Client Spotlight: Back from the Brink with the Shreveport Symphony Orchestra

2012 was a challenging year for the orchestra business with too little good news or much encouraging progress. 

However, for theShreveport Symphony Orchestra (SSO), 2012 proved to be the year of the turnaround.  Partnering withRobert Swaney Consulting(RSC) through a combination of a development assessment, interim staffing and ongoing counsel, the SSO began the process of rebuilding its annual fund, sponsorship program and peer-to-peer fundraising climate.

Shreveport’s arts and cultural scene is robust – from theatrical and visual arts offerings to family festivals and musical offerings, including the Shreveport Symphony.  Over the years, the arts in Shreveport have struggled financially, and the Symphony has not been immune.  While artistically valued, the SSO has grappled with fiscal challenges for the better part of two decades – becoming a fraction of its former self, with reduced programming, greatly reduced staff, and a budget of just over $1,000,000.  Having barely survived a musicians’ strike during the 2008-2009 and 2009-2010 seasons, a new fight for survival quickly developed.

In July 2011, Lois Robinson was appointed as the SSO’s new permanent Executive Director.  Ms. Robinson came equipped not only with arts management experience, but also prior to that she was a practicing attorney and a double bass player.  Considering the dire circumstances of the SSO, Ms. Robinson’s unique background was immediately put to use. 

As the SSO approached 2012, it faced a variety of challenges – including some startling news about the organization’s non-profit status.  Shortly after Ms. Robinson’s appointment, the Symphony received notification from the IRS, revoking the Orchestra’s 501(c)3 designation due to failure to submit IRS 990 tax forms for the previous three years.  Other tax-related issues followed – donations to the SSO were no longer tax deductible and the organization was ineligible to receive vital operating support grants from foundations.  

As 2011 drew to a close, it became clear that the donor base had eroded substantially from their pre-strike levels, though some generous individuals, corporations and foundations continued their steadfast support.  To further complicate this, the patron database had been neglected for years, making it extremely cumbersome to identify and solicit past supporters.  Finally, the Fiscal Sponsorship arrangement negotiated that fall with the local Arts Council (SRAC), while essential to saving the situation by allowing donors to make designated tax deductible gifts to SRAC in support of the SSO, made the communications and messaging challenges with donors immensely complicated and delicate. 

With these challenges, most organizations might have given up, but Lois Robinson and the SSO’s board of directors took bold steps to move forward.

Reinstating its 501(c)3 status and satisfying the IRS were chief “back office” priorities for the SSO.  Simultaneously, and against all odds, the SSO had to develop new approaches that would attract new sources of revenue to allow the Orchestra to continue to play.  

The SSO didn’t have the necessary fundraising expertise in place to meet these extraordinary challenges, nor did it have the luxury of time to search for and hire a new Development Director.  So in November 2011, the Orchestra engaged Robert Swaney Consulting (RSC) to provide an immediate fundraising architecture – including plans, strategies, coaching and support – all needed to quickly rebuild the SSO’s contributed revenue program. 

RSC’s priority was to quickly build an effective Annual Fund program, with a philanthropic, yet “cash now” mentality, with a case for support that would rise above the organizational challenges. RSC’s approach was multi-faceted but remained basic to accommodate an organization with few resources.  Our focus was to carefully but quickly redevelop the fundraising fundamentals at every gift level by developing a plan, case and timeline that offered a series of structured, yet intense and compressed activities that would provide immediate results.

Working with the SSO leadership, RSC began to leverage volunteer resources, target individual and corporate gifts of various sizes, create an environment of “positive urgency” via a challenge grant and a fully redeveloped case for support to address the challenges while emphasizing a bright future.

Board and staff were focused on rebuilding relationships with the local influential stakeholders.  Well-designed messages to the public became more intentional and more frequent. Local leaders took notice and began to recommit themselves to support the SSO’s efforts in a variety of ways.  The database issues were improved to expedite regular communications and gift asks to the SSO patrons.

The results have been overwhelmingly positive. Overall, the SSO’s Annual Fund surpassed both its Individual Gift goal of $265,000 and its Corporate Sponsorship goal of $140,000 – an astonishing achievement considering that for most of 2012 the organization was burdened with a suspended 501(c)3 status and didn’t launch its fundraising program until  almost halfway through the fiscal year.

“RSC’s work had to be fast, precise, yet nimble – especially in the early stages – because the SSO’s needs were great, and the dynamics changed daily,” said Bob Swaney, Founder and CEO of RSC.  Swaney continued, “It was apparent that, despite the dire situation, the board and the community clearly wanted its orchestra and the SSO’s leadership was ready to do the work necessary to quickly redevelop community interest.  They simply needed a strong partner like RSC to guide their fundraising efforts during a most difficult period.”

Staff, board and musicians were in sync and according to RSC Senior Consultant, Jeremy Hatch, “No one was dragging their feet. The community was enthusiastic as they saw a beloved organization turn itself around to play another day. While the budget didn’t quite balance in 2012, the SSO closed much of the gap, addressed some serious issues, and created an ‘environment of asking’ that will help them continue to grow.”

SSO Executive Director, Lois Robinson said, “I am grateful for the Board’s dedication – and tremendously appreciative of board chair Brian Hebert’s leadership since my arrival.  I’m also grateful for RSC’s partnership.  We had so many challenges, all needing to be addressed at the same time.  Jeremy and Bob kept us on track with fundraising and made sure we stayed focused on only those things that would give us immediate return.  RSC has been a huge part of our success!”

“That sentiment is mutual,” said Swaney.  “I had the pleasure of working with Lois while she was at the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra.  She was the perfect choice for Shreveport, and she’s doing an outstanding job to reenergize the SSO and to reengage the community.” 

Now celebrating its 65th season, Shreveport Symphony Orchestra, under the artistic leadership of Michael Butterman as Music Director, presents classical, pops, holiday and family offerings to an appreciative community.  The base of support is growing, and while struggles remain, the SSO has laid the groundwork for a brighter future.

Established in 2006, Robert Swaney Consulting, Inc. (RSC) is a national provider of contributed revenue growth strategies and hands-on interim management for arts and cultural institutions. The firm has offices in Indiana, Georgia, and Missouri, with clients across the country.

If you would like to learn more about how RSC has helped the Shreveport Symphony or how it successfully partners with arts and cultural organizations to reach fundraising goals, call us today at 317.300.4443 or visit our website.

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