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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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….
If you’d like to join us in our effort to serve people with special needs, click the link below to donate or contact firstname.lastname@example.org 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.