CSO finds a lifeline to get through holiday season: Group pledges $75,000 in matching funds

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Note: Below is Stratton Lawrence's initial report on the CSO's new pledge challenge:

Since revealing almost three weeks ago that their immediate future was in jeopardy, the Charleston Symphony Orchestra seems to have found an inch of wiggle room to carry on.

After alerting the 46 staff musicians that their December salaries were at stake unless money was immediately raised, the CSO’s plight received heavy coverage on The Post and Courier’s front page, editorial pages, and here in City Paper.

In the wake of those stories, CSO executive director Jan Newcomb reports that over $150,000 has flowed in, much of that in the form of small donations from folks who say they don’t have much, but that the symphony’s survival is important to them.

On Wednesday, the CSO announced that a group of long-time supporters were offering a $75,000 matching pledge for donations arriving between now and the end of January. The challenge requires all donations be above $1,000, but any amount up to $75,000 will be doubled.

“It’s to encourage major donors,” says Newcomb. “From the articles, we have gotten a lot of lovely gifts ... but we need to get some of the bigger donors back too.”

Newcomb says that while the $150,000 they’ve raised in the last three weeks is far better than prior months, it’s still less than the same period in normal years. She calls 2008 “the worst year in history, as far as fund-raising.” Normally, the final months of the year bring a flood of donations, as people take into account the tax write-off value of giving.

One of the CSO’s funding problems may be a lack of development and marketing. Three billboards went up promoting the symphony on I-26 this week, donated by Adams Outdoor Advertising, but pitching for donations has been largely limited to mailers sent to past donors and word of mouth.

To survive in the future, Newcomb hopes to design a more sophisticated development strategy, as well as building a stronger endowment. She’s currently writing grants requests and says that if the $75,000 is raised (and then doubled by the challenge to a total of $150,000), she’s hopeful the season will be completed.

“I’m forever the optimist,” she says. “I just really want to make it through our obligations for the season.”

Three weeks after being notified of the crunch, however, the musicians’ union has yet to respond about the board’s request to renegotiate its contract. Agreeing to that would most likely mean a pay-cut, although board president Ted Legasey says that any salary cut would be across the board, from musicians to paid administrative staff.

If musicians compromise and matched donations occur, the CSO may just weather a storm that seemed like it might wreck them only a week ago.

And although Newcomb hopes to find a sustainable economic model for future seasons, she also hopes donors will remember to view them as a charity and not a business.

Just as National Public Radio must carry out quarterly fundraising drives, the CSO needs consistent charitable donations.

“We’re not here to make money,” says Newcomb. “We’re here to present music.” —Stratton Lawrence

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