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Music to Their Ears—How a Symphony’s Campaign Reached Crescendo

(June 16, 2008) If you are going to dream, dream big. That was the thinking behind the Nashville Symphony’s $120 million fundraising campaign called “A Time for Greatness” that funded the construction of a world-class concert hall in downtown Nashville, Tenn.

The Nashville Symphony was the recipient of the Campbell & Company Award for Excellence in Fundraising presented by AFP in 2008. The symphony surpassed its campaign goal while still increasing its annual giving totals, and it raised the largest amount of money ever collected in a single campaign for an arts organization in Tennessee’s history. More than 90 percent of campaign revenue was raised from private sources.

“We were told by members of the community, ‘Don’t value-engineer this project, come up with something world class and we’ll support it,’” said Susan Plageman, vice president for external affairs at the Nashville Sympony. “So we stepped up our goal.”

Plageman attributes the success of the five-year campaign to the decision to deeply involve a large cross section of community members in a group they called the Nashville Advisory Council. The volunteers that made up the council, which grew as the campaign progressed to as many as 500 people, were given an inside track on all aspects of the new concert hall’s construction, from the earliest planning stages to the concert hall lighting and final design, said Plageman.

“The idea was to keep a fire in their bellies about the project,” said Plageman. “We did not have every aspect of the construction decided ahead of time, and it added interest that people could come and hear from the architects and the acoustical experts and give their feedback. We made the project the community’s project, and we made it very tangible,” she explained. “That was key.”

The volunteers in the Nashville Advisory Council, who were assembled several times a year throughout the campaign, were champions of the building project. They were given special access, information even before the media had it, toured the facility with hardhats with their names on them (that they could keep), and before it all began a core group of the council toured the country’s best concert halls for inspiration.  In return, the council generously supported the campaign with time and their own generous gifts, said Plageman.

“Our volunteers, who came from various professional circles throughout the city, were our voice and our sounding board,” Plageman said. “Our goal was to keep the grassroots effort going.”

“A Time for Greatness” attracted 3,860 gifts, including 34 individual and corporate gifts of $1 million or more. Plageman says she can look out her window and see new developments transforming their section of downtown Nashville that have come about following the construction of the concert hall.

“When you raise the bar anywhere you raise it for anybody,” she said. “We’re on a block of town that didn’t have a whole lot going on. The hall has spurred a huge amount of growth.”

About the Award

The Nashville Symphony was honored at the Tuesday plenary session of AFP’s International Conference on Fundraising in San Diego earlier this year. Peter Fissinger, CFRE, president of Campbell & Company, was on-hand to personally present the award and congratulate the symphony.

“The advisory council the symphony created to reach out to donors across the Nashville community is a fabulous idea for any nonprofit organization engaged in a capital campaign,” said Fissinger. “The campaign is a textbook example that all organizations should look to as they begin their own fundraising efforts, and the Nashville Symphony is to be commended for its efforts.”

Nomination forms and information for the 2009 Campbell & Company Awards for Excellence in Fundraising are now available here on the AFP website. The deadline for submitting nominations for the Awards for Excellence in Fundraising and other awards is July 15.

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