What Can We Learn NOT TO DO From Cirque du Soleil?

Julia LuI would venture a wager that most of you reading this have heard of Canada’s cultural icon, Cirque du Soleil, the company that introduced a new concept of a circus over a quarter century ago.  Probably many of you have attended one of their performances.  I had been a loyal patron for many years and eagerly awaited Cirque setting up its big top each year.  My feelings towards the company started to shift a few years ago when they moved indoors to venues such as Madison Square Garden and Radio City Music Hall.  At first I was excited by the prospect of more performances, but I found myself disappointed after attending them.

I was saddened to see a spate of recent international news coverage chronicling the travails of this once programmatically and financially successful organization.  The profit-making company revealed that it is no longer profitable, despite grossing over $1 billion last year and selling 14 million tickets.  The company is undertaking a drastic cost savings plan that includes laying off 9% of the staff; the Quebec government is no longer providing financial support; and some of Cirque’s long-time partners have withdrawn their support.  With the move to new venues and markets, Cirque lost sight of its mission, organizational vision and artistic motivations.

Cirque’s current conditions are partially rooted in their selection of a new CEO in 2001 who made as his primary focus increasing revenue by 25% annually.  They tripled performances, entered untested markets, and ventured away from their core concept into magic, variety and musical shows–areas beyond their expertise.

What parallels do you see between your current challenges and Cirque’s high-flying acts, and how do you think Cirque’s missteps could have been avoided?  I for one see weak organizational leadership, lack of focused institutional planning, mission drift, loss of long-time programmatic partners, loss of financial supporters, withdrawal of government funding, the absence of a useful dashboard to monitor performance on an ongoing basis, the hazards of a leadership transition, and a fraying business model that needs to be retooled.

Cirque could have mitigated some of these conditions if they had undertaken solid strategy planning that incorporated equal parts mission and revenue.  While those of us in the nonprofit sector are more oftentimes motivated by mission, we should never lose sight of maintaining a balance between these two variables.  The CEO was probably the ideal person when hired, but organizational leadership was either insufficiently engaged or lacked the courage and/or data needed to make tough decisions along the way as their world changed around them.  Had they done so–and these things are never easy–Cirque may have averted their current critical state.

All of us at the Support Center/Partnership in Philanthropy are well acquainted with the circumstances like these, as they relate to nonprofits of all sizes. We have experienced consultants who can help your organization confront your challenges and overcome them.

Give me a call at 917-522-8308 to find out how we can help your organization, or just let me know which is your favorite Cirque show!

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Julia Lu

Director of Consulting

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