By Stanford Thompson
Six years ago, I decided to take a completely different direction with my career that didn’t exist. I had a couple of months of my undergraduate studies left and I had a couple of good options: a seat in a professional orchestra, offers to continue my education at the graduate school level, or begin building a freelance career. None of those options excited me as much as forging a completely new path and I had no idea what “that” would be. I was scared to see jobs disappear as established professional ensembles struggled to keep their doors open. I was confused when organizations pledged to serve the community, but did the bare minimum to follow through. I was pissed to see so many resources wasted as dozens of organizations attempt to do the same work that claim wonderful outcomes that they aren’t measuring. And I was depressed to see so many missed opportunities as communities desire to engage in the arts, professionals search for ways to give back and organizations lack the vision to see beyond the red parentheses of their balance sheets.
I concluded that I would try to piece together a new opportunity for myself and hopefully hundreds, if not thousands, of people around me. Learning about El Sistema and experiencing it first hand through the New England Conservatory’s Abreu Fellows Program helped me to focus on new possibilities. After doing this work through Play On, Philly! for the past five years, I’ve been thinking about the major lessons learned each year:
Year 1: Planning, Networking and Solidifying First Steps
I didn’t wait until I had a concrete idea to share with others. I shared everything that was on my mind with those who could provide honest advice and balanced feedback. I looked for the lessons in bad advice and would try new ideas at least once. In the process, I built all types of networks that I continue to build upon today. For me, college wasn’t just a time to complete work and attend rehearsals, it was a time to collect business cards, strike up conversations and get involved in all types of projects.
The major questions that helped me plan and solidify my first steps were things like:
– What compelling problem is my idea addressing and how is it unique?
(why should people care about what I am doing?!)
- What is the target population and how do I plan to engage them? (not just WHO they are, but specifically what does that population look like?)
- What is the specific theory of change and impact (outcomes)? How will I measure it? Who even cares that the changes are happening?
It is important to thoroughly think through and research each of these areas. There is no simple answer and that answer will continue to develop as your planning and work continues. I make it a goal to review my answers every six months.
Year 2: Implementing – Embracing Stress, Flexibility and Mistakes
I am a professional musician and creative thinker. I am not a trained administrator, accountant, lawyer, or manager. I understand more and more where the ego could come from – having to figure everything out on your own. I am proud of all of my work, but I have more pride in the work my team accomplished. I made my fair share of mistakes and continue to do so.
However, I’ve learned to minimize those mistakes and the year of implementing Play On, Philly! tested me more than any other time. Don’t believe those people that tell you to balance your life or believe that a pot of gold will solve all your problems. Starting something new takes a tremendous amount of energy and dedication. You will be your own biggest obstacle at the beginning, so embrace that and keep moving forward. Two steps forward and one step back will take your further than where you first started!
Year 3: Rebuilding – Refining Your Focus
After getting my butt kicked the first year, I needed a minute to regroup and I found refuge on momma’s couch. Something had to change because I was exhausted. It was painful to shed the fat, but some people and things had to go. It wasn’t fair to me, the people helping me, and the kids I was serving, to continue the way I was. This is the perfect time to reevaluate and commit even stronger to those you want to build a deeper and lasting relationship with. This applied to partners, teachers, staff, families, board members, and funders.
Oh, and this was a good time to look back at my list of questions and take another crack at answering them. I had a chance to look at the compelling problem in its face, work with my target population and see/feel the outcomes. If you aren’t convinced yourself, this is the moment it gets harder for others to be convinced, keep the faith in you, and help your project grow.
Year 4: Growth – It is a Good Thing and It Hurts
I believe most new ventures should have a two year pilot phase: one to get grounded and another to fix the kinks. By this time, you should be able to help convince people to help you grow. Even if you don’t intend to grow, the best compliment you can receive would be inquiries for growth.
However, growing doesn’t mean just getting bigger – it means getting bigger and better at the same time. Pay attention to organizational growth just as you would programmatic growth. The “getting better” part is usually the part that hurts the most. Bringing our program to hundreds of more kids was actually quite exciting, but a tremendous effort. Learning that the old way wouldn’t be good enough and others around the table really want their ideas to be heard, were the type of growing pains that can really hurt. It will be important to have supportive people around you that can help you understand how a good thing you started can be made better.
Year 5: Soul Searching – Avoiding Founderitis
I started doing some careful thinking about my next steps as the fifth year rolled around. I wasn’t considering moving on from Play On, Philly!, but I wanted to take a moment to actually chart out where I saw myself personally and professionally over the next five years. I was also pretty exhausted and after years of running on all cylinders, I look around me and found a very passionate and dedicated team of people that were willing to help move us to the next level.
With over 250 students, 40 teachers, and 10 full-time staff, the issues and pressures were exponentially higher than before. I was confident that I could continue to run the entire thing by myself, but I slowly started to see how the process I used to launch the organization could easily become a limiting and destructive force. The new scale of our organization demanded more from the people around the table and it was time to pass on and divide the responsibility to others.
I’m excited about what the next five years will bring… hopefully closer to the vision I’ve held on to since the beginning.