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Charlotte Symphony earns first surplus in more than a decade

The Charlotte Symphony Orchestra finished in the black last season.

Let’s repeat that, because it hasn’t happened since 2002: The CSO exceeded its $9.4 million budget projection by $71,000 for fiscal year 2013-14.

A long-term deficit of $6.1 million remains, but president Bob Stickler and his team reversed a troubling trend. If this were an awards show, they’d be thanking more adventurous patrons, a deep-pocketed board, extremely cooperative musicians, committed donors and God (or whatever force provided the first rain-free Summer Pops series in recent memory).

“The whole CSO family is responsible for this,” says Stickler, who has just finished his first year as CEO. “Musicians came to play at fund-raising events and became one-on-one ‘musician buddies’ for donors who gave us $5,000. The board of directors increased its contribution by 40 percent, to $470,000. The development staff increased our annual fund by 18 percent to $348,000.

“We’re not out of the woods, but this is a step in the right direction. This shows we can do it.”

The most important outcome may be increased confidence. As Stickler said, “There was doubt outside the organization that we could do this. Now we have a better base to have conversations with donors. We’re not just saying, ‘Please help us fill up a hole.’ We’re giving them something to invest in.”

Charles Bowman, Charlotte market president for Bank of America – the orchestra’s largest corporate donor – agrees. “It wasn’t a make-or-break point for us that they do this, but we’ve been cautious,” he says. “There was no ultimatum, but they needed to show progress to have future conversations.

“Any time there’s positive momentum, you build credibility with donors. It also gives you flexibility about how to be creative, to have conversations about what the audience needs, rather than constantly fighting against the past.”

Work harder, work smarter

Increased effort paid off this year, but so did innovation. Take KnightSounds, the insouciant Friday series at Knight Theater. The organization cut ticket prices from $39 to $29 and re-branded it.

What had been treated as a Classics Lite gig, different from the Classics season mainly because concerts were shorter, re-emerged as “an event with a concert in the middle of it, rather than the other way around,” says Stickler. Result: Ticket sales went up by 50 percent. (The logo of a beer-toting fraülein for Bachtoberfest conveyed the idea; she’s back for Bachtoberfest II on Oct. 24.)

The orchestra explored new venues last season, notably Romare Bearden Park uptown with a “Music of the Movies” concert. And it tests the waters this year with two Thursday night concerts in the Classics series, designed to attract concertgoers who don’t want to tie up their weekends. The best-selling Mother’s Day matinee will return.

Meanwhile, the board of directors reconfigured itself in July to do business more efficiently.

“We knew the symphony needed an influx of cash, and we had a huge increase in board giving,” says Brian Cromwell, who took over as board chair two months ago. “And we have changed from a single-board style to a bifurcated system.

“One board will work on strategy and long-term vision. Then we’ll have a board of trustees who will be more financial supporters; they’ll be on committees but won’t be committee chairs. That board of trustees will become a destination board for people who are able to give a significant amount, and we hope to build a lot of buzz for it.”

This kind of reinvention is part of a national trend, as orchestras change to stay afloat. Jesse Rosen, president of the League of American Orchestras, said at the beginning of last season that two-thirds of the U.S. orchestras in Charlotte’s class broke even or reported surpluses for 2012.

He noted last week: “We are seeing signs of recovery, as the severe impact of the recession diminishes. It is a testament to ... the board, staff and musicians that the Charlotte Symphony achieved a surplus this year.”

Beginning to Thrive

The orchestra got a big boost from Project Thrive, a two-year campaign led by former BofA chief Hugh McColl that raised $34 million by last summer and is en route to a goal of $45 million. It was started to provide financial stability for the symphony, though it soon broadened its scope.

Last season, the symphony received $2.25 million as an unrestricted gift. It was promised $2 million for this year if it balanced its budget; it can also receive up to $250,000 in a matching grant, if it increases donations from foundations and families. (Stickler believes it will.)

Says McColl, “The people who run Project Thrive would say the symphony is on their way – they’re not there yet, but they’re getting there. It was important they have a surplus this year and act on the plan we all formed together.

“I’d say we were pleased, rather than surprised. Bob is a good manager, and they took steps to cut expenses. Even though this plan was a stretch, they’ve gotten over a major hurdle by making it.”

At 63, Stickler aims to be a good custodian, continuing to push the orchestra in the right direction and leaving any massive changes to his successor. No one has found a solution for tripling the $5 million endowment – even $15 million would be a small endowment for an organization this size – and the orchestra can’t make quantum leaps every year.

Rich Osborne, who headed the search committee that hired Stickler, came onto the board just before the symphony last finished in the black. He remembers deficits of $100,000 or so in his early days, which soared with the recession in 2008.

“We are thinly staffed now, and Bob’s options – or anybody’s – for further savings are reduced,” he says. “While we’ve gotten control of operating issues and continue to put a good product onstage, fundamental underlying issues need to be addressed. We need to add staff and give (music director) Christopher Warren-Green more resources.

“We talk at board meetings about whether people have become tone-deaf to the needs of the symphony. When you say for 10 years, ‘We’re in desperate straits,’ people may get inured to that.

“But if you operate an organization too close to the line for too long, that’s a very stressful situation, and you run the risk the orchestra won’t be here forever. Charlotte will not have a symphony unless the people of the community make a concerted effort to have one.”

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