At a time when the non-profit sector is still reeling from the after-effects of the recession, the Arts & Science Council (ASC) has been transforming itself, and Charlotte, toward a bright future. In fact, ASC President Scott Provancher wants to see our city become “an innovator in the national cultural sector.”
“We have such great intellectual capital and creativity in this community,” he points up. “We need to be more aggressive and think a lot bigger for our institutions.” Provancher’s vision of Charlotte as an innovator in the arts and science world comes as no surprise: He was brought to Charlotte in 2009 precisely for the purpose of innovating the organization’s way out of a financial rut.
In each of several years prior to this recession, ASC had reliably raised more than $11 million through their Annual Fund Drive to support cultural activities and facilities in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg area. In 2009, that number dropped by more than 35 percent to just over $7 million.
Furthermore, the organization was in the final stages of raising money for the Campaign for Cultural Facilities that would finance the Levine Center for the Arts, Discovery Place’s renovations, and the construction of the new North Carolina Dance Theatre. And it had become challenging. The ASC board of directors knew the organization would need more than a little work to make it happen. According to Mary Lou Babb, then chair of the ASC board, they needed creative energy and a new approach.
Enter Scott Provancher. Provancher was recruited from Cincinnati, where he was vice president and campaign director for the Fine Arts Fund (FAF). He immediately impressed the board with his youthful energy and a history of thinking outside the box. It didn’t hurt that he had recently completed an initiative at the FAF that had increased revenue by 10 percent. And prior to that, he had rescued the Louisville Orchestra from financial straits to set it on solid ground and expanded both revenue and programming for the Rockford Symphony Orchestra in Rockford, Illinois.
Upon arrival in Charlotte, Provancher immediately set about building relationships and generating new ideas. Babb says, “I observed how quickly he makes friends and good relationships with people around the city. Plus, he handled the cultural facilities fundraising with grace and enthusiasm.”
In addition to quickly raising the remaining $20 million to complete the Campaign for Cultural Facilities, over the last two years under Provancher’s leadership the organization has raised its revenue from the annual fund drive by 14 percent, launched several new initiatives, and taken a stronger leadership role in many facets of the Charlotte cultural and educational community.
Provancher says this success has been in no small part due to the support of the organization and its board. He says he’s been in other positions where he was hired as a change agent, but then spent the first six months convincing the board to follow through on its vision to implement change.
But in Charlotte, “The board of ASC stuck to their commitment to innovate our way out of this challenge,” he says. “That’s not to say that there isn’t significant debate and discussion around specific directions and strategies, but there’s never a question that innovation is going to be a part of what we need to do.”
For instance, in 2010 the board brought 10 innovative ideas to a retreat, and determined to leave the retreat with a commitment to invest in three. All three have since been implemented successfully and become a significant part of ASC’s strategy.
Two of those ideas had to do with becoming more data-driven. One involves segmenting the donor population in order to market and communicate with each group more effectively. The second has to do with partnering with the Blumenthal to better promote both organizations. The third is a bit more visible and, in Provancher’s words, “charismatic.” It’s called power2give.org.
power2give for Culture
In the past, most of ASC’s fundraising has focused on the annual fund drive, where the majority of donations come from the more than 250 companies who give corporate gifts and/or run employee campaigns. Money raised this way goes directly to the general fund and is distributed among member organizations based on volunteer peer-review panels. That is still an important part of what the organization does, but Provancher and the board wanted to make sure that potential donors, especially those outside of the workplace, had a diverse choice of options when making their giving decisions.
power2give.org allows non-profit organizations meeting certain specific criteria to post projects, along with photographs, descriptions, videos and their fundraising target, which is displayed as a green and white meter bar. Visitors to the site can easily view projects by type (education, arts, technology, etc.), newness, keywords, and other criteria, and choose where to put their money. Once a donation is made, the donor can see their amount stack up in the project’s meter in real time.
Because project targets are often small amounts, even a modest donation has a visible effect, providing a powerful emotional incentive for the donor. For instance, one project aims to provide Jazz lesson scholarships to needy kids. Total goal: $1,250. An easily achievable donation of just $25 raises the completion percentage by 2 percent. Add the automatic matching donation from the Knight Foundation, and the total impact is 4 percent.
Once a donation is complete, the site displays prominently the impact the donation has had, and encourages donors to share their enthusiasm by posting the project to Facebook, Twitter, and other social media outlets. Large, appealing buttons make it easy and fun to spread the word.
The site also offers the opportunity to purchase donation gift cards. Provancher hopes that employers will consider offering these to their teams in place of flowers and other gestures of appreciation. He says, “This gives companies the opportunity to let their employees become philanthropists.”
The idea for power2give originally came from a relationship ASC had with Donorschoose.org, an online platform that helps teachers raise funds for their specific projects. While several organizations have developed similar platforms, to date there is no generic platform that can be adapted directly for the purpose, so ASC had to build theirs from scratch.
It took a little over a year to develop, and the site just went live in August. The planning and development work has paid off. In the first month, the site raised more than $129,000 for the arts and cultural community, and successfully closed out funding for 29 projects.
The Business End of Arts
Clearly, Provancher is living up to his promise to bring innovation and energy to the organization. Given his background, this is no surprise.
Most people think of performance art as a highly creative career path. But as a young musician at the Eastman School of Music in New York, Provancher made a deliberate decision to pursue something more creative than being a performer. As he saw it, the business end of arts development was more interesting and more challenging.
“You see,” he says, “if you’re going to play in an orchestra, you are told what music to play. The conductor tells you how to play it, when you’re going to play it, and where you’re going to play it. It’s actually a very structured job.”
By handling the business end, rather than the performance, Provancher determined that he could have the opportunity to drive the larger vision behind the performance. So in addition to his B.A. in percussion performance, he earned a leadership diploma and went to work in development positions with the Syracuse Symphony Orchestra.
From an Orchestra Management Fellowship with the American Symphony Orchestra League to pivotal roles in arts organizations across the country, Provancher quickly developed an impressive reputation as a powerful change agent. At the tender age of 33, he felt ready to take the reins at ASC.
In addition to his energy, reputation and ideas, Provancher brings to Charlotte a special enthusiasm for the city, and for ASC.
“When I was looking at coming here,” he explains, “I saw that the Arts & Science Council had been rocked, like everybody else, with a big drop in revenue, but that the institution had great bones, really good governance, and a strong staff team. I knew it was a great opportunity for me to come and lead a really strong institution through a critical period.”
“As for the city, despite being at the epicenter of the financial services challenge,” he says, “I saw the attitude and the investment this community made in building a city for the future.”
In fact, Provancher says one of his favorite things about being here is being plugged into the more than 70,000 cultural events the Charlotte area has to offer each year. Of course he can’t attend them all, but being president of ASC enables him to be a part of it all.
“It’s exciting and enjoyable to be a part of helping to drive the direction of that too,” he says. “For me, it’s what gets me up in the morning and gets me excited, knowing that I can sit back and enjoy these programs and know that I had a piece in making them happen.”
The Arts & Science Council in Charlotte is best known for its annual fund drive and the major facilities it helps support: The Blumenthal Performing Arts Center, The Levine Center for the Arts facilities (the Bechtler Museum of Modern Art, the Mint Museum Uptown, the John S. and James L. Knight Theater, and the Harvey B. Gantt Center for African-American Arts + Culture), Discovery Place, and Children’s Theatre of Charlotte which makes its home at ImaginOn. But it has always played a big role in education as well. One of Provancher’s goals is to spread that reach and build a stronger education leadership position for the organization.
In the past, Provancher says, ASC has been primarily a “passive grantor” to education programs. Under his leadership, the organization is actively connecting with the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools’ (CMS) planning processes in order to connect cultural programs with education priorities.
In September, ASC hired Barbara Ann Temple, former director of teacher professional development for CMS, to serve as vice president, education. In the role, she will oversee a new strategic partnership between ASC and CMS to align arts, science and history offerings with CMS’s core curriculum, as well as provide teacher training and development.
In addition, ASC has created an online directory to help teachers sort through available programs and funding by discipline, curriculum, cost, and focus.
And ASC’s new leadership role is not confined to education. Provancher wants to see the organization embrace a stronger leadership role throughout the Charlotte-Mecklenburg cultural community.
“We’re changing our identity from being an organization that you hear about only in a fundraising context,” says Provancher, “into an institution that’s really taking a lead on important community initiatives, helping to both achieve those and drive real outcomes for the community.”
Provancher describes himself as “bullish” on the role of arts and science in the Charlotte community. And for good reason. The facilities in the new Levine Center for the Arts have outperformed all attendance projections, and Discovery Place Kids that launched earlier this year in Huntersville has reached more than 200,000 people, more than four times their initial projections.
“There is a need in this community for a diverse array of engaging opportunities,” he says. “Part of the vision I have for ASC is to figure out how to connect all the dots—provide what the community’s really asking for—and be smart about how to do that.”
Now that’s a bright future worth innovating for!