Upbeat strategy

Eastern Music Festival rebounds, tunes up for fundraising.

By Todd Cohen

GREENSBORO, N.C. — Four-and-a-half years after a financial crisis nearly forced it to shut down, the Eastern Music Festival in Greensboro has pared and retooled its staff, diversified its programming and increased its earned income.

The nonprofit now has hired a music adviser and a development director, and is gearing up for a fundraising effort that will include planned giving.

“This was an organization that needed some restructuring,” says Tom Philion, who joined the group in October 2000 as president and CEO after serving as general manager of the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra.

Even though the festival at the time had raised enough money to eliminate a $350,000 deficit, its earned revenue from concerts and a summer institute for young musicians totaled just one-third of overall revenue.

So Philion worked to restructure programming to generate more revenue without increasing costs.

Several times in recent years, for example, the festival’s professional orchestra has been split, with each part performing separate concerts at the same overall cost, Philion says.

He also reduced the administrative staff to four people from seven.

And he diversified the programming, adding non-classical events such as concerts and master classes led by blue-grass artist Mark O’Connor and jazz pianist Fred Hirsch.

And after inviting a number of top conductors to work with the orchestra, Philion recently hired Gerard Schwartz, music director of the Seattle Symphony and the Royal Liverpool Philaharmonic, to serve for two weeks this summer as music adviser, replacing the former position of full-time music or artistic director.

Philion also has hired Stephanie Nelson, associate director for the Arts Council of Winston-Salem and Forsyth County, as full-time development director, effective April 18.

After focusing on increasing earned income during the economic downturn, he says, the festival is turning its attention to fundraising.

Revenue from concerts and tuition is expected to total $900,000 in the fiscal year that ends Sept. 30, just over half the annual budget and up from $490,000 five years ago.

Enrollment, which had declined to 165 five years ago, grew to 204 last summer, exceeding the capacity of 200, and applications this year exceed last year’s total, Philion says.

With an annual budget of $1.6 million, up from $1.53 million five years ago, annual fundraising totals $800,000 and should grow to $1 million in two to three years, he says.

That will include seeking planned gifts through wills, trusts and estate plans to increase the festival’s endowment, which has grown to $1.6 million from just over $1 million five years ago, including $600,000 in new gifts that helped offset declining interest rates on investment of endowment assets.

The festival, which also has shifted its marketing to its website at easternmusicfestival.org, is preparing for its annual Piedmont Jazz & Blue Festival April 26 through May 8.

After taking it over three years ago from N.C. A&T State University, Eastern Music Festival has expanded the event through collaboration with A&T, UNC-Greensboro, the Greensboro Ballet, the Piedmont Blues Preservation Society and other groups, part of a larger organizational strategy, Philion says.

“We’ve made a lot of changes in terms of programming and positioning ourselves strategically in the community and around the country,” he says. ‘We have a much broader appeal than we did six years ago.”

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