Case Studies



  1. Working with Boards of Directors
  2. Leadership Dilemmas
  3. Marketing and PR
  4. Fundraising

Note: These mini case studies have been designed to give you maximum latitude when it comes to resolving the dilemmas presented.  There is often no one “right answer” to each case study, although some solutions may be better than others. Feel free to explore multiple perspectives and points of view as you ponder how you might resolve these situations. Ambiguities and missing facts in these case studies were intentional. We seldom have the luxury of having all the facts at our disposal when we are trying to make decisions. 

1. Working with the Board

Board Perks? – As the Associate Marketing Manager for the ballet, you are in charge of events and donor appreciation programs. It has been a long tradition at the ballet company to hold a reception after each opening night (8 per season). However, you have calculated it costs about $1,500 to produce these catered receptions, and they currently don’t bring in any donations to offset the costs. There are a few donors (usually 5 or 6) and dancers (6 to 8 out of a company of 22) who attend the reception, but the majority of those who show up are board members (20) and staff (12).

The board, along with the ballet CEO, Artistic Director, and Development Director and your boss, the Marketing Director, seem to think that having the dancers schmoozing with a few donors and the board is important to the “culture” of the dance company. The staff, of course, love the free food and drinks. You have considered recommending that the ballet discontinue the receptions, but you are pretty sure you will face serious opposition by a few of the board members and the Development Director. You have mentioned your concern to your boss, the Marketing Director, but he doesn’t seem interested in making any change in the routine. You mentioned to the Board Chair at the last reception that it cost $12,000 a year to hold these events, but she just smiled at you and said, “Really?”

What should you do? You fail to see how these receptions are serving the mission of the ballet. What other options besides pulling the plug might be explored with your boss, the Development Director, the board, and the CEO and Artistic Director? (Adapted and expanded from Marilyn Fischer’s Ethical Decision Making in Fund Raising, p 60.)


Board Member Good Intentions or a Conflict of Interest?  Your goal as the Executive Director to raise more operating revenue is closer to being reached this week because you found out your small dance company is going to receive a county economic development grant for $5,000. Your modest operating budget of $60,000 could make good use of these funds. However, you wish the board member who submitted the grant would have let you know they were doing so. Nevertheless, you would like to acknowledge this grant by posting an announcement on your organization’s website and social media sites, and by altering the local media. You also want to send a thank you email to the Commissioners. However, the board member insists that the grant should not be publicized because “Strings were pulled to get it.”  Your happiness about getting the grant has now turned into concern.

After a little further investigation, you discover that the sister-in-law of this board member is a member of the County Commissioners charged with approving these grants. This type of grant will be reported in the Consent Agenda at their next public bi-monthly meeting. You went online and checked the agenda of the recent Commissioner meeting, and you found your organization was one of three nonprofits competing for this grant, and yours was the only organization funded.

You make a quick phone call to the board member, and you ask what they meant when they said, “Strings were pulled?” This response only raises more concerns about your board conflict of interest policy has been violated.  The check is sitting on your desk and, needless to say; you are reluctant to deposit it.

You wonder if you should involve the board chair in this issue. You think there is a conflict of interest issue with this grant, but don’t want to embarrass the board member who put you in this dilemma either. You wonder if there is a way to return the check without causing more problems. If you or the Board Chair can return the funds, maybe no one will be the wiser, and you can keep the board member from getting in hot water over a conflict of interest issue. You also worry how this “string pulling” might play out if the local media gets wind of this grant.

This $5,000 grant is turning into a nightmare. What would you do to get out of this mess?   (Adapted and expanded from Marilyn Fischer’s Ethical Decision Making in Fund Raising, p 182)

2. Leadership Dilemmas

The Tosca Crisis – As General Manager of the Red Rocks Opera Company (RRO), Robert typically ends up dealing with problems that can’t be resolved by his staff in the normal course of things. Late last week, Sara, his Company Manager who in her late 20’s, and who has worked with RRO for five years, was in his office to discuss problems with Frederick, the Music Director and Marcella, one of the principal artists in the upcoming production of Tosca. Evidently, there was a “moment” in rehearsal last week between Frederick and Marcella, the soprano hired to sing the lead in Tosca.

Robert asks what the “moment” was since he didn’t remember reading about any problems in the daily rehearsal reports from stage management. Sara tells him, “Well, they got into a shouting match over tempos. He called her out on slowing down the tempo in her first aria, and she promptly told him she was sick of being rushed through the whole show.” Sara goes on to say, “Marcella said something to the effect, ‘You’re obviously still learning the craft’ and implied she knew better. They both gave each other a death stare, and then moved on with the rehearsal.”

Frederick is 35 and is an up and coming conductor in the regional opera circuit. Marcella is not one to share her age publicly, but Robert knows she’s in her early 50s and she is not known for her patience and tact. She’s been around the regional opera circuit for a number of years, but her voice is still strong. The artistic director, David, who is also stage director for this production of Tosca, wanted Marcella for the role because she knew it well and the rehearsal schedule was short. David also wanted Frederick because his fee is still within reason and he and David did a Tosca together two years ago for another opera company.

Robert asked Sara why she is bringing this conflict to him now. She said, “Marcella came to see me late last week and said she was not satisfied with her housing and she felt her dressing room was too cold. I told her I would do what I could, but now I don’t know how to proceed. We don’t have any other housing options to offer her and her dressing room isn’t any colder or hotter than any of the other principal singers.”

Sara goes on to tell Robert that Marcella came to her office this afternoon yelling and screaming about her apartment and the dressing room again. Sara thinks Marcella must have had another run-in with Frederick this morning in rehearsal. Sara is upset, and she tells Robert she’s “not taking Marcella’s crap anymore.” “I told her to leave my office, and when she calms down, we will talk about the apartment and dressing room.” Sara said then Marcella called her a ‘stupid bitch’ and stormed off yelling about quitting. “I thought you should know because my guess is she’s probably in David’s office now making threats about quitting and raising hell,” said Sara.

Robert knows Sara to be a steady force as a Company Manager and for her to be in his office means all is not well. Being a Company Manager can be a thankless job. It’s Monday afternoon, and Tosca opens Friday, and Robert doesn’t have the luxury of time to resolve these spats, yet he must. What a way to start the week.

If you were Robert, how would you tackle these conflicts to ensure you have a successful opening night?

©Wm. Byrnes, Management and the Arts, 5e.


What is Wrong with Sally? – Casey, the Executive Director of the Red Rocks Art Museum, is having some problems with Sally, one of her direct reports. Sally has been the Development Director for over two years. She was always in the office first, was the last to leave, and was always thorough in her paperwork. Sally regularly received praise from the Marketing and PR staff for her collaborative skills, and she has volunteered several times to help the grant writer with some new leads she has found. She has been doing a great job, and people liked working with her.

Recently, Casey noticed Sally didn’t seem to at the top of her game.  For example, this past week Sally was late to the staff meeting, was not at her desk when Casey came into the office in the morning, and she has been leaving early. She seems distracted and unfocused compared to her usual very engaged behavior in the office.

Casey just got off the phone with Mark, the Finance Manager, who gave her an earful about how Sally tried to bend the rules and push through a gift from a member without the proper credit card authorization information. The Audience Services Director also complained she had to return two contact reports Sally submitted because of missing information on new members.

Upon hanging up the phone, Casey looked up to see Sally had entered the office. She appeared to be in a hurry. She glanced around to check who else is in the office, and then hurried to her cubicle. Glancing at the clock, Casey saw it was only 3:45 pm. Casey thought she was making visits to several donors and she didn’t expect her back in the office until the end of the workday.

Casey decided to approach Sally and talk with her about her some of his concerns.  She walked over to her cubicle and started by asking her if, everything was “OK?” She seemed startled and said “Huh, why is there something wrong? Did I miss a meeting, sorry? It has been a crazy day.” She turned away from Casey and seemed to be trying to find a piece of paper on her desk.

Casey indicated she was aware Sally had meetings scheduled with several donors that afternoon and so she casually asked, “How did it go?” Sally turned back around but didn’t make eye contact with her. “Oh, yes, I met with everyone and finished up early, so I came back here.” Casey noticed that she didn’t answer his question, so she pressed her for a quick status report. Sally said, “Look, I have another appointment downtown, can I e-mail you tomorrow morning?” Casey agreed that was fine. Before Sally left her cubicle, Casey mentioned that she needed to double check her donor reports because she had heard they were missing important info. Sally gave Casey a blank stare. Casey decided not to press her on this issue or about the “appointment” she said she had.

No report was submitted by Sally the next day. When Sally came into the office, Casey made a point of stopping by her desk and asked her point-blank, “What’s wrong Sally? You seem out of it.”  She looked up and smiled at Casey and said, “Nothing is wrong. I’m on it. I realize I have been struggling this last week or two, but I’m good. Not to worry, honest, it’s all fine.” Casey is a little startled by how on top of it and calm she seemed today. “This is more like the Sally I know,” she thought. Casey said, “OK, I am concerned about you, and I just want to make sure you’re all right.” Sally assured her again that she has no reason to be concerned.  Casey decided not to push her, and she let her know her door was always open. Casey’s schedule the rest of the week was filled, and she had other fires to put out. She moved Sally to the back burner.

Two weeks later, complaints around the office about Sally resurfaced. She tried to “push through” three more new donor gifts that were missing key information. Casey had four calls yesterday from board members of the Fundraising Committee complaining that Sally has not been showing up for appointments.  A potential donor was upset about Sally not showing up for a meeting after she waited 30 minutes. Another long-time patron called very concerned about Sally’s wellbeing and told Casey, “It is not like Sally to not show up when she says she will.  I was concerned that she was OK and not in a car accident or something.”

Sally moved back to Casey’s front burner, and she set aside some time see if she could figure out what’s going on. Since Sally’s job is about raising money, Casey pulled up a report on her screen that showed recent patron giving history. After reviewing monthly gift amounts report, she realized Sally is no longer meeting her gift targets.  Casey did a quick check of her gift last year at this time, and she saw her stats are off by 40% in the last three months.

Casey had taken Sally’s word that she was OK and she thought Sally was going to get back in sync again.  However, with the continued complaints and errors in paperwork and drop in donations, Casey had to admit to herself that Sally was not fine and all was not good.  Things are in fact worse, much worse than Casey thought.  Casey decided to have another more serious conversation with Sally and try to get to the core of what’s wrong. Assuming you were Casey, what would you do to help Sally get back to being a productive member of the team? (Source: Adapted and expanded from a case study in Mangement of Organizational Behavior, 9th ed., Hersey, Blanchard, Johnson.)

3. Marketing and Public Relations

Announcer or Advertiser? – A local community symphony orchestra has had a long and satisfactory corporate sponsorship relationship with a local FM commercial pop music radio station. The radio station sponsorship totals $5,000 annually. The radio station also regularly sponsors other local pop music concerts and is very committed to helping local arts organizations in the community by announcing upcoming arts events on air. In fact, though it is not in the sponsorship agreement, one of the morning drive-time personalities welcomes audiences to the symphony concerts and offers a brief preview of the evening program for no fee. The radio personality enjoys doing this, and the symphony audiences seem to like it too. Many of them don’t listen to the pop music station, but they enjoy the sense of humor of the radio personality.

Two days before the next symphony concert, the radio station Marketing Director notifies you that while introducing the next concert, the radio personality will also announce a vacation giveaway contest the station is sponsoring. The contest involves people calling the radio station during the drive-time broadcast and answering trivia questions. People who answer the questions correctly will be entered into a drawing to win a 4-day Las Vegas vacation package worth $4000.

As the symphony’s Marketing Director you value the relationship between your orchestra and the station, but you worry this promotional announcement crosses the line from the radio station being a corporate sponsor of your concerts to outright advertising. The radio station Marketing Director argues that by sponsoring your orchestra concerts, the station has the right to announce the contest. You are pretty sure the sponsorship contract has restrictions built into it that don’t permit this kind of activity. You tell the radio station marketer you’ll get back to her in the next day.

You do a quick scan of the contract, and unfortunately, it is vague about the kinds of promotional activity promised to sponsors beyond an acknowledgment in the program and on posters, plus the option to hang a 2 ft x 6 ft banner in the lobby of the concert venue. The contract language states, “…and shall include other appropriate promotional activities mutually agreed upon based on the value assigned to the sponsorship.”  It looks like the contract doesn’t address the radio station promoting a contest, or does it? How much does the $5,000 corporate sponsorship really “buy?” If you were the symphony Marketing Director what would you do to resolve this dilemma? (Adapted and expanded from Marilyn Fischer’s Ethical Decision Making in Fund Raising, p 201.)


Sexy Sells? – You are driving down the interstate when a billboard catches your eye. The billboard ad is by the opera company on whose board you serve. On it, you see the naked back of a young woman with her face turned toward the viewer with an expression that seems to you to be suggestive or almost lurid. At first glance, you thought it is one of those ads for bath gels – not an ad for your opera company’s upcoming production of Verdi’s La Traviata. You are doing 70 mph, so the only words you catch are: “See you at the Opera.” As a donor, board, and community member, you are having concerns about how your organization is marketing its productions.

As you continue down the highway trying to process what you have just seen, you are becoming more disturbed by this image and tag-line and you wonder what the other opera board members and donors might think of this type of advertising. Everyone always says sex sells, but you wonder if images and messages like this are appropriate for your organization’s marketing department to use. The marketing campaign for La Traviata was presented as an FYI at the last board meeting, but you don’t remember being concerned about the words and images at that time. Maybe you missed something? You know as a matter of policy, the board doesn’t vote to approve the advertising campaign of each of the four operas produced every season, but now you wonder if maybe it should.

You resolve to talk with the board chair about this particular ad campaign as soon as possible. You also wonder if you should send an email to the Marketing Director expressing your concerns. Maybe the board needs to be more engaged in how the opera company is advertising its productions? Granted yours is a small-budget regional opera company and you understand there is a goal to attract more ticket buyers, but maybe this isn’t the way to do it.

Ponder this case study and the questions it raises from the perspective of board members, staff, executive leadership, and members of the community. (Adapted and expanded from Marilyn Fischer’s Ethical Decision Making in Fund Raising, p 225.)

4. Fundraising

Reading of the Will – You have been Director of Major Gifts for the Susan Nyman Performing Arts Center for 12 years, during which time you have become friends with a number of the center’s faithful donors. The Center has an operating budget of around 12 million, and you have been able to build a solid donor base that brings in around 3 million a year in gift income.

Randall Actwell, one of these friends with whom you became particularly close, recently died. Actwell was a well-known philanthropist in the community. In fact, one of your performance spaces is named the Randall Actwell Theater. It took you five years of hard work to get Actwell to commit to a naming gift of 1 million dollars.

A few weeks after his death there is a reading of the will for the family and close friends. You have no reason to attend the 1:00 pm reading, but you get a phone call at noon from one of Actwell’s lawyers giving you a heads-up that you are named in the will. The lawyer calls you back at 1:30 with the official news. Actwell left you a piece of choice property which has an estimated market value of around $180,000. The lawyer also tells you that once all the beneficiaries are paid, the Performing Arts Center is also going to receive the remainder of Actwell’s estate. The Center will likely get about $450,000.

Unfortunately, one of your less than discrete board members attended the reading of the will. That evening the board member attends a party and in casual conversation, mentions to a reporter that Actwell included you in his will. The reporter calls you first thing the next morning and wants to interview you that afternoon about the Actwell gift to you and the gift to the Center. She tells you she is working on a longer story profiling Actwell for the Sunday paper arts section. You offer a quote acknowledging the generous gift to the Center, and you express your surprise about being named in the will. The reporter asks what you will do with the money, and you deflect her question with a vague response that you are exploring your next steps.

After you hang up the phone, you begin to ponder what you should do. Ethically, you know you should not be profiting from your relationships with your donors, and in fact, it looks bad that you were even named in the will. However, you remind yourself the Center is going to get a big gift, so maybe it’s OK you take the property as a gift from one friend to another. You wonder and worry if other wealthy donors you have worked with over the last few years have you in their will too. What if this type of situation pops up again? This could be a real problem. You also wonder if you can extract yourself from this interview with the reporter. Maybe the executive director can do the interview with the reporter?

Your brain continues to race along with questions. Should you sell the property and donate the proceeds to a charity? Should the charity be one that you support, or should it be one Actwell was associated with? Maybe you should take the proceeds from the sale of the property and donate the money to the Center? Alternatively, should you sell the property, pay the taxes and then invest the net proceeds in your IRA? If you invest the money in the right type of IRA you will not be taxed on it now. After all, ethics aside, you know you could use this money to boost your retirement portfolio. You circle back to thinking about how this donor’s action might look to other staff, your board and other donors in the community. What actions do you think you should take and why? (Adapted from Marilyn Fischer’s Ethical Decision Making in Fund Raising, p 114.)