It’s the holiday season and we have those letters arriving in our email and snail mail boxes. The ones which remind us that in the season of giving, non-profits of all kinds need our financial help. Some are annoying, some humorous, and others are thought-provoking. Who is behind the letters? Maybe some research is in order.
Take the Dallas Symphony.
If a successful CEO of any company is rare, then a successful CEO of a non-profit is rarer. But a CEO who fixes non-profits is virtually one in a million. David Hyslop is such a CEO. Dallas/Fort Worth got to know him in 2011 when the Dallas Symphony Association hired him as interim CEO to succeed Bill Lively, whose tenure was cut short for health reasons. I wanted to learn more about the man who I knew almost exclusively on a professional level.
When speaking with Hyslop, one is struck by his eternal optimism. Hyslop’s speech, marked by a staccato delivery and bursts of laughter, is articulate and serious. I was struck that at no point was it preachy or pedantic when discussing complex issues of orchestra board leadership or managing a group of musicians from varying backgrounds. His is a natural connection with musicians which started long ago when, as a student, Hyslop would hitchhike to concerts. Most teenagers would do this en masse to their favorite pop music group, but young David Hyslop hitchhiked to hear orchestras. Love of witnessing orchestra performances in live performance led to his college major as a singer and a trumpet player. Many musicians who have worked in the organizations he was working in as a CEO speak about an inherent connection they have with this man. Not just because he has a great résumé, but because he is passionate about their chosen career and is a fan of their art form. I can attest to the feeling Dallas Symphony members had when he and his board chair delivered some sobering financial news to the orchestra in 2011. The musicians felt that Hyslop was there to make the orchestra work, not just cover his bases and a crisis was averted.
After college, Hyslop taught school and worked with the Elmira Symphony and Choral Society. His highly organized and visionary style convinced him to join the League of American Orchestras management program in New York. Upon graduation his first assignment was with the Minnesota Orchestra, where my father was the principal double bass player. Hyslop still has a home in the Minneapolis area, from where he runs his consulting business as on orchestra fixer.
I asked him how boards have changed over the 40-plus years that Hyslop has been in orchestra management. He alluded to the example of the St. Louis Symphony where he was CEO in 1978. At that point, Leonard Slatkin was starting as music director and his calling card was programming a great deal of new music—a tough sell to audiences in a relatively conservative Midwestern town. Hyslop built structure with his board by recognizing his assets. St. Louis Symphony’s Board Chair was the chairman of 7UP, and his wife was a composer. Another active board member was Buster May of May company. And he had Joseph Pulitzer on his board. Hyslop recognized that he had the ingredients on his board to make Slatkin’s artistic vision work with board members who were a combination of music lovers and passionate arts lovers. History showed the years Slatkin and Hyslop spent in St. Louis were about great artistic achievement and audiences which supported the vision of their music director with attendance, contributions and civic involvement. But it all started with David Hyslop’s ability to say yes to a vision many would have easily refused to endorse for justifiable reasons.
So what about present boards? Hyslop speaks about several factors that have changed. There is a consolidation of companies, which has led to a sort of civic duty dilution. If in the past a company had a history of performing arts support, the new company may not have the same people at the helm to continue said support. Securing major donations is about building relationships within the board which needs to have older families comfortable with giving significant amounts and entrepreneurs who want to have their hand in building something special in their community. Attracting millennials to boards is a challenge but not impossible. Boards do need to reach out to them and prove that they care about millennials serving and want their service for the greater whole.
Then there is the question of adaptability. Hyslop points to his second stint in Dallas, in 2016, this time with the Dallas Summer Musicals. When he arrived, he found the business model lacking the ability to make the company viable year round. The solution turned out to be affiliation with a company, Broadway Across America, that presents shows in major cities around the country. Hyslop was able to attract the show Hamilton to Dallas Summer Musicals which boosted the subscriber base and tripled the sales.
When you get your holiday ask letters, ask yourself what do you know about the organization. If the answer is not much, ask yourself if it is not something that you may consider getting involved in. Grassroots movements are not just for politics. Non-profits need strategy at the board level and support at the patron level. David Hyslop’s success proves that we need both leaders and supporters to sculpt a 21st-century community that is steeped in a thriving art culture.
» Gary Levinson is the Senior Principal Associate Concertmaster for the Dallas Symphony Orchestra, the artistic director for the Chamber Music Society of Fort Worth, and he helps program the salon concert series Blue Candlelight Music with his wife, pianist Baya Kakouberi, the artistic director.
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