Humans of TCGMC: Jeff Heine
“It’s hard to separate the passion from the practicality of the job. I’ve found that decisions based on passion tend to be wrong, but decisions based solely on practicality can be very painful, even if they’re right.” For our final edition of “Humans of TCGMC” this season, Josh Elmore talks to our Executive Director, Jeff Heine, who will be leaving us this summer after 10 years to work with the San Diego Gay Men’s Chorus.
Josh: THANK YOU FOR JOINING ME TODAY, JEFF! YOU ARE THE CURRENT – AND OUTGOING – EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR OF THE TWIN CITIES GAY MEN’S CHORUS. FIRST, COULD YOU TELL ME A BIT ABOUT HOW YOU GOT INVOLVED WITH THE CHORUS? IT’S KIND OF A NICHE ORGANIZATION.
Jeff: Of course! You’re right – it is sort of a niche profession. It’s not something a lot of people think they’re going to end up in. You’re going into non-profits, then a deeper dive into non-profits in the arts, then a still deeper dive into a non-profit in the arts that is heavily rooted in the arena of social justice, which is where TCGMC sits. I think the professional paths I’ve taken weren’t necessarily planned. I had been in the hospitality industry (hotels) for over 20 years. I was able to see the world and do a lot of good for the hotels and staff I worked with. After all that time, I guess I had what amounted to an early mid-life crisis, which was a major career change.
If I was looking at it in terms of my background and looking for morals in my own story to share, the first moral would be that you are the master of your own destiny. I used to work with a lot of people who complained about things, about being screwed by the company, and you can’t wait for the company leadership to come down and say “Jeff, we’ve been screwing you over and we want to give you something new.” You have to make it happen!
At the time I left the hotel business, I was also on the board of directors with the chorus. I’d joined the board of a non-profit to see the world from a different perspective. When I left my hotel career, I was planning on taking a year off. I was on a vacation 3 months in to my year off when the TCGMC board called me and said they needed an Interim Executive Director. So I said, “Why not?”
Back in this time (early 2009), the chorus was in severe financial trouble. I knew that if I came in, I would more than likely be there to shepherd us through closing the organization. After I took the job, I had the board over to my house for a meeting. I had a slideshow playing on Apple TV of photos from our most recent concert. I wanted it playing in the background as we talked about the possibility of closing the organization. I said, “If we let the organization die, what happens to the people who benefit from it? The people whose lives are changed when they come hear us? We have an obligation to the community.” So we decided to fight.
So my second moral is never forget who you’re serving at a non-profit. We had an obligation to the community to stay open.
Josh: AND WHAT, AS EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, DID YOU DO TO HELP GET THE CHORUS OUT OF DEBT?
I presented to the board an aggressive 18-month plan that involved cutting corners, having strong sales for concerts, no special projects that haven’t been budgeted for, and launching a season ticket renewal campaign. I knew I had to shepherd a lot of people through that, and I always had to talk with a smile on my face in a confident air, despite what was going on. And we actually came out of debt one month early. 17 months. After another year-and-a-half, we actually had significant reserves.
Josh: THAT’S PHENOMENAL. AFTER YOU LEFT CRISIS MODE, THERE MUST HAVE BEEN A SHIFT IN THE FOCUS OF THE LEADERSHIP.
Jeff: Well, what I brought to the table was my background in the corporate world. I’d never worked in the arts before, and I believed that’s what our organization needed – practical, strategic planning to counterbalance creative thinking. We created multi-year marketing projects, which recognized that the conflict between those two existed. Values also come into play. If you choose to focus on artistry, that might mean you’re more selective with who you let in to the chorus, and that conflicts with the concept of serving our internal community. We bring in singers of all levels of artistry. There’s also advocacy – touring, outreach – which can be some of the most expensive and time-consuming things you do. So how do you balance it all?
Josh: IN THE 10 YEARS YOU’VE BEEN EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, HAVE THERE BEEN ANY PARTICULAR MOMENTS WHEN YOU FELT THE ORGANIZATION WAS FULFILLING ITS MISSION? WHAT ARE YOU MOST PROUD OF?
Jeff: We’ve done a lot of outreach over the past several years. When the marriage amendment [which would define marriage as between one man and one woman] got on the ballot, we started doing more outreach. We performed on the state capitol, at the DFL headquarters the night of the vote [it was narrowly defeated]. It got us a lot of exposure. However, I’m most proud of Two Boys Kissing.
This was a work we commissioned back in 2016. It was based on the young adult novel in which, during a 26-hour period, two boys try to break the Guinness Book of World Records for the longest sustained kiss. The novel itself was based on a true story. In other plot lines, a boy is contemplating suicide, and another is about a trans youth. It spoke to a lot of issues that spoke to the post-marriage-equality world. People thought we were done. We could get married, but you could still be fired [in over 30 states]. My mantra was that we were one election away from losing what we’d fought for. So Two Boys Kissing was a tangible representation of the issues we were still facing as a community.
The work focused on the next generation – the youth focusing not only whether they like girls or boys, but where they are on the gender spectrum. The work also spoke to our past. In the book, the narrators are those who were the “first generation” of men who died from AIDS. They see the boy who is about to contemplate suicide, and they know that if he makes the right decision, the whole world is going to open up for him. And they are angry that he could even think of taking his own life. “How can he possibly throw his life away when we lost ours?” It’s intergenerational, and it was incredible work to set to music.
Way back during my first year as Executive Director, I sat in a meeting with all these non-profits. It was soon after the start of the recession and money was tight. Foundation dollars were going away. I was shaking my head, saying “I can’t compete for funding with you – the nonprofits who are working with starving kids.” At the meeting, this woman told me that we could tell their stories in a way they never could… We could do in 3 minutes what a person doing a 20-minute speech could never do. You’re appealing to people’s hearts and feel things they can’t put into words. But it’s how they can relate to us. Two Boys Kissing communicated through the heart, in a way that was relevant that a speech could never duplicate.
The writer of the novel attended our world premier. He said, “Thank you for giving my story a new voice.”
Now, almost a dozen choruses have performed it around the country.
Josh: THANK YOU SO MUCH, JEFF. SO WHILE I’M OPTIMISTIC, I ALSO LIKE BEING REALISTIC. THEREFORE, I DON’T FOCUS ENTIRELY ON THE POSITIVE. WHAT IS THE GREATEST CHALLENGE YOU’VE FACED AS EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR?
Jeff: I think it’s establishing the legitimacy of the role. A lot of people – including a lot of chorus members – think this is a volunteer job. It’s not – it’s a real, paid job. It’s a lot of work. There are many behind the scenes victories and crises that no one ever learns about because I want the singers to focus on making good music and building their community.
It’s hard to separate the passion from the practicality of the job. I’ve found that decisions based on passion tend to be wrong, but decisions based solely on practicality can be very painful, even if they’re right. How do you meld the two? I think people sometimes think, “You’re no fun. You don’t believe in the community.” I do, though. I may make a decision that negatively impacts some of our singers for one night – for example, when we decided to make our annual fundraiser “Sing It Forward” a more expensive ticketed event which we knew would prevent some singers from being unable to attend. But that one decision that negatively impacts you for one night makes us able to provide you with a great experience as a singer of TCGMC for the other 364 days of the year.
Josh: I UNDERSTAND THAT THOSE DECISIONS MUST BE QUITE DIFFICULT TO MAKE, AND I MYSELF AM LEARNING TO APPRECIATE WHAT HAPPENS BEHIND THE SCENES. DECISIONS THAT MIGHT SEEM INSENSITIVE ON THE SURFACE START TO MAKE MORE SENSE. NOW I GUESS THE QUESTION THAT’S BEEN ON MY MIND IS… WHY LEAVE TO BE AN EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR AT ANOTHER CHORUS?
Jeff: Well first of all, I love San Diego. The community has a strong appreciation of the arts. I thought to myself, “Wow, it’s just like the Twin Cities, but it’s on the ocean.” I have friends there, my best friend is out there.
I also wanted to continue my work within the LGBTQ+ choral community.
I’ve thought about leaving before, that it was time to look for something different. I’m not getting any younger. Now we have such strong leadership within TCGMC – Gerald, Stephanie, Tim, Jerry, a strong board, exceptional membership leadership – and I thought, “The time is right.” For me, that’s my third moral, I had to tell myself, “It’s okay to make decisions in your life that are good for you.”
Josh: WELL JEFF, THERE’S SOMETHING I’VE NEVER TOLD YOU. YEARS AGO, BEFORE I EVER SANG, BEFORE I’D EVER BEEN IN A GAY COMMUNITY, I REMEMBER ATTENDING TCGMC CONCERTS. YOU WERE THE MAN WITH THE SMOOTH VOICE WHO TOLD ME HOW SPECIAL THE ORGANIZATION WAS. I THOUGHT, “WOW. HOW COOL WOULD IT BE IF I COULD JOIN THEM?” YOUR VOICE HAS QUITE LITERALLY BEEN THE CHORUS’ VOICE. SO, IN YOUR BEST JEFF HEINE, VOICE, PLEASE GIVE ME A SIGN-OFF!
Jeff: Remember why we do what we do here at Twin Cities Gay Men’s Chorus – that we’re here not only to take care of each other, but to take care of the community that relies on us. When things get tough, if we question what we’re doing, when we have bad nights and we’re arguing with people, we can’t stand this one song we’re singing, we don’t want to perform at a specific venue…remember that there will be one person in the audience who relates to our story, our music. It’s okay to hate things, but remember that it’s helping other people, and that’s why we’re here. They could care less about our drama. We must never forget why we’re here.
“Humans of TCGMC” will be back this fall! Have a great summer.