BoardSource - Board Member - "BRAVO!"

Publication date: 
November 11, 2012

Source: Board Member, the online magazine for BoardSource - Download a pdf the article here

DALOGUE SMITH CEO, San Diego Youth Symphony and Conservatory, San Diego, CA


Meet the $25,000 grandprize winner of the Prudential Leadership Awards for Exceptional Nonprofit Boards.
The San Diego Youth Symphony and Conservatory began as a youth orchestra comprising the best players in that city. Today, the symphony and conservatory is a multi-ensemble organization that is dedicated to bringing music back to San Diego’s schools and providing music education to youth of all musical capabilities throughout the community. How did this organization “design change” and what was the board’s role? In a recent phone conversation, Dalouge Smith, CEO, answered those questions.

Board Member: Your organization just won $25,000 for designing change and modeling exceptional governance. Please walk us through your change process.

Dalouge Smith: The San Diego Youth Symphony and Conservatory was already undergoing organizational and
governance change when I arrived seven-and-a-half years ago, but it wasn’t being designed with any specific longterm outcome. It was change to effect better governance and better governance practices. At that time, board
meetings were the only times that board members met, as there were no committees. So, we formed committees. We also started to identify the skills, professional backgrounds, and community relationships that we wanted our board members to have. As a result, our board has evolved from an all-parents board into one that is almost all community members. And now, everyone on the board has to be an active member of at least one committee. We also shifted away from monthly board meetings because the committee meetings were so substantial. Now, the board meets every other month and committees meet in the alternating month. These internal investments in board practices and the profile represent the first two years of my tenure with the organization. 

Once we got that done, we said, ‘OK, now we need to look to the future. We need to think about where we are going and what we want to do next.’ At the time, our board members had two points of view about the youth orchestra. One view said that it should be about excellence; the other said we needed to do more to provide wider access to music education. We were very fortunate that the League of American Orchestras offered a program called ‘The Institutional Vision Program’ at that time. We applied and were selected to participate.

As a result, our music director, our vice chair of our strategic planning committee, and I went to a week-long training alongside seven other orchestras. This training completely changed the dynamic of our conversation because of the way that it framed the possibilities of the future. It used the Jim Collins ‘Good to Great’ model of identifying and articulating your core purpose, your core values, your BHAG [Big Hairy Audacious Goal], and finally, a vivid description of your future. 

The truth is, we could have continued just doing what we were doing for a decent amount of time. Our performing orchestra — our Balboa Park program — was fantastic and winning national awards for its quality; we were financially sound; we had strong programs and growing enrollment. But many of us felt that we could do more for the community with the capacity and resources that we had accumulated, that we could meld the board’s two views regarding excellence and access. So, we spent nine months to a year articulating our purpose, values, BHAG, and vision for the future. At the end of that year, the board was committed and excited and ready to help determine how we would reach our goal.

BM: How did this process actually work?

DS: There were circles of participation in the work. At the core were me, our music director, and the chair of
our strategic planning committee. We served as a kind of steering committee for the strategic planning committee.
We would take the work of that committee out to the other committees, so by the time anything was brought to
the full board, it had already gone through several rounds of discussion and examination, and there was very little
that the board wasn’t already aware of and hadn’t already contributed to through the committee process. We continue to use that as the entry point for new ideas, projects, and assessments, so that by the time they get to the full board, they’ve been examined from a variety of angles.

BM: One of the things that impressed the award judges was the work you’re doing to measure your impact.

DS: For us, measuring impact comes from identifying what our goals are, having a clear sense of whether or not that goal can be measured, and then working with others, such as the school district, to do the measurement.

For example, one of our goals was to see the school district invest in music and ultimately in music during the school day, which we expected would take three to five years. To build community support for this, we initiated work that involved going into communities within our district that we had not gone into historically and actually getting some music started in those communities. This has provided us with the opportunity to not only engage parents as it relates to their own child’s participation, but also to engage them in recognizing the wider benefits of music education for their child, family, and school. At the end of our first year of this work, the school district began to invest in our program in the after-school hours, and at the end of the second year, it decided to start investing in music during the school day. So we had a pretty specific goal, and we reached it a lot faster than we expected.

We’re now working with the district to have it pull data on how the students in the music program are performing
academically as compared to their peers who are not in the music program. We also want to ensure that we were
doing quality teaching and that we were engaging our students and their families in a substantial way. We felt
one indicator of that would be if some of our new students chose to audition for our Balboa Park program. At the
end of the first year, out of a set of about 65 students, 18 students chose to do that, were successfully placed, and
have just completed their first year in that program. We’re now seeing that their musical outcomes are parallel to other kids who have music opportunities in other areas of the county, so there’s no separate standard.

BM: What lessons learned would you like to share with BoardSource’s members?

DS: The first lesson: Set your sights on the long term. This is important because it distances your discussions away from anything that could be viewed as a sacred cow or as an inherent aspect of the institution that can’t be changed. Looking far out to the future gives everyone a neutral perspective.

If you are going to go through change, it’s not going to be smooth. The board needs to be in such strong solidarity with itself and with the vision that the members don’t get dissuaded or frustrated by the challenges that come with change. They need to see those moments in the context of the bigger picture. The long-term focus and the allegiance to that long-term direction is what gives you the strength to get through all of the short-term challenges. And, every decision that you make for the short-term has to be in service to the long-term vision. If it’s not, then you’re going to get off track and get lost and the tough change moments won’t feel like they are in service to the vision; they will feel like a mistake. 

Another important thing for us was the inclusion of many people. We started with the board, moved out to the leadership staff, then to the managerial staff, the whole staff, and finally to our clients and community. That’s not to say that everyone was in agreement. We had a board member quit because he was not satisfied with a board decision. We’ve had staff members who have left because they weren’t comfortable or satisfied with the change that was occurring around them. We’ve had families leave the program as well. In each of those cases, we recognized that that was the right choice for that person at that time. If and when they choose to return, we’ll welcome them. Inclusion is critical — if the process rests with one or a small group of people, then the community doesn’t come along with you.

BM: What’s next for your organization?

DS: Our work in our historic youth orchestra program, our Balboa Park program, has continued to evolve. That program sets the benchmark for student musical achievement in our community, and we are exploring how to use it as a resource in the work that we’re doing in the community. That kind of ongoing development of our music education leadership role in the community continues to be part of our future. We’re also building out on what we’ve done in our community and teaching others how to do similar work.San Diego Youth Symphony does not believe it needs to go across the county or across the country and open up more and more and more community music sites. What we can do much more effectively is give support and guidance to community-initiated projects where they’re seeing a weakening of their music program or an elimination of their school music program. We want to\ help these projects deepen their impact by helping them explore how our successes can be translated to their community.