Charlotte Symphony focuses on community

By Todd Cohen

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — At a retreat last October, the Charlotte Symphony gave the 44 members of its board of directors the assignment of raising $10,000 each in contributions in addition to their personal pledges.

The Symphony also offered to assist board members in hosting “Symphony Yes” fundraising receptions at their homes that would feature its music director and musicians.

From January through May, the Symphony raised $400,000 at 15 receptions, with most of those funds coming in the form of three-year gifts. And pledges from board members totaled another $340,000.

The receptions were part of a new strategy at the Symphony to boost grassroots support as it prepares to begin a long-term campaign to increase its endowment to $35 million to $40 million from $6 million.

“We need to build community support,” says Robert Stickler, president and executive director of the Symphony. “People who can ultimately give big gifts and endowment gifts are watching. They want to see the community behind us. They want to see financial stability and that the community is pitching in.”

Stabilizing the Symphony’s finances has been a big focus for Stickler, a former senior vice president for corporate communications at Bank of America who served on the Symphony’s board and as president of the Oratorio Singers, its official chorus, before being asked to become interim president after Jonathan Martin was named president and CEO of the Dallas Symphony Orchestra in August 2012.

The annual budget Stickler expects to present to the board this month will be in balance or “close to it,” he says, compared to a deficit of roughly $450,000 in the fiscal year that ends June 30, down from $1.8 million two years ago.

An anonymous group this year donated $2 million, making a tentative commitment to renew that gift annually for 10 years, “assuming we make financial progress,” Stickler says.

He says he hopes that gift will serve as a “bridge to allow us to get to financial stability first,” and then will be used to begin to grow the endowment.

Key to the endowment effort, he says, will be Michelle Hamilton, who will join the Symphony on July 1 after having served as chief advancement officer at Crisis Assistance Ministry.

Hamilton says she will be working on “developing relationships between the orchestra and the people who care about it.”

In 2013, 1,445 donors contributed to the Symphony, up from 1,345 the previous year, with 188 donors giving $2,000 or more, up from 167 donors the previous year.

Enlisting more donors to make those larger gifts, Hamilton says, will depend on raising awareness about the role the Symphony plays in the community.

“We can’t have a vibrant community if we don’t have a strong cultural sector,” she says.

While ticket sales in the year ended June 30 are expected to generate $2.4 million, up slightly from the previous year and counter to a downward trend at big orchestras in the U.S., Stickler says, the Symphony counts on ticket sales for only one-third of its revenue.

What’s more, the relative age of people attending concerts is older and more educated than the general population.

“That’s a dilemma for us and for the average American orchestra,” Stickler says. Increasing the importance of individual contributions is a decline in funding from the Arts & Science Council to $825,000 in the fiscal year just ending from $2 million five years ago.

The Symphony, which already serves 15,000 students through its education programs, is working to better engage donors by thanking members and letting them know their investment supports more than just an arts organization, Hamilton says.

“We will continue to talk to our donors about their investment in the orchestra as an investment in our community,” she says.

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