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Dollars and Sense: Arts Organizations Get Creative to Keep Funding

Local arts organizations are staying connected to peopleā€”and funding

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"[Giving money for general operating] is really giving money to an organization simply because it exists," Faison said. "We don't. The only reason we give them money is because they are providing a valuable public service to people."

Again, as both the beneficiaries and the foundation of organizations, the relationships that groups forge with their patrons are vital. A person may enjoy dance or the symphony, but if he or she doesn't feel a connection, that interest may wane and the patron is likely to look to another source where there is a connection.

In the year he has been in Boise, Tom Bennett, executive director of Boise Philharmonic, has put a great deal of effort into establishing the same kind of rapport with his company's audiences that Schert described. Bennett also recognizes the importance of maintaining existing connections patrons may have with an organization. Bennett has grown Boise Philharmonic's volunteer base and has retained a focus on fund-raising programs that have been in place for years.

"We have implemented a number of new steps and fund-raising processes, including more and more volunteers," Bennett said. "That is producing more results, and we have been opening up a number of new doors."

Bennett is a proponent of "systems." He believes it is important to use database and tracking systems. Paying attention to detail and repeating what they do at the same time each year is essential--it accounts for 80 percent of fundraising.

As an example of how important continuity is to donors, Bennett told the story of how, when he was in a former position, a symphony in the state he was working in had a 14-year successful track record of an annual fund-raising event, which usually raised $90,000-$100,000. One year, the event didn't happen. The following year, the same people put on the exact same event. They raised around $20,000.

"That's one extreme example. In another job, people were saying they were tired of putting on the same event, like the Boise Philharmonic does with its Chef & Gourmet Gala. I told them [that same] story," he said with a laugh. "Is it a pain in the neck sometimes? Yes. But there are certain advantages to getting into everybody's budget cycles."

Staying on people's radar--in their budget cycle--comes by way of regular events but also by fostering a sense of a personal connection with them.

Boise Philharmonic Board President John Stedman and Franz both extend personal thank yous in the form of phone calls and letters to donors whenever possible. And although he calls himself "just the money guy," Bennett does, too.

"Last night, I called 10 people who had given $100 the year before," Bennett said.

He not only thanked them for their recent gift, but because he uses "systems," he knew when and how much they had given before and was able to say, "Thank you for your $100 gift each year for the past five years," if warranted.

"If I know that history of what they have been giving for the past five years, then they know that we are paying attention," Bennett said.

On the other hand, getting other people to pay attention to an organization like Boise Philharmonic is equally important and may engender connections of another kind. Arts organizations are willing to reach out to anyone willing to listen about the importance of the arts and why continued funding is essential.

On March 21, Franz eloquently gave testimony before the Idaho House Education Committee. Chairman Bob Nonini, a Republican from Coeur d'Alene, had heard Franz speak a few days prior at an evening event and was so impressed with what Franz had to say about the importance of classical music on young, developing brains, Nonini asked Franz to repeat the speech he had given. And just as he does during a philharmonic performance, Franz captured the attention of the dozen or so Republican and Democratic representatives present.

Franz explained that either through students attending Boise Philharmonic performances or through outreach programs, this year, "we are just north of 20,000 students that will experience the Boise Philharmonic ... the Boise Philharmonic is involved with education because music makes a unique and vital impact on how the brain develops in children. While it's a common misperception that orchestras perform concerts for children to mainly ensure audiences for the future, the reality for me is really quite different. Our work in this realm is vibrant, important and immediate. If we do our job properly, students will become better learners, more engaged citizens and generally more successful."

He cited a handful of studies, including one by Northwestern University, one by Stanford University study and one done in Duesseldorf, Germany, in which scientists using MRIs found that musicians' corpus collosum--fibers that connect the left and right brain--were 10 percent to 15 percent larger than those of non-musicians, evidence that "musicians have a sense or an ability to connect left-brain/right-brain activities, which is key, of course, to solving problems ... a real asset in today's world."

Franz then told the committee about a study he was asked to lead that, though done in the early '90s, is still an important factor in how he approaches his job as both conductor and instructor. The Winston-Salem Symphony in North Carolina, Franz's home base at the time, was given a grant by the NEA to answer a question: Does the act of listening to music, in a very directed way, actually change how the brain develops?

Franz was asked to lead the Bolton Project at Bolton Elementary School in Winston Salem, N.C., an at-risk school. The project integrated music into arts, science and social studies. After three years of the small orchestras working with first-, second- and third-graders, those third-graders took their required standardized tests. Whereas three years before, only 44 percent of third-graders had been passing the tests, 88 percent passed after having had music as an integral part of their curriculum.

The leaders of the Bolton Project sent their findings to scientists at Wake Forest University in North Carolina, who found that the children had developed "high-level, active listening skills and ... acute and high functioning oral abilities." That translated into students that were "fast little readers and, therefore, successful learners."

At a time when education funding in general is taking a hard hit, Franz knows that stressing the importance of continuing to fund the arts when basic classes are in danger is a tough sell. Still, talking to anyone willing to listen about the role of the arts is a necessity when every dollar counts. Speaking in front of the committee may not lead to money in hand, but it may lead to something equally important: connections.

"The fact is, we're not going to get a dime from the state Legislature. We know that and that wasn't the approach," Bennett said. "But ... if the Legislature can help guide us, if they get us in some doors, that's a story that can go a long way."