Donor support vital for arts organizations

PARKERSBURG – For arts organizations in the local area – especially nonprofits – community support is vitally important in keeping the doors open and activities and programs flowing.

While every dollar donated and every service provided is important, larger donors can often make a big difference in how much a nonprofit can do and what it can offer.

Abby Hayhurst, director of the Parkersburg Art Center, said the art center is nearing completion of a three-year capital fund drive that was started and based on a donation by Pamela Tanner Boll, a Parkersburg native and Oscar-winning filmmaker.

Boll stepped forward at a time when the art center was struggling financially, primarily due to ongoing mortgage payments, Hayhurst said. She offered to donate up to $150,000 to the art center on the condition that officials raise a matching amount.

Hayhurst said two important factors came from Boll’s support: impetus and leverage. The donation was in matching funds, not just a check to the art center. To receive the full donation of $150,000, the art center had to work to raise another $150,000 to match it.

“The two biggest things she gave us were impetus for our own board and our own volunteers to get out and get to work on raising money – and a leverage, a tool, that we could use to broker that into more money,” she said.

Hayhurst said it was that impetus that pushed art center officials beyond simply working to match the Boll donation but to attempt the capital drive for twice that amount to $675,000.

“It occurred to us that if we could raise 3, we could raise 6,” she said.

The art center and its board will be ending the capital drive in August. Hayhurst is waiting to announce the final amount at that time, but said the fund drive is on track to meet its goal.

A boardmember with a friend involved in professional fundraising activities came and spoke with art center officials about tips and advice for meeting their goals. A lot of the advice was based on common sense ideas and was successful in helping the art center work toward its goals, she said.

Among the tips was allowing donors to make pledges to the fund drive over its course, as opposed to asking for immediate donations, Hayhurst said. That has made it easier for some donors to give money to the fund drive, divided over a period of time with less impact on their own finances.

Another recommendation involved offering naming or sponsorship rights for parts of the art center, from walls to columns to other features in the center. Signage recognizing those sponsorships will be part of the August event bringing the drive to a close, she said.

While the fund drive has been underway, Hayhurst said the operations side of the art center has been running on a lean budget with the focus primarily on the capital side. Once its mortgage debt is retired -a key goal of the fund drive – the art center will have more money available for activities and programming.

The art center has already held more art classes for children and adults this year compared to previous years and Hayhurst hopes to see that trend continue.

“We love our exhibits and we love the opportunity to exhibit West Virginia and Ohio artists, but the real work of this place is arts education. That’s the most important part and that’s what gets the most people in here,” she said.

Sharon Wharton, president of the board of trustees for the art center, said the support shown to the art center over the years has been more than she once imagined.

“We were very pleased at how the community came together and supported us and the art center and what we are standing for,” she said.

While the outlook for the art center has improved, the struggle is not over for other organizations, like the Smoot Theatre in downtown Parkersburg.

Smoot director Felice Jorgeson said support from large donors and wealthier supporters is important, although she is appreciative of every bit of support given to the Smoot, at all stages.

Not only does donor support help with activities and entertainment at the Smoot, more importantly it helps with the day-to-day expenses of keeping any type of structure open and operating, from paying utility bills to fixing broken items to paying for insurance, she said.

Jorgeson has been working for 25 years as an unpaid volunteer in her work as director of the Smoot, with the help of one paid technical staffer and a variety of volunteers.

Jorgeson said things were better for the Smoot in previous years, especially before the death of Parkersburg businessman Jim Wakley, for whom the theater’s office annex is named, in 2004.

Wakley was a strong, longtime supporter of the Smoot and the efforts to save it from demolition and restore it to public use which began in 1988.

Jorgeson praised Wakley’s financial support over the years, but said the biggest gift he gave was his skills as a businessman, something she admits she- a former art and music teacher- doesn’t have to that degree.

“He was a businessman. He had a vision and he could look ahead,” she said.

It was Wakley’s advocacy to the Wood County Commission that resulted in the Smoot receiving a portion of the county’s hotel/motel tax to help it remain active and attractive to visitors and residents, she said.

“Any time Jim was behind something, everyone was. He was that kind of guy, because everyone respected him,” she said.

Since his passing, the priorities of some supporters have shifted away from operational help to projects, Jorgeson said. The Smoot still gets donations from patrons, but she believes a degree of complacency has set in after 25 years of having the Smoot active in downtown Parkersburg.

It is often more exciting to save something in danger of being lost, than in maintaining it on a day-to-day basis two or more decades after that initial excitement.

“We have all of these physical issues. Is the building falling down? No, it’s not falling down but it’s been 25 years since we painted the interior, it’s been 25 years since we did a lot of things that need to be done. It’s called maintenance,” Jorgeson said.

One of the things she is working on for the future is to approach as many local businesses, organizations and corporations in the area as she can to seek corporation donations and support for the Smoot in general or for specific activities and programs at the theatre. She initially attempted that last summer, but found she was competing with the efforts to fund the Stadium Field renovation, a project which she also supports.

Jorgeson said she plans to go back to those businesses, organizations and others again this year to seek support for the Smoot. She also wants to keep bringing in live shows and performances that appeal to a broad range of tastes to get people to attend those shows.

“Do we ever make money on a show? No, we never make money on a show; we just feel so good if we break even,” she said.

Looking ahead, Hayhurst hopes things will be turning around in the future. Many of the arts organizations were impacted in recent years by the general economic downturn, to greater and lesser degrees.

She believes positivity is returning to the area with the growing natural gas development and possible growth and industry due to that.