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Executive experience?

0 Robert Levine

A candidate for the position of King County (Seattle) Executive is touting her executive experience rather than her decades as a local TV news anchor, and basing the claim on having been board chair of the Seattle Symphony:

In her campaign for King County executive, Hutchison has highlighted her 2 Ω years as chairwoman of the symphony’s volunteer board of directors more than she’s touted her 20-year career as a KIRO-TV news anchor, and more than her current job heading a two-person nonprofit foundation, the Charles Simonyi Fund for Arts and Sciences.

As a political newcomer, the symphony work is the closest she’s come to executive experience running a large organization.

It’s prominent in her brochures, stump speeches, debates and interviews, especially when she is asked about her qualifications for the county’s highest office.

While the county has almost 14,000 employees and the symphony just 138, Hutchison says her experience would translate to the executive job. “We had labor issues; we had leadership issues. We had to hire, to build a team. We had to increase revenues. … The whole situation had to be turned around, and that’s what we did,” Hutchison said in an interview.

There’s widespread agreement that Hutchison stepped up at a perilous time for the symphony and helped balance the budget two years in a row. “She drove extraordinary fundraising. She was our chief development star, which is what the chair should be,” said Girish Nair, head of the symphony board’s finance committee….

While Hutchison successfully asked for money, her achievement was “revenue enhancement, not an example of fixing a structural budget deficit,” said Deputy Mayor Tim Ceis, who has contributed $800 to Hutchison’s opponent, Dow Constantine.

Melinda Bargreen, former Seattle Times music critic, who covered the Seattle Symphony for 31 years, agreed: “The truth is, the symphony was not saved and may never be unless it invents a new business model.” Like orchestras all over the country, the Seattle Symphony is financially dysfunctional, said Bargreen, who doesn’t live in King County and can’t vote in the election. Its earned income pays for only about half its budget. The rest of the budget relies on donors and endowment interest. As a result, Bargreen said, the orchestra still has a deficit “and is in peril of adding to that every year unless there’s a bigger endowment fund.”

“Susan’s success entailed persuading people to part with large amounts of money,” Bargreen said.

It didn’t hurt that her day job is running a foundation started by a key Microsoftie:

After leaving KIRO in 2002, she went to work for Simonyi, a software engineer credited with developing Microsoft Word and Excel, whom she had met years before at a fundraiser for Seattle Children’s hospital.

As executive director, Hutchison has helped the Simonyi Fund distribute money to almost 100 groups, with the largest checks going to the symphony, the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, N.J, and a supertelescope that aims to peer into the universe’s dark matter…

Her first big decision at the foundation was to give $10 million to the symphony in 2004, and it got her a seat on the board.

That gift and the foundation’s continued support have lifted the orchestra’s finances and spirit…

Hutchison said it would be “absolutely false” to suggest that she underwrote her success at the symphony with Simonyi money.

The foundation’s $10 million contribution was made in 2004, she notes. While it did allow her to help oversee the fund’s investment, the majority of that gift — $8 million — was spent before she became chairwoman. “It was the multimillions I raised that made a difference.”

I’m not sure what to think about this. It appears she was an effective board chair, although having direct control of pots of foundation money makes being effective easier in some ways. And it’s nice to see that being associated with an orchestra might be a political asset; perhaps that’s a Seattle thing.

Certainly this story confirms the notion that board service is not always completely disinterested altruism. That’s just the way of the world, and perhaps it should be celebrated and not questioned. And being a good board chair no doubt requires many of the same political skills as does being an elected government executive officer.

Still, the whole thing seems a touch louche to me in some way I can’t quite put my finger on. Does that judgment seem overly harsh?

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