Friday, December 5, 2014

TUBA

The other day, I, along with two student leaders from an organization called Net Impact, met with Amy Klosterman.  Amy is involved with an organization she calls TUBA, the acronym for The Uganda-Baltimore Alliance.  Why does she call it TUBA?  Because it revolves around a brass band in Uganda and her US base is Baltimore.  And, in true “Smaltimore” (i.e., Baltimore is really a small town) style, just a couple days after I’d spoken with Amy and the students, I chose a seat at random in a faculty luncheon and ended up next to someone who teaches business communication in our program and who is Amy’s neighbor.  We took some time to continue to discuss the business issues around TUBA.  And that wasn’t the first “Smaltimore” story related to TUBA.  I first found out about the organization when my son, who is now a freshman at the conservatory at Johns Hopkins, played as part of a benefit concert for the organization. 

What is the purpose of TUBA?  First, to promote improved performance by the band members.  They are outside Kampala.  Amy has made numerous trips to work with the group by herself and has taken students from Peabody (the conservatory at the Johns Hopkins University) on one occasion, one student from Peabody on a second occasion, and a high school student from Baltimore City College on one occasion to work with the musicians in Uganda. 

Second, to become self-sustaining.  There are two young men who were part of her earliest group in Uganda who are now leading the organization in East Africa.  They need income to support themselves so that they can lead the other musicians and the organization.

Third, to provide opportunities for a flow of US musicians (whether from Peabody or elsewhere) to Uganda to work with, help train, and make music with the musicians in Uganda.

We spent some time talking about the interest that business students could take in this project.  Amy’s background is a musical one, and the business skills are something she has had to develop and looks to continue to improve or to find others to help her.

We discussed seven challenges that the organization will face.  These are fundamentally business challenges.  If Amy and the team she develops can work through these challenges, she will be able to promote business with humanity in mind in some really exciting ways.  If not, there is a risk to the enterprise that she has developed.  So, it is worth considering what the challenges are and whether they are unique.

First, the goal is to make the Ugandan part of the organization self-supporting.  A key question is “what is actually meant by self-supporting?”  Does that mean no need for donations of any sort?  Does it mean that the two leaders can support themselves but them might still need instruments donated?  What about paying the musicians?  And what fraction of the musicians’ income would this be expected to account for?  The answer to what it will take to make the organization on the Ugandan side self-supporting will vary quite a bit depending on the answer to the first question. 

Second, and still along the lines of needing to define things, what are the set of measures of success?  In particular, are there non-financial measures of success?  Are the non-financial measures going to be on both the US and the Ugandan sides fo the equation?  Or only on the Ugandan side?  Will the measures of success be tangible or intangible?  How will the measures reflect the notion of doing business with humanity in mind?  And how can the criteria be optimized under different financial sustainability levels? 

Third, and following on the discussion of non-financial goals in two places, it is important to consider the resources that need to be managed in two places.  On the US side, at present, the main source of revenue will be donations.  On the Ugandan side the organization has diversified into a new area to try to provide the revenue.  There are both ongoing needs for revenue (salaries) and one-time needs for investment (e.g., building a dwelling to house visitors).  The management of different sources of revenue with different flows of costs in different settings is a non-trivial challenge.  Particularly for an organization that is not a 501(c)(3) organization in the United States yet. 

The diversification question has been answered in part.  They are building a facility to house 400 fryer chickens.  Raising the chickens will have a rhythm because it takes six weeks for them to grow and then the sanitization process before the next group of chickens can come in is 2 weeks.  During that time, the two men whose livelihood will be supported by the chickens can catch up on musical and other pursuits.  The key question with the diversification is whether this was the right one, what are the risks to this potential stream of revenue, and what will happen if it fails.  All standard questions.

To grow the revenue will require more musical activity—and more chickens.  A key question is the appropriate rate of growth.  What can musicians be convinced to do in terms of more activity?  How quickly can expertise in chicken raising by learned?  How much land is available and how much more would be required to grow?  What are the risks of failing to grow?

Sixth, with the potential for growth in musical activities, this raises an interesting question.  Does this mean more practice time and better individual skills for existing musicians?  Does this mean more practice time as a band and better playing as a band?  Does this mean more live events?  And will the band ever be ready for recording?

Finally, when is it time to tell the story?  Of course, Amy and her partners would like to have success and be able to tell a story about success.  As I have learned in many aspects of my life there is actually quite a bit to discuss even before the outcome of success or not is known.  Many people will be interested in the process.  What has worked and what has not?  What are lessons learned?  What would Amy and her partners do again?  What would they make absolutely sure NOT to do again?  What are some tough lessons that have been learned?  And what have been the small and big “victories” along the way to the hoped for final measure of success?  The process can be as important as the outcome when sharing information with other social entrepreneurs who are trying to do well by doing good. 

My blog is just one way of sharing that will be read (on average) by 50-100 people.  However, if you are ready this, I would encourage you to share it.  Then, it will be read by, and hopefully inspire, others.  Inspire them to contribute, should the opportunity ever arise.  But more importantly, inspire them to dream big about making a difference for stakeholders in whatever organization they are a part of.


Hopefully, the business school will also provide Amy with an opportunity to address an audience of students, faculty, and staff with her story.  And perhaps some of them will have other ideas or other connects to help Amy and TUBA to share their amazing story, albeit still a work in progress, so that through the connections that are made, the organization can maximize its chances of success. 

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