In 1994, more than 50% of nonprofit board members reported being between the ages of 30 and 49. By 2014, only 17% of nonprofit board


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Inside the Portland Symphony Orchestra with Emerging Leaders

posted on January 23rd, 2017

In 1994, more than 50% of nonprofit board members reported being between the ages of 30 and 49. By 2014, only 17% of nonprofit board members were under the age of 40 [Data from]. Lift360’s Emerging Leaders program works to reintroduce young energy and knowledge to nonprofit boards. Through nine bimonthly sessions featuring guest speakers and mentors, the Emerging Leaders program trains young professionals to serve and lead nonprofits as board members, committee members, and skilled volunteers.

As part of their training, the Emerging Leaders spend one Saturday with the Portland Symphony Orchestra, a local nonprofit organization committed to enriching the community through music. This fall’s Saturday session began with a presentation by the PSO’s Executive Director, Carolyn Nishon, about the specifics of the orchestra’s finances, musicians, board, and events. Of particular interest to participants were explanations about working with the musicians’ union, preventing bias during the audition process, and the process of planning concerts. (Did you know that it takes the PSO 18 months to plan each concert?) During this presentation, participants asked Nishon questions to get a better feel for how the organization works, as well as its strengths and weaknesses. Following this discussion, the Emerging Leaders were scheduled to watch part of an orchestra rehearsal to observe verbal and nonverbal communication techniques onstage. This would have been a valuable experience in and of itself, but it became even more informative when a last-minute problem arose!

Shortly before the rehearsal was supposed to begin, Nishon received word that the conductor and the featured soloist had taken ill. It was unclear if either person would be able to attend that day’s rehearsal, which was the only rehearsal remaining before a concert the next day. What to do? Nishon displayed a calm focus and strong decision-making skills in a tough situation, and the Emerging Leaders were able to see leadership in action as Nishon and her staff developed ideas for how to move forward. Fortunately, the PSO already had contingency plans for just such an emergency: an assistant conductor was prepared to lead the rehearsal until the conductor arrived. If the conductor was unable to lead the concert the next day, the assistant conductor could fill in. If the soloist was unable to play for the concert, the PSO could find someone else to play that specific piece, choose a different piece to match the available musicians, or drop the piece entirely. Fortunately, none of those plans had to be used, and both men were able to participate in the concert the next day! Witnessing that process of brainstorming and considering all options, however, showed the Emerging Leaders a lot about flexibility, preparedness, and creativity.

The rehearsal itself was highly educational. Participants could observe musicians watching the assistant conductor for direction, making notes every time they stopped playing, and listening to each other for cues. It was easy to see collaboration and cooperation, especially among people who shared music stands: the person on the inside, furthest from the edge of the stage, generally made all of the page turns. This kind of teamwork was the main thread of the post-rehearsal discussion with Nishon, who pointed out that building trust and communication in the organization and in the community are continuous processes, not one-time projects. Because of this, the organization and the orchestra itself function best when all participants know their parts and take responsibility for them.

This session was a marvelous field experience for demonstrating how a local nonprofit functions and communicates. Lift360 is now looking to fill its 2017 Emerging Leaders class. Are you a professional under the age of 40 who would like to learn more about serving your community through local nonprofits? Do you know a young professional who would benefit from and enjoy this kind of leadership training? Please click here more information on applying or nominating someone to participate in Lift360’s Emerging Leaders Class of 2017!

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