The new guy in charge of the Des Moines Social Club is not, on paper, the most obvious choice to run one of the hippest venues in town for local artists and creators.
Pete De Kock (pronounced “duh-cook”) has a master’s degree in theological studies. His resume has a good bit of political organizing experience and a stint working with a Chicago nonprofit that trained college students in religious diversity. He’s not an artist, nor has he worked for an arts organization before.
But Darren Jirsa, president of the Social Club’s board of directors, said De Kock has the skills the organization needs now.
“Pete has a very good and sound understanding of strategic planning, financial planning and of how to operate this building,” he said of the Firehouse, which has been the Social Club’s home for just over two years.
Social Club founder Zachary Mannheimer was the visionary, the man who got a community behind the idea of a place for local artists of all stripes, the change agent who persuaded monied and influential supporters to bankroll the purchase and renovation of an old downtown fire station. But when he decided to move on, the Social Club board was not looking for another Mannheimer.
“I’m much more of a startup person than a manager,” said Mannheimer, adding that De Kock is the right lead for Act 3 of the Social Club’s story.
Mannheimer sees the creation and growth of the Social Club eight years ago as its first act. Moving into the Firehouse was Act 2. Now, the question for Act 3 is, how does the Social Club become more stable and organized without becoming too institutional? How does it grow and serve more kinds of audiences while still serving the needs of artists?
“What’s unique about Pete is he has been part of organizations that have successfully integrated lots of people, and that’s exactly what the Social Club is trying to do all the time,” he said.
Who is this guy?
If you want a clue about what makes Pete De Kock tick, look up the definition of social capital — a term he uses often.
De Kock grew up in Muscatine, where his mother was a teacher. His grandfather was president of a Fort Dodge bank and the president of the local school board. He described his family members as having a strong history of community service in various ways in Iowa and said that “just has stuck with me in a huge way.”
As a student at Grinnell College, De Kock studied religion and politics. What he was interested in and said he has always been fascinated by is: how do diverse groups of people live and thrive together?
He was asking the same question at Harvard Divinity School, where he originally planned to pursue a path toward a career as a university professor. However, he quickly realized “I don’t want to spend the next however many decades of my life just reading books and writing papers.”
A Harvard mentor recognized De Kock’s desire to be involved and counseled him that, while he had all the abilities to be a good professor, he believed the young man would always want to be out in the world trying to make things better.
De Kock took his question about community into his early career in politics. As the director of Congressman Bruce Braley’s eastern Iowa district (De Kock never worked in Washington, D.C.), he most vividly remembers helping military families during the years of deployment in Afghanistan, helping communities that were flooded in 2008, and helping immigrant families affected by federal immigration officials’ raid of a meatpacking plant in Postville in 2008.
“We wanted to be known as a team for three primary things: listening, working hard and getting things done,” he said.
De Kock met his wife, Jen, while he was working on Braley’s campaign in 2006. She was also working on a political campaign, and in 2012 when the boundaries were redrawn for Braley’s congressional district, the couple was faced with moving to Cedar Rapids or moving to Chicago to be closer to Jen’s “large Sicilian family” as they were starting their family.
They chose Chicago, and De Kock began working for Interfaith Youth Core, a nonprofit organization that partners with U.S. colleges and universities to do excellent religious diversity education.
“I learned there what excellent nonprofit organizations look like when they are functioning well,” he said. “I found that I really, really love the business side of running nonprofits. I like the finance side of it a lot. I enjoy the facilities, the HR, the IT, and I very much enjoy the strategy side of things as well.”
A new team for Act 3
De Kock was keeping an eye out for new opportunities, particularly in Iowa, when the Social Club job came up. “We thought Des Moines is a great, great place for our family to keep growing,” he said.
The fact that the job was in the arts didn’t put him off, especially after he did some checking into the Social Club.
“I knew I wanted something that would allow me to continue that sort of vocational path that I found myself on — engaged in our public life, contributing to the creation of more and more social capital, social value. Opportunities where I can still get a chance to be a student, opportunities where I would be pressed to collaborate well with other strong leaders.” he said.
For their part, the club’s board members felt the organization had cleared its biggest hurdle: getting into a new building and getting all sorts of creative artists and patrons there. Now was the time to refine the club’s mission, its operating structure and how it fits into the community.
For that role, Jirsa said, the board felt De Kock was a good fit.
“Pete has unbridled enthusiasm,” he said. “You can’t help but notice that the minute you meet him.”
“I have great confidence in what this place is going to do with Pete and Cyndi (Pederson) and the other staff this year,” he said.
De Kock is careful not to lay out all his early thoughts about the Social Club. A mentor urged him to do more listening than talking as he settles into the job. But he does know a few things that he’ll talk about.
“I think the most important thing we can do is to create an executive team here at the Social Club now, instead of trying to have one person step in and replace Zack,” he said.
“My colleague Cyndi Pederson and I are working very closely. She and I are the executive team right now,” he said of Pederson, a former director of the Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs, who is chief operating officer at the Firehouse.
Another important actor for the Social Club is Mickey Davis, a 24-year-old Des Moines native who graduated from Macalester College in St. Paul, Minn., with a degree in music composition. Davis talked his way into working for Mannheimer and ended up as the person in charge of programming at the Firehouse.
De Kock said the three of them and the board are thinking now about what the next act of the Social Club is going to look like.
All three said that during the first couple of years of being in the expansive Firehouse, the staff was scrambling to fill it with programs — from cooking lessons, to art exhibits, poetry slams, theater, break dancing, live music and trivia competitions. Now they are trying to review that lineup with an eye toward discerning which of it is duplicative, or doesn’t quite fit the Social Club’s mission. They’re also looking at how they can reach more parts of the Greater Des Moines community.
Board president Jirsa acknowledged “there may be a perception in the community that the Social Club is just for 20-year-olds or 30-year-olds.” Its leaders don’t like that image. “We want everybody involved. The Social Club is for everyone,” he said.
Said Pederson: “We want to include all demographics, from kids to senior citizens.” For example, she likes the idea of a couple coming to eat at Malo –the restaurant anchor at the Firehouse – and wandering around the club, perhaps checking out three to six creative activities going on in the building before their table is ready.
Mannheimer has an advisory position on the Social Club board now and he helped De Kock settle into the Social Club job in December before moving to his new job as vice president of creative placemaking for Iowa Business Growth Co., said De Kock has the experience and skills for the job.
“What’s unique about Pete is he has been part of organizations that have successfully integrated lots of people, and that’s exactly what the Social Club is trying to do all the time,” he said. “I’m really excited. I feel confident with who’s there.”
Program Manager Director Davis is on the same page.
“Now we’re looking at our mission and trying to figure out ‘What does that mean, in terms of programming? What direction do we go? What do we stand for?’ ” he said. “We’re taking the vision of Zack and figuring out the details.”
Thoughts on leadership
If you spend any time with De Kock, a couple of conclusions seem evident.
He’s a thoughtful person. He spends a lot of time thinking about how communities come together, especially when it comes to his favorite topic of building social capital in modern society, where diverse people live, work and play in close proximity.
Follow national and international headlines or the rhetoric of the presidential campaign to set a narrative for De Kock’s question. It’s not too hard to see that we more often define ourselves by what separates us than by what unites us. We’re red or blue, black or white, immigrant or native, left-leaning or right-leaning, rich or poor.
The skill set of leaders in today’s world, consequently, must change, De Kock said.
“The idea anymore, given all (our) diversity, that you can go out and be successful and build a thriving community on your own, sort of willing your vision or your way, just doesn’t resonate anymore,” he said.
“The successful leader now is somebody who is thinking ‘OK, amidst this difference, given these cards we’ve been dealt, how do we best partner and collaborate, with all our differences, to build a thriving community?’
“I personally think the great leadership challenge of modern times is: Can you be somebody who has that knowledge base, that skill set necessary to be a good partner?
“As we get more and more thoughtful about the art of leadership, I think we’re starting to see that your ability to get along with other folks, your ability to empathize with other people’s life experiences, your curiosity about people’s life experiences, your ability to listen … this is stuff that differentiates successful communities and successful leaders from those that aren’t.”
An economic idea that refers to the connections between individuals and entities that can be economically valuable. Social networks that include people who trust and assist each other can be a powerful asset. These relationships between individuals and firms can lead to a state in which each will think of the other when something needs to be done. Along with economic capital, social capital is a valuable mechanism in economic growth.
Social Club To-Do List for 2016
- Continuing facilities upgrades to the Social Club campus, specifically soundproofing and acoustic quality work in Kum & Go Theater and The Basement.
- Strategic planning: refining the organization’s mission and further tailoring programming to closely fit that mission.
- Outreach to audiences that are less frequently represented at the Social Club.
- Listening and engaging with artists, cultural creatives, educators, craftsmen, and partner arts organization who provide the content for programs.
- Forming an executive team which supports staff professional development and allows the board of directors to focus less on month-to-month activities and more on long term strategic opportunities.
- Further improvements to operations and cross programmatic initiatives including marketing, finance, hospitality, IT, and event booking.
- Repeating 2015’s most successful series events like Team Trivia and Jazz Happy Hour, and large scale events like the Food Truck Throwdown and Bash.
- Launching new events like the Jazz Festival and new culinary performances.
Nuts and bolts
Operating Budget: The Des Moines Social Club’s 2015 unaudited gross operating expenses were $1.38 million. The 2016 budget will be similar.
Revenue: 2015 gross income (unaudited) was $1.4 million; approximately 70 percent was earned revenue from activities and 30 percent from fundraising.
Staff: 11 full-time employees
Location: 900 Mulberry St.
Contact: 515-369-3673, email@example.com or www.desmoinessocialclub.org