How The People’s Music School Turned an Operating Deficit into a Surplus

Alli Henry, Executive Director, The People's Music School

Guest post by Alli Henry, Executive Director, The People's Music School

In 2015, The People’s Music School (TPMS) – the only 100% tuition-free music school in Chicago – nearly had to close its doors when faced with a $200,000 operating deficit. Now, three years later, TPMS has achieved an operating surplus each year and has grown to a $1.7M budget. Upon joining TPMS in 2016 as Chief Operating Officer, I had the opportunity to play a key role in the turnaround process that was quickly unfolding, and to work alongside a rockstar team (including our President & Artistic Director, Jennifer Kim Matsuzawa) to course correct and implement sustainable growth. 

My first few weeks on the job were a whirlwind! On my first day, Jennifer and I took an hour to list every piece of the business that needed attention, fixing or refining. Then I got to work. We re-drew the chart of accounts, revamped the budget codes, and created a new financial class structure. We built Board committees, revised the Bylaws, and redesigned our Associate Board. We reorganized the file structure on Google Drive, centralized gift processing in Salesforce, and eliminated duplication by consolidating student rosters and standardizing templates across our five programs. We empowered the staff to manage their own budgets, built a performance review and feedback calendar, and clarified our operating norms and values. These tactical steps have saved the team hundreds of hours a year, allowing them to focus on more strategic decisions.

Speaking of strategic decisions, TPMS had just closed two program locations when I joined. This was the right call for many reasons: the programs were under-enrolled, not financially sustainable, and not in the areas of greatest need. Still, it was a difficult decision to close these programs. To lessen the impact, we established transition plans for each affected student and offered teaching positions at our other program locations to the affected faculty. The silver lining of these site closures was that TPMS was then able to open two new locations that have grown quickly and sustainably to over 200 students, and are in areas of great need: the Greater South Side and Back of the Yards.

In no particular order, here are my observations (I hesitate to say advice) about how to lead a sustainable turnaround effort. 

  • Build a great team. You can’t do it alone. The staff and Board must care deeply, share an aligned vision, and understand their role. They must be impatient enough to make urgent and necessary changes, but patient enough to recognize that change takes time.
  • Move collaboratively, but quickly. Some tough decisions will need to be made and not all of them can be made by consensus. Gather input from the team but recognize that it is not your job to make everyone happy. That’s impossible. It is your job to do what’s right for the organization, and inspire everyone to understand the context, accept the decision, and keep moving. 
  • Engage people and ask for help. Our Board needed to transition from an operating board to a governing and fundraising board. So we hired a consultant to help. As a result, the Board voted to increase the give-get expectation from $500 to $10,000 a year, a number of members retired gracefully, and now the rebuilt group of 16 members attracts 35% of our annual revenue.
  • Don’t be afraid to invest time in tactical or operational fixes. Eliminating headaches and making people’s jobs easier boosts morale and makes your team more efficient.


The People's Music School is the first and only completely free music school of its kind in the country, serving over 800 students annually from across Chicago. Our intensive curriculum is designed to provide access to the unique benefits of a music education, enabling children to grow musically, socially, emotionally, and intellectually, regardless of economic barriers. We are 100% free, 100% underserved, over 90% of color with a 100% graduate rate!