Interview by Sarah Shumick
Although David Brown hasn’t lived up to his childhood dream of becoming an Olympic figure skater or Dallas Cowboy Cheerleader, he certainly has a lot to be proud of. As the creative director of The Harmony Project, David serves an organization that generates more than 60,000 hours of service to the community each year. While many who know The Harmony Project typically think of a 1000+ person choir, David shares that it’s about so much more than that– a variety of transformational programs that reach all walks of life.
Give us a short overview of The Harmony Project: Harmony Project was started to unite diverse communities through something they have in common. Full-throated, powerhouse musical performances for audiences of thousands are the byproduct of the mission: Harmony exists at the intersection of artistic passion and social purpose. No one auditions to be part of the programs; however, to earn your place on the stage, you must serve in your community. Harmony Project reaches all ages, across all social and cultural divides, and serves the greater Columbus population by providing accessible arts/education programs in schools, transitional housing facilities, theatres, and even a prison. Additionally, all of those voices (1000-plus singing in weekly rehearsals) generate over 60,000 hours of volunteer time throughout the year.
Tell us what’s innovative about your organization or how you are innovating in the nonprofit space: No one is required to have a strong voice. The not-too-subtle metaphor of Harmony Project is that when our voices unite, the weaker are lifted by the stronger: it’s the sound of a city if it began to sing together.
How is your organization making an impact in Columbus? A 100% graduation rate of every senior that has completed Harmony’s program at South High School (In its 7th year). Men and women who are differently-abled have moved from the corners of their rooms to the spotlights of the stage (9th year). Incarcerated women have developed empathy for others by using their voices to soothe hospice-care children in South Africa and using day-releases to perform on stages grand and small to shift social perception.
Side-by-side, Harmony unites the spectrum of our city: by zip codes, school districts, socioeconomics, political opinions, spiritual beliefs, sexual orientations, and cultural expressions and experiences. Harmony is building community by connecting people and amplifying their voices.
What makes your organization thrive? Unfortunately, the need for unity is why we are entering our tenth year. That’s what makes our organization relevant. Divisions of economy, education, politics, religion, access to opportunity…these are where Harmony’s social purpose serves as a point of introduction: we introduce the community to itself. What makes it thrive? The people are the mission, the vision, the social disruptors, the philanthropic dreamers. It’s the kids who want a better future, the women returning to free society after years behind bars, the marginalized adults who were once only recipients of social services and now are providers of inspiration and hope for their community. It’s the neighborhood that needed a community makeover. And most certainly, it is the donor who shares the vision.
As a leader, how do you come up with innovative ideas, and what helps put those ideas into action? First and most importantly for me, I take time to recharge after big events or the end of a season. It doesn’t have to be a long time; it does have to be quality time.
Second, I try to pay attention to what people are talking about…what seems to be in the social lexicon at the moment. For example: when planning 2018’s summer concert, we were heading into 2018 which was of course 50 years after 1968. So, “1968: The Concert for Community” just made sense. And, it felt good. It packed Columbus Commons, and was free to the public. It met the social mission, and achieved the artistic vision.
Give us a snapshot of your career path—what is your background, and what led you to work in the nonprofit sector? Except for a few years away from music as an interior designer in Los Angeles, most of my years have been spent between Columbus and NYC in the non-profit world. 15 years in NYC, and now a total of 15 years in Columbus. NYC offered great opportunities that only it can offer: directing and producing concerts at Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Center, The Apollo, Madison Square Garden; performing with some of the biggest names in pop music; discovering the right mentors…I’ve been lucky and I’ve worked hard. The lucky part is that music is and has always been an extension of myself. So, I found a way to turn it into my life’s work. Since I have little to no experience in the for-profit world, it is difficult for me to back up my perception that the non-profit world allows for more creative thinking, group decisions, and less risk aversion. I like that combination.
What is the one thing you are most passionate about? Makeovers. Love to see a creative makeover of a room. I appreciate Queer Eye’s social take on that in the past couple of years. And, of course, there’s nothing like being part of a community makeover. Spending the day with people whose life experiences and opinions might differ from my own, and accomplishing something greater together than we could have accomplished on our own.
Who inspires you? Visionaries, people who think big, people who mix sarcasm and humor. People who leap without a net inspire me. People who write beautiful music. People who speak their minds because they’ve done the research to back up what they say. People who are not easily intimidated by power, wealth, status, or privilege. People who have witnessed life in its brutal and beautiful realities.
How do you stay motivated? What drives you to take things to the next level? When I am lucky enough to hear an audience member say, “That concert was the best ever…I don’t know how you’re gonna top that!” I want to respond first with a “thank you so much,” then add “but it SHOULD have been the best so far, and it SHOULD get better and better.” Isn’t that the point of doing what we do? We learn, we grow, we get better at doing what we do. In this case, the goal is connecting the community through music. Connecting the community means growth. So if we’re not growing, we’re not walking our talk.
What struggles or adversities have you had to overcome to get to where you are today? The biggest struggles were the first two years when 98% of the funding requests were declined. Since then, the greatest struggle is changing the perception by some that Harmony Project is just a choir. In reality, a choir is just one of many programs offered by Harmony Project.
Why do you think people should care about innovative nonprofits? If social connection, civic engagement, unified voices, big ideas, volunteer-driven work forces, and creative problem solving are important to you, then hopefully you care about innovative non-profits.
As a kid, what did you say you wanted to be when you grew up? So many things: an Olympic figure skater, an archaeologist, a Dallas Cowboy cheerleader (most of the other boys wanted just to date them, but I wanted to perform with them). Sadly, I didn’t live up to any of those childhood ambitions. Although, Harmony Project performs its December concerts at Nationwide Arena. Technically speaking, it’s on ice.
What might others be surprised to know about you? Self-described, I am an introvert.
How can others in the Columbus community get involved with your organization? To sing, join the wait list. We are always working to engage as many people as quickly as possible. To give back with your Columbus neighbors, just sign up to serve on our website.
If someone were to ask you what the “pulse” of Columbus is, what would you tell them? Seems to me that Columbus is still in the process of figuring that out. So am I.