Insure Your Success In Business By Learning From My Mistakes

Ten years ago this week, Alan and I opened our non-profit organization, Merrimack Hall Performing Arts Center, to the public. Spending 10 years as a full-time “philanthropist” has been exhilarating, exhausting and enlightening.  I’ve learned more in the past 10 years than I did in the 46 preceding years so it must be true that you can teach an old gal new tricks. Unfortunately, my newfound knowledge was gained only by making mistakes. Massive, heinous, costly and unnecessary mistakes are my forté.  Maybe I can save you some trouble by sharing My 6 Biggest Mistakes:

  1. Never launch a new venture – a business, a non-profit, a project, not even a party – without a solid business plan. Estimates and pro-formas scribbled on a yellow legal pad at your kitchen island at 1:00 a.m. when you are drunk on inspiration…and Jack and Coke’s…do not count as a solid business plan. We asked all sorts of people for their input and advice: attorneys, bankers, wealth managers, architects, contractors and accountants. Since all of them advised us to ditch our idea to overhaul a 100-year-old building into a non-profit theatre, we chose to ignore them. If everyone you trust tells you not to do something, perhaps you should listen. BUT…if we had listened to them, there wouldn’t be a Merrimack Hall and this post would be completely unnecessary.
    Building 2006

    Merrimack Hall Pre-Renovation, May 2006

     

  2. Never start a new endeavor without a clear mission. When we started planning our organization in 2006, we went with the “if you build it, they will come” mantra and our stated mission was simply to offer a new venue for the arts in Huntsville. What to do with that venue we had no idea. BUT…if we had settled on a mission to begin with, we wouldn’t have stumbled on the idea of offering arts education to people with special needs.

    Popovich pets

    For 7 years, we presented a full season of touring productions.

  3. Never start a new business without consulting with people who are already in the same line of work and always heed their advice. I asked lots of people for advice on how to conduct an arts education program for people with special needs. They all told me that I was unqualified and unprepared. I dismissed their concerns, telling myself it couldn’t possibly be that hard. Maybe I should have listened. It never occurred to me that we would meet children who are medically fragile, that we would work with children and adults who are non-verbal or who have seizure disorders or chronic heart conditions or who risk serious injury just attempting a pilé. It certainly never occurred to me that four children we knew and loved would pass away. BUT…if I had listened to the naysayers, that first little dance class would never have happened.
First Panoply performance

First Panoply Performance, 2009

4.  Create job descriptions based on the actual tasks required and hire people with a skill set that matches that job description. I did it backwards, creating jobs predicated on the skill set of the person I hired. Every business person I know – and my professors at Columbia Business School – warned me not to do this. I tried doing it the “right” way for 7 or 8 years, resulting in multiple failed attempts at hiring the perfect team. Almost three years ago, I finally assembled the “Dream Team.” If I had listened to the pros, I could have saved myself lots of strife. BUT…if I had written a job description for a qualified visual art instructor, I would never have found a woman who had a BA in studio art, had spent several years working as the training manager for a large non-profit and was a “genius” at the Apple Store. I combined her artistic and technical skills into a position that fills our IT, marketing, graphic design, volunteer recruitment and training, and visual art needs. It might have taken longer but doing it my way has resulted in a team with a diverse skill set and a deep and abiding love for the population we serve.

The Dream Team

The full-time Dream Team is assisted by part-time staff members Suzanne Bradley, Antony Sharpe, Patti Huebner, Angie Davis and Hayley Henderson, who volunteers her time as our Artistic Director.

5.  Do not rely on the investment of your own money to make your venture sustainable…bring in partners and investors to insure fiscal success. Obviously! You shouldn’t pour all of your resources into a money pit! BUT…because we’ve donated over $7 million of our own dollars during the past 10 years, we have a proprietary and passionate interest in the outcome of everything done at Merrimack Hall. Thousands of individuals, hundreds of businesses and dozens of granting organizations have joined in our mission due in no small part to our willingness to put our own money into the organization. You’ve got to spend money to make money and sometimes, you have to donate your own to inspire others to donate theirs.

Humanitarian Award

We were humbled to receive the Humanitarian Award in 2012.

6.  Do not lead with your heart…lead with your head. Alan and I were full of passion and full of ourselves, determined to leave a legacy on our community instead of being full of knowledge, experience and preparation. And I don’t care about this big mistake I made. Because when you choose to invest your time and money into any endeavor, you’ll never be successful without an endless supply of heart.

PUP West

We even have an affiliate program in Ashland, Oregon!

Now that I think about it, I wouldn’t change a thing. Because of our blissful ignorance and full-hearted desire to make life better for someone else, we surged ahead without considering the downside. Good ideas have a way of shutting down detractors and our enthusiasm helped recruit hundreds of students, volunteers and extended families to buy into our idea. Had we hesitated…or shown our fear of the unknown…at any point during these past 10 years, the community that our families and volunteers have built through the novel approach to inclusion that is at the heart of everything we do at Merrimack Hall would not exist.

Peyton and Vivian

The arts bringing together folks who otherwise wouldn’t have met…that’s inclusion to me!

The only remaining hurdle is to insure the fiscal solvency of Merrimack Hall. Because of my mistakes, we uncovered a growing and critical need, one that outpaces our ability to fund it alone. We’ve come too far to turn back now…the vibrant community of lives that intersect at Merrimack Hall is counting on us.

Group bow

First summer camp for teens, June 2010

So, I’m moving forward into Merrimack Hall’s second decade determined to increase donations and lower costs. I’m determined to expand the ever-growing circle of Merrimack Hall’s impact. I’m determined to learn from my mistakes. I won’t make these again…I’ll just make new ones. Stay tuned….

Hayley XMas pic

First holiday production, December 2011

If you’d like to join us in our effort to serve people with special needs, click the link below to donate or contact volunteer@merrimackhall.com to get involved! Any amount – of your money or of your time – will help to improve the quality of life for people with special needs and their families.

http://www.merrimackhall.com/donate/

Chloe angel pic

This little nugget is a teenager now…and a terrific tap dancer!

Cooking Competition Serves Up New Leaders

Rocket Chef logo copy

The Judges Table

We had a really cool event at Merrimack Hall last week. Rocket Chef: Clash of the Culinary Titans was a sell-out, a big deal for a first-time event. Rocket Chef attracted a diverse audience and brought a lot of newcomers to our venue…they were old and young, foodies and wanna-be chefs, fans of the competitors and friends of the event organizers. The competitors exhibited their amazing skills and talents in a live cook-off. Not only did the organizers raise enough money through corporate sponsorships to pay for the equipment needed to mount this event – stoves, refrigerators, chef’s tables, dishes and utensils of every variety, blenders, food processors and more – but they also netted nearly $18,000 in profits which will be split between our Johnny Stallings Arts Program and The Food Bank of North Alabama.

Like I said, Rocket Chef was…really cool.

Event organizers and Merrimack Hall's production team turned our stage into a kitchen!

Event organizers and Merrimack Hall’s production team turned our stage into a kitchen!

But as cool as the event turned out to be, the really cool thing about Rocket Chef was the five young professionals who conceived, organized and executed it.

Kyla Green, Clarissa McClain, Mike Conrad, Aaron Caradonna and Lauren Battle are all in their late 20’s or early 30’s. When they started this project back in June, the did not know each other. Participants in Leadership Huntsville/Madison County’s Connect program for young professionals, they were randomly placed in a small group and tasked with doing something to address the issue of hunger in our community. They started with no resources, no budget, no precedent for what they wanted to do. All they had was their idea and a single-minded determination to bring their idea to life.

They all have full time jobs. Some of them have babies at home. None of them had much volunteer experience…come to think of it, they’re too young to have much experience at anything! They are in the early stages of careers that are sure to be brilliant – in banking, insurance, hospital administration, broadcast journalism and corporate law.

They utilized every contact in their address books, they called on anyone who could advise them, they listened to everyone who offered guidance, they used every opportunity they came across to build a consensus for this event. They tenaciously invested themselves in their idea and refused to give up…even when they were thrown a curve ball at least once a day. The were motivated by a total commitment to a worthy cause, which is what carried them through the longest days I imagine they’ve ever worked.

The undertaking was monumental in every regard. Just from our end, the logistics were staggering. We’ve presented a lot of things on our stage over the past seven years but four chefs…cooking in three-rounds…live…in front of an audience? Not so much. Props to Martez Clemons, our Production Coordinator, and Melissa Reynolds, our Program and Operations Director, for the brilliant job they did in coordinating everything from ticket sales to stage set up, including but not limited to figuring out how to power up four stoves and all the appliances at the same time, how to light the stage, how to vent the steam coming from the stoves so that our sprinkler system wasn’t activated and more…and more..and more.

Shawn Duvall of the Pepper Pig and Andy Howery of The Bottle battle it out in the final round, with Shawn emerging as the first Rocket Chef Champion

Shawn Duvall of the Pepper Pig and Andy Howery of The Bottle battle it out in the final round, with Shawn emerging as the first Rocket Chef Champion

Merrimack Hall’s involvement was just one piece in a huge puzzle that included other non-profits, restaurants, grocery stores, electricians, appliance stores…the sheer number of individuals who bought into this idea and donated their expertise, goods and services blows my mind.

The five event organizers were on a steep learning curve with a short deadline. They had to trust each other, they had to communicate with each other, they had to coordinate every detail with us and The Food Bank, they had to imagine every contingency and prepare for it. And they did it!

The reason I’m so impressed by Kyla, Clarissa, Mike, Aaron and Lauren is because when I was their age, I was just beginning to dip my toes into the volunteer arena. Over the past 25 years, I’ve been on hundreds of committees, worked on dozens of events, been involved in the creation of new projects and my volunteer career culminated with the creation of my own organization that is serving a need that no one in our community has ever attempted to serve. But I didn’t come into my own, didn’t feel the passion it takes to put everything on the line for a cause you believe in until I was about 40 – a good 10-15 years later than the five wunderkids who pulled off Rocket Chef.

When the event ended, the five of them were very proud of themselves…and rightfully so. They celebrated as a team, just the way they did everything else involved with the event. They spent the week coming and going from Merrimack Hall…cleaning up, arranging for storage of appliances until next year’s event, making sure that all unused food was delivered to Manna House and The Food Bank of North Alabama. When they had wrapped it all up they looked…well, they looked exhausted. But they also looked like different people from the five folks who came to me with this wild idea in August.

They looked like seasoned pros…and more importantly, they seemed transformed by their work. I could see it in their eyes and remember that feeling…the first time you realize that you CAN make a difference, you CAN do something to make things better. They are now empowered…emboldened…confident in themselves and I know they will take on bigger challenges in the future. Once you’ve successfully done something that has a positive impact on someone else’s life, you want to experience that feeling again…and again.

Our community’s next generation of servant leaders has been christened and I can’t wait to see what these five people do next!

Kathryn Strickland of The Food Bank with event organizers Aaron Caradonna, Clarissa McClain, Mike Conrad, Kyla Green and Lauren Battle

Kathryn Strickland of The Food Bank with event organizers Aaron Caradonna, Clarissa McClain, Mike Conrad, Kyla Green and Lauren Battle

 

 

Dear Problem Parents: 3 Ways You Sabotage Your Kids

Dear Problem Parents:

I care deeply about kids. As a volunteer who provides an arts education program to children and adults with special needs, I’ve chosen to invest my life in them. Like other teachers, coaches and volunteers, I do my best to make sure every child gets the attention he or she deserves. I’m taking the liberty of using the collective “we,” because I’m fairly confident that others who work with kids will agree with me. We want you to know about three issues you create for us – and by default, your kids.

By no means is this a blanket statement about all parents, nor is it an indictment of parents who raise legitimate concerns or want to share constructive ideas with us.

No, those of you who are Problem Parents are the ones who raise questions but never offer answers. You’re the ones who fixate on the small things so much that you miss the big picture. You’re the ones who think everything is someone else’s fault.

We understand that you probably don’t realize how your well-intentioned actions are actually detrimental to your child. There aren’t many of you Problem Parents but you can be found everywhere. There are one or two of you in every group of kids, from classrooms to ball teams to cheerleading squads. If you’re reading this and feeling defensive right now, then you’re one of them so … you should probably keep reading.

You’re that mom who complains about the classroom teacher to anyone who will listen …
….. but you never think to ask if there’s anything you could do to help him or her.

You’re that dad who rails at the coach at t-ball games
…
…but you don’t care that the way you act might bother the others on the team and in the stands.

You’re the one who finds fault with everything the scout leader does
…..but you aren’t willing to volunteer for the position yourself.

As summer winds down and you are preparing for the next year of school and extracurricular activities, we thought you should know about how your behavior affects us — and can get in your child’s way.

1. You think yours is the only child who should matter to us.

We know who you are right off the bat, from that first open house or registration … and we tell our co-workers, fellow volunteers or employees about you.

You’re the one who simply must pull us aside the first time we meet so you can tell us about your child, to make sure we understand that your child is different than the rest and to tell us, sometimes directly and sometimes through thinly veiled demands, that you expect us to go out of our way for your kid, even at the expense of other kids.

You have certain expectations of us and how we interact with your child and when we don’t meet those expectations, you are quick to call us on the carpet. Do you know that we wait with dread when class rosters, team assignments and group membership is developed, hoping we don’t get your child on our team or in our troop or in our class? Because word spreads fast about parents like you. Maybe you would be embarrassed if you could be in the teacher’s lounge or the office of the ballpark … if you could hear how many people are saying, “Please don’t put that child in my group … I can’t handle that parent.”

It’s not your child we dread…it’s you.

2. You don’t understand how to tell us what we need to know about your child without also telling us how to do our job.

You know how whenever you want to talk with us we are swamped with paperwork or in a meeting or on a call or heading out the door? Yeah, we’re really not. We just don’t want to talk with you because we know your broken record and we’re tired of listening to it.

Your complaints, your demands, your unsolicited advice on how to run the classroom or the squad or the team … this is what we hear if we give you that quick minute you ask for and we will do anything we can to avoid it. Your negative energy dampens our motivation to cultivate all that is wonderful in your child. It’s you and your treatment of us that is preventing your child from getting what you want – the chance to make the all-star team or get the lead in the play or be featured in that choral concert.

No matter how devoted we are to kids or to our jobs or to our sport or to our art form, you make it impossible for us to see your children as the unique individuals they are because all we see when we look at them is you. If we give your child that break – the one they may need or deserve – it means we will have to interact with you even more and that’s the last thing we want.

Maybe you think we have favorites or teacher’s pets … and we do. They are the children whose parents partner with us. They are the kids whose parents appreciate our efforts, or appropriately tell us how we could improve. Our favorites are the children who may not be the brightest or most talented, but their parents are the ones we all clamor to have on our side.

Our favorites are the children whose parents come to us with legitimate concerns or conflicts or needs that we are happy to meet because they don’t accuse us, they don’t blame us and they don’t irritate the hell out of us by acting like theirs is the only concern that should be important to us. And just to be clear, we quickly recognize those insincere suck-up types. We know which parents think they can curry favor with us by buying us gifts or heaping gushing praise on us and consider them to be Problem Parents too.

3. You don’t realize that we take it personally…because we genuinely care about your child.

When you fixate on that small detail instead of looking at the overall picture, when you complain about things we have no control over, when you blame us for things that just might be your fault – like that email we sent, but you never read – we are truly upset.

We fret, we worry, we drive ourselves crazy trying to find a way to satisfy you … not because we care about you, but because we care about your child. But your persistent negativity eventually wears us down until you finally extinguish our desire to mentor and nurture your child … and we move our attention back to those kids whose parents are our partners, those parents who don’t accuse and point fingers.

We’re telling you this now … because we genuinely care about your child.

We know you want the best for your child. So do we.

Let’s work together to be our best for them.

Starring…my favorite kids with special needs

Video shoot, June 2012

Video shoot, June 2012

This video will make your Monday!

Two summers ago, we were approached by some folks in Hollywood who were interested in making a feature film based on JSAP. The idea is still floating around out there, somewhere in that strange land called LA. Who knows…it could still happen someday. Even if it never materializes, those filmmakers left us with something priceless – a beautiful video intended to give a glimpse into the personalities of some of our students and to show how endearing, funny and fabulous they are. So, let’s go back two years, when Darby was still here, when Connor was a little boy, when Melissa had long hair and when it was Katie’s 18th birthday….

 

Not So “Typical” Teens

One of the first things I learned back in 2008 when I first became involved with people who have special needs was that we should refer to people with disabilities as people first – like people with special needs, not special needs people – and that those of us who don’t have disabilities should be referred to as “typical.” After spending seven  years working with our teenage volunteers, I can tell you that there’s nothing typical about any of them.

When I first got the idea to try teaching dance to kids with special needs, I knew that the normal teacher/pupil ratio wouldn’t work. I didn’t want to limit my program to one type of disability; I wanted any child who wanted to participate in the arts to join. But that meant being prepared for children with a wide variety of challenges – verbal, physical, social – and in the beginning, we only had two teachers…Hayley Henderson and me. Even though I limited class size to 10 students, I knew that with an age range of 3-12 and with disabilities like Down syndrome, autism spectrum disorders, cerebral palsy, mitochondrial disease, spina bifida and others, we were gonna need some help.

Hayley turned to the kids in the Huntsville High School Show Choir, led by her mother and Choral Department Director Sherry Smith, for help. She rounded up 9 kids – and I threw in Austin to get us up to an even 10 – and we had our first crop of typical students to serve as program volunteers. I had no idea back then that relationships between students, volunteers and the families of both would form outside the walls of Merrimack Hall. Once they’ve graduated, our volunteers return to visit us on school breaks, take their former students out for lunch and visit them each time they’re home from college. Our program is proof that both sides benefit when we are all integrated together.

I’m amazed…and grateful…when, year after year, teenagers come to us from all over North Alabama. These typical teens are already exceptional – all of them are high-achieving, budding philanthropists with too many talents to list – and the friendships they share with our students are, well, they’re pretty special.

We honored 9 seniors at our Spring Recital – 5 typical kids and 4 kids with special needs. In the first half of this short video, the volunteers say, in their own words, what our students have meant to them; the second half is me, talking about our students. For anyone who wonders how “typical” kids could benefit from having kids with special needs in their classrooms, and in their lives, this video says it all.

Luckily, we will still have our Project UP seniors with us next year but our volunteers will be off to college – every one of them having received prestigious scholarships. Halle Ragan, Emily Dean, Peyton Davis, John Chilton and Bailey Kinnard, we will miss you so much! These typical teens, and the 50 who have already graduated, took our first little dance class and have turned it into something I never could have imagined. Anytime I try to thank any of them for their service, they tell me that they’re the ones who should be thanking us…for lessons learned, for joy received and for the privilege of friendship with kids who have special needs.