Welcome to Episode 40 of the Nonprofit Leaders Network podcast series. Our guest today is John Marshall, President and Chairman of the Board of the Johnny Mercer Foundation. Our conversation includes topics relating to a shift in focus, overcoming pushback to change, the evolution and development of a program, and using partnerships to extend the impact of your nonprofit.
Mr. Marshall has a B.A. in Political Science from Clemson University and his J.D. from Emory University. He served five years as a member of the City of Atlanta Board of Ethics and was its Chair during his last three years of service. He was a member of the President’s Advisory Board at Clemson University for six years, and he has served as Treasurer and is now President and Chairman of the Board of the Johnny Mercer Foundation.
Mr. Marshall currently is a part-time associate legal counsel at Kennesaw State University and also serves as a legal consultant to the Georgia Independent College Association. He retired in 2007 from his position as University Attorney at Georgia State University after 31 years of service. He returned in a part-time capacity for 14 months as Special Assistant to the President, with an emphasis on real estate development issues. He is a founding member of the Principal One Consulting Group, LLC, an entity focusing on liability and management issues in educational institutions and non-profit organizations.
While at Georgia State, Mr. Marshall served as the Acting President of the Georgia State University Foundation and Vice President of the Foundation. He also served on the Board of Directors of the Georgia State University Research Foundation and the Georgia State University Athletic Association. He taught introductory Political Science as well as graduate courses in Higher Education Law and Sports Law. He has been a long time member of the National Association of College and University Attorneys (NACUA) serving as a member of its Board of Directors and on numerous committees.
The mission of The Johnny Mercer Foundation is to support the discipline of songwriting in the tradition of the Great American Songbook as exemplified by the life and work of Johnny Mercer: lyricist, composer, performer, collaborator and producer. The Foundation continues Johnny’s legacy by partnering with individuals and organizations dedicated to celebrating and nourishing the disciplines he mastered, and the causes he and Ginger Mercer championed.
You can listen and enjoy the full discussion with John Marshall in our podcast, but here are some of the highlights.
Deciding on a Shift in Focus
Around eight or nine years ago, the Johnny Mercer Foundation went through a big shift in purpose. The board had some turnover in board members which led them to revisit their purpose, goals and whether or not they were achieving them. John explains that out of those discussions (developing a mission statement and ideas provided by various board members), new program ideas were developed and flourished.
Overcoming Pushback to Change
As expected with organizations experiencing a shift in focus and evolving program ideas, there was some push back from a few of the board members. These new ideas also required more individual commitment from board members. Fortunately for them, one of their board members was a corporate consultant who worked with the management team to help them function better. This included facilitating a couple of session with the board to help them through the transition.
The Evolution of a Program: From Site-Based to Equipping
The successful “Accentuate the Positive” program was several years in development. It began as a program working with kids in theatre on Broadway (which was managed by a for-profit entity). They worked with the Foundation to develop educational materials to teach lyric writing in schools. When the Foundation decided to do more with these activities, they needed to find some help. As luck would have it, someone came along who had already been doing similar work and helped them revamp the curriculum. In addition, one of their board members was a public school teacher. She wanted to get involved to assure that the materials would meet the educational standards so that they could be used by schools anywhere in the country.
Another important piece in this program development was a partnership based on the relationship that one of their board members had with the Kaufman Center in New York. The Kaufman Center had contacts in public schools in New York. Because of these relationships, they were able to deliver the program to some of the public schools in New York. Subsequent relationships developed with other educational institutions allowed them to expand into Florida and Los Angeles.
Extending Nonprofit Impact Through Partnerships
Developing partnerships has been the key for the Foundation in expanding their programs and in being successful. One example John talked about is their Songwriters Workshop that they do in conjunction with Northwestern University that is now in its 12th year.
“One of our board members works for ASCAP (American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers) and has a very strong interest in musical theater. Northwestern University has the American Musical Theater project. Through some relationships he already had at Northwestern, he helped us develop a program there….”
The program takes aspiring musicians who have written some music to Northwestern for a week and to spend time with master songwriters. The costs of the program are shared by the Foundation and Northwestern. At the end of that week, the students put on a concert of the music they’ve performed. Many have gone on to have their music recorded or used in such things as Broadway musicals or commercials.
Another program they developed began with a friendship that a board member had with the director of the New Jersey Performing Arts Center. Through this partnership, 150-200 middle schoolers a year can be involved in putting together and performing a musical. When interviewed afterwards, the participants talk about how it has changed their lives.
The Johnny Mercer Writers Colony at Goodspeed program is the result of a partnership with Goodspeed Musicals. The resultant writers colony has generated a number of musicals, some of which are on their way to Broadway.
Letting Go, and Growing Impact
John explains that what has enabled their programmatic activities to be successful is the energy of their board members and the willingness to turn them loose to come back with ideas, and then the willingness to take chances on the ideas and new partnerships. This approach taps into the energy and efforts of individual board members and expands their capabilities through the partnerships which is critical for a small foundation.