Arts & Science Council casts a wider net in a hard era

As anybody involved with a social-service group or arts organization can tell you, these are hard times for raising money. When the Arts & Science Council kicks off its annual drive Wednesday, it will tackle the challenge in a way you might never expect: by running a second campaign on top of its main one.

As always, the ASC will raise money it will distribute to cultural groups across Mecklenburg County. The likely goal is $7.3 million - roughly what each of the past two campaigns brought in.

Along with that, the ASC will try to raise $1 million for a single purpose: helping bring back arts-oriented field trips and other cultural programs lost to budget-cutting at Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools.

There's a goal to this beyond putting music, theater, dance and art in front of students. It's part of the ASC's attempt to redefine itself for post-recession Charlotte.

The ASC needs that. The downturn hit it harder than any other arts fund in the United States. Its 2009 campaign, held when the recession was at its scariest, took in $7.3 million - a drop of more than 30 percent from the previous year. In 2010, the ASC needed extra time just to equal the 2009 total.

Now there's a challenge to workplace giving, the linchpin of the ASC's fundraising. For years, scores of employers have let the ASC come in each winter and make its pitch to their workers. Since last year, four of the biggest employers - Wells Fargo, Carolinas Healthcare System, Mecklenburg County and CMS - have pushed the ASC into combined campaigns with United Way and other nonprofits.

That's where employers are headed, ASC chairman Marc Manly says. In other cities, he says, when nonprofits have shifted from solo workplace drives to the group type, they have usually taken in less.

Time to change

Facing all of this, the ASC has to evolve.

For decades, president Scott Provancher says, the ASC acted mainly as "a collection agency" working for the general good of the arts.

When the ASC campaigns boasted steady year-to-year increases, as they did during the 1990s, that tack was "appropriate," Provancher says. No more. The ASC must "appeal either to a broader audience," Provancher says, "or to people who are changing their own priorities."

The CMS drive - the ASC's first attempt to piggyback a special campaign on the general one - is "a very simple start to that concept," Provancher says.

With its potential to put the arts in front of thousands of students, the drive could reach far beyond the typical cultural community.

Benefits for kids, artists

The $1 million, says Duke Energy executive Manly, would enable the ASC to fund programs next school year for all CMS schools - many of which are missing out this year.

To make the best use of whatever money comes in, says Ann Clark, CMS's chief academic officer, CMS, the ASC and arts groups are studying what kinds of arts education programs will best tie in with the schools' curriculum. The arts can reinforce lessons in English, math and other subjects.

"Learning," Clark says, "occurs both within the classroom and beyond."

Bringing back the school programs is "a big priority" for cultural groups, too, Provancher says. Many of them run education programs that have lost funding from CMS and other backers. Reviving them would help the groups and their workers.

The ASC has demonstrated the role it can play by raising $650,000 toward the $1 million already, Provancher says. By representing the entire cultural community, it won pledges of $200,000 each from Bank of America and the Wells Fargo Foundation; and $100,000 each from the Duke Energy Foundation and the C.D. Spangler Foundation.

"If we're successful in getting the $1 million," Provancher says, "that's a new $1 million that we would not have achieved... with (separate) organizations trying to fundraise for it themselves."

'Hit our target'

In the meantime, alongside the CMS campaign, the ASC will run its regular annual drive, which continues through March 25. The push will include workplace drives at more than 400 companies.

In December and early January, the ASC's website said the campaign goal would be $7.3 million. The ASC removed that when it was pointed out, saying the number wasn't settled. Wednesday's kickoff will make the goal official.

Whatever the target, the ASC faces a formidable job. Signals about fundraising prospects at "major well-established companies" are more positive than in past years, Provancher says. But campaign volunteers in the real estate, construction and related industries say the continuing slump will present "some real challenges."

The ASC will also have to make up for ground it has lost in the workplace campaign. It will receive $11,231 from Mecklenburg County employees, who had the choice of it and around 90 other nonprofits, the county says. That compares to more than $122,000 that the ASC took in from its last old-style campaign on the county level, which was in 2009.

Preliminary indications on the other three combined campaign are that their total will be equal to the past or a little down, Provancher says, "not the massive attrition we thought we might see."

Donors can pick between the CMS drive and the annual drive if they want. But the ASC, Manly says, will try to convince people to contribute to both.

After the ASC suffered its first big fundraising drop, it made sharp cuts in its grants to cultural groups. So it's vital, Manly says, for the ASC to "hit our target and not let things slip."

"Last year, when we had to scale everyone back... it was tough on everyone," Manly says. "We just can't afford to continue to scale back.

"If we do that, we're going to lose programming. We're going to lose some of these vibrant cultural partners we have. None of us want that."