’s series here.


Filed under Not My Writing