Flashback: Ken Fischer’s 
keys to success

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Ken Fischer of UMS puts up his dukes in support of the arts. | Benjamin Weatherston

Ken Fischer of UMS puts up his dukes in support of the arts. | Benjamin Weatherston

This story originally appeared in the November 2012 issue of The Ann.

By Julie Halpert

Ken Fischer, president of the University Musical Society for the past 25 years, is credited locally with bringing art to the masses. In addition to putting on 60 to 90 music, dance and theater performances a year, UMS provides roughly 100 educational activities. Though affiliated with the University of Michigan, UMS is a nonprofit independent. Fischer, 67, recently received the 2012 Mariam C. Noland Nonprofit Leadership Award. He spoke with Julie Halpert about what he’s done to make UMS vibrant and shared some keys to his success.


Julie: What are the traits of a strong nonprofit leader?

Ken:  You need to surround yourself with the very best in the business that support the mission of the institution. I have the top finance guy, the best programmer and the top marketing person that have been with me for more than 20 years. I built a great team of people and then tried to stay out of their way. You also need a very good professional staff operating your finances. A number of other nonprofits in the arts may be doing superb work artistically, but they can’t get it together financially.


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Julie: Some saw UMS as an elite endeavor. How have you made UMS more affordable?

Ken: We’ve made it more attractive for students at the university to want to come to our events. We have five different types of discounted tickets. At almost every concert at Hill Auditorium, people can get in for $10.


Julie: What ways have you made UMS cool and pumped new life into it?

Ken: I went into the communities of Southeast Michigan, especially communities of shared heritage — Arab, Asian, African American and Latin, that have significant populations but whose cultural expressions we weren’t featuring. We built relationships with these communities, then began to program what they considered to be the very best of their cultural expressions. That not only enriched UMS, it built new audiences for us … Also, artists used to arrive in Ann Arbor, do their concert and leave, providing little opportunity for engagement of the artists with the community, so we began requesting the artists stick around and do master classes or lead workshops and lectures. If you can get people engaged and learning about composers and interacting with artists, that deepens audience engagement.


Julie: What’s an example of an unconventional way you’re presenting performances?

Ken: We’re using other venues besides just Hill Auditorium and the Power Center. Now we’re using St. Francis of Assisi Catholic Church for chamber music performances because of the quality of the sound. We’re staging “The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart” at the Corner Brewery in Ypsilanti in January, since the Scottish play takes place in a bar. The seats for those performances immediately sold out. It brings in new audiences when you go to new spaces.


Julie: It seems as if you run UMS more as a savvy businessman versus a nonprofit leader. Would you agree?

Ken: I’ve got business and arts people working together so effectively. My arts employee attends every budget and finance committee meeting. He can talk benchmarks and risk assessments with the best of them. The best organization is one that blends these two often diametrically opposed aspects.


Julie: What was the greatest obstacle you faced during the recession?

Ken: We saw our corporate sponsorship decline by 30 percent. We’ve now seen some increase in that.


Julie: In light of this, how have you brought more stability to UMS funding?

Ken: When I arrived here we were 85 percent earned income, 15 percent contributed income. It was individuals providing annual support in fundraising efforts. We had very little corporate support and almost no government or foundation support. I saw opportunities to really diversify contributed income significantly and began to build a robust corporate program. Now we’re at 45 percent earned income and 55 percent contributed, which means we’re making a lot more money. We count more on contributed income to support non-income-producing initiatives, like our educational program. Also, because we provide value to the university, 10 percent to 12 percent of the UMS budget is supported by a diversity of units from the University of Michigan.


Julie: What are you most proud of in your tenure at UMS?

Ken: A fundamental shift in building a highly competent group of people that lead the organization. The old model of this business was the impresario model. All the power of an organization rested in an individual. Now it’s an entire team effort. I recognized I can’t do everything here.


Julie: What can private and nonprofit businesses learn from the way you run UMS?

Ken: Share the love of what you do with as many people as possible. Let them know what it means to you to be having this rich opportunity to serve. When we have our corporate calls, I make it clear to them I’m not here for a handout. I tell them I’m here to understand what your business objectives are and then I want to see if there’s a fit between what you’re trying to accomplish and what we can offer you. Once my staff and I learn what those are, we can see how some relationship to UMS could help them accomplish that. For example, we approached the Michigan Economic Development Corporation and got them to give us a grant for $125,000 to sponsor Pure Michigan Renegade last year, performances that celebrated game changers and innovators in the arts, since it fit with their goals for reinvention in the state.


Julie: You’ve been in this position for 25 years. Do you have any plans to retire?

Ken: No. I have no interest in retiring.


Julie: What are your plans for the future of UMS? How will you keep the momentum going?

Ken: In some years it’s a challenge to raise funds. Every year there is a period of tension hoping you’ll make it happen. I don’t want to live that way. I’d like to grow our $12 million endowment so we have money we can count on from year to year. I’d like to raise more money from the people who have loved what we’ve done for so many years. I’m looking forward to keeping us vibrant, alive and the best in the country.


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