Historic Mellon Grant to Cleveland Orchestra Shows It Pays to Be Bold

"Competitive differentiation" is a phrase that's thrown around a lot in the business world, and justifiably so. Companies need to distinguish themselves from competitors in an ever-changing marketplace. Like it or not, that same theory applies to thousands of nonprofits vying for scarce funding. In a crowded field comprised of dozens, if not hundreds, of equally impressive grantseekers, nonprofits need stand out by highlighting areas of differentiation.

All this begets the question: How should we distinguish ourselves? Well, nonprofits can take a valuable lesson from the Cleveland Orchestra. The organization has announced it received a $2.5 million grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the largest to the Cleveland Orchestra in the foundation's history. And why did the foundation ultimately select the orchestra? To quote the foundation's press release, it was "the type of programming and partnerships that help distinguish the orchestra from its peers." In short, this isn't your grandfather's orchestra.

The Cleveland Orchestra is clearly programming outside the box, and its approach resonated with the foundation. Here are examples of programs and partnerships that ultimately distinguished the orchestra from its peers:

  • Opera performances in Cleveland that include a cycle of the Mozart/Da Ponte productions from the Zurich Opera
  • Staged performances of Strauss's Salome in Cleveland and at Carnegie Hall in New York
  • Semi-staged performances of Janacek's Cunning Little Vixen, performed by orchestra for the first time in its history in the 2013-14 season

Taken on their own, these offerings may not seem earth-shattering. However, when they are viewed in totality, it becomes evident why Mellon was so impressed. The program exhibits a consistent pattern of international partnerships, unique and historical musical selections, and an ambition to put Cleveland on the proverbial "classical music map."

In terms of the grant itself, $1.25 million has been awarded in immediate support of the orchestra. The remaining $1.25 million will be awarded as part of a challenge lasting through June 2016 and will match, one-to-one, gifts from donors to the orchestra.

As we all know, very often competing nonprofits have equally compelling programs. In these cases, a foundation will make its selection based on the recipient organization's financial acumen, geographic location, or long-term strategy. This was clearly not the case with the Cleveland Orchestra, which secured Mellon's funding due to the distinguishing characteristics of its programs and partnerships.

The lesson here for nonprofits? It's easy — and perfectly natural — to be inherently conservative when applying for grants. But boldness and risk taking can distinguish you from your non-profit peers. In the case of Cleveland Orchestra, it's doing what no other orchestra is doing. The Mellon Foundation appreciated this ambition and rewarded the orchestra with the largest gift to the organization in the foundation's history.