by Adrianna Christmas

I am extremely honored and grateful to have been a part of MMI’s first Institute for Nonprofit Excellence cohort. The yearlong experience has been extremely impactful to my organization and my growth as a leader. It offered much more than funding. It was a brilliant model that provided training, an executive coach, and other support services that are sure to influence Stax Music Academy for years to come.

At SMA, we aim to change lives through music and holistically equip the next generation of Soul Communicators to positively impact the world. One barrier to touching more lives has been a lack of musical experience, particularly in regard to instrumental music. Last year we realized we were missing an opportunity to reach students who could not afford to purchase their own instruments and/or whose schools offer little or no music instruction. MMI equipped us to bridge this gap by funding STAX 101, a beginner group lesson program for fifth- to ninth-grade students. This September, Stax 101 will provide students the opportunity to learn a new instrument and eventually matriculate into one of our eight ensembles.  We are so excited to welcome a new group of students into the Stax family and increase access to our program!

Funding was only a portion of what SMA gained as a part of the Institute for Nonprofit Excellence. MMI also provided trainings every month that contributed to our overall operational growth. One training in particular, Critical Program Questions, helped us tackle some very tough but necessary questions about our work. It led us to evaluate current programming, ideal participant subgroups, and capacity on a much deeper level. Subsequent discussions helped us be more thoughtful in building our new programs and zone in on the intersection of what we do well and community need. The Measuring Outcomes training session also helped us take a more strategic look at program effectiveness. It gave us a solid start on collecting the right data for our organization and provided some free resources we could use immediately.

MMI went yet another step further and provided executive coaching in between sessions. It was the number one aspect of the program that worked extremely well in support of us meeting our goals and enabled us to get the most out of module trainings. Having a confidante to bounce ideas off of and talk through some of the tougher questions raised during our module trainings was priceless. It also helped me grow in my new role as director.

MMI did not stop there. They were very communicative and most of all, listened to our organizational needs. This is something I have never experienced. Most funders give organizations money and only check in at the end of the grant term for reporting purposes. MMI was with us every step of the way. After speaking with their staff and expressing our data challenges, MMI provided an expert data consultant to help us measure our impact. I truly believe this work will take our organization to the next level. Knowing which programs are working and why will greatly equip us with making programmatic decisions in the future, and being equipped with accurate data will help us tell a more compelling story for funding and community engagement opportunities.

In addition to helping us bolster our data collection, they also helped us with some Visioning and Core Value work with Jen Frank. The decision-making framework we developed specifically helped, and will continue to help, us set priorities and remain focused on what is truly important. It has furthermore given us more confidence in managing our resources. In the past, SMA accepted the majority of performance requests, which hurt the organization professionally and strained limited resources. More importantly, the resulting rigorous schedule negatively affected student and staff energy, grades, and stamina. With the combination of our training sessions and work with MMI consultants, I am confident that we will be able to look back on the 2017-2018 calendar and know exactly why we took on every project and be able to accurately measure the effectiveness of each project.

My INE cohort in itself was also a blessing. I have truly enjoyed connecting with other nonprofits and hearing their stories. We have been able to support each other’s events, brainstorm a few collaborative projects, and learn a lot from each other in the process. As a new director, I feel lucky to have a cohort of people who support and understand issues surrounding the nonprofit music education field.

In closing, MMI’s Institute for Nonprofit Excellence gave us not only the funds needed to expand, but also trained us to be more strategic about all of our programming. Their words and actions proved a genuine concern for the overall health of our organization, beyond funding. I have definitely grown as a leader over the past year, and I attribute much of that the institute. This model will have a long-lasting effect in the growth of Stax Music Academy and our ability to build sustainable programming in the future. I am forever grateful for the MMI team and my cohort members for such an amazing experience.


Adrianna Christmas is a vocalist raised in Gary, IN. She obtained her Masters in Arts Administration from the prestigious School of Public and Environmental Affairs at Indiana University. After falling in love with the students of Stax Music Academy during an internship, Adrianna returned to Memphis 2012 and has worked as the Program Manager, Operations Manager, and now serves as the Director of the Academy. Some of her accomplishments and hobbies include being an alumnus of the IU Soul Revue, a member of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc., and graduating with various honors.  In addition to her administrative duties as the Director, Adrianna teaches middle and high school vocal technique.