A retired nuclear physicist with three masters degrees, Donna Hastie was used to order. So when she dug into the books as the new president of the Hendersonville Symphony Orchestra, she knew she needed to go to work.
"I had been very involved and I really didn't look at past history," she said. Friends had recruited her to join Rendezvous, the fundraising arm of the symphony that later became the Symphony League.
"When I became president I realized we had lost money every year for five years but we had never painted the picture for the board," she said. "When you go on the board you get an example of the current budget, you don't see five years," a long-range view of the finances.
After internal and external reforms that changed everything from board member orientation to reserving concert hall seats, the HSO is enjoying the peace and confidence of stability. Although Hastie resists the comparison, the HSO experience has some of the same elements, without the drama, as the turbulence at the Flat Rock Playhouse, which had a deeper financial hole but shared many of the same challenges.
For an organization whose mission is to make a joyful noise, HSO's changes have been pianissimo and largely unseen. The board work and personnel changes have taken place out of the public eye.
"We went from losing $50,000 to this year I think we will break even," Hastie said. "Next year I think we will show a small profit."
She spends between 40 to 60 hours a week as the organization's president, a commitment that blends her family upbringing and her scientific training. Growing up in the small town of Bergholz, Ohio, Donna Edwards — "that's a good Welsh name" — spent her childhood surrounded by music. On weekends her family attended Ceilidhs, a traditional Gaelic social gathering with Scottish music and dance.
"I am not musical at all, " she said. "I can't sing a note. I played saxaphone in high school, but when you grow up with that kind of influence you really love music, so I have grown up loving music."
After retiring from the Institute of Nuclear Power and from consulting work in 2003, she and her husband, Sandy, a retired nuclear submarine captain, moved to Flat Rock. It didn't take long for the symphony to find her and recognize her determined work ethic. Hastie is especially proud of the HSO's growing education component; it now has three youth ensembles and spends 16 percent of its budget on the program.
"The things we did this year were basic building blocks" of organization and budget, she said. "They didn't cost a lot of money but we wanted to put things place because we want to be here for the next 40 years."
Finding free talent
Like many non-profit volunteers in the Hendersonville area, HSO leaders looked across the boardroom table and found the talent they needed for free.
Dick Kauffold, a retired Navy software specialist, modified the computer network. Tom Murrill, a retired employment attorney, chaired the human relations committee. Bennie Santistevan, a retired Realtor, managed the hospitality and ushering team known as the Friends. Sandie Salvaggio Walker became house manager. Steve Gordon, the Asheville BMW dealer, and Ken Johnson, recently retired executive director of the Greenville Symphony, offered business advice. Every board member, Hastie said, has stepped up.
"We have three CPAs on our finance committee," including one with an MBA from the prestigious Wharton school of business, she said.
In a year-end report to her board, the symphony president ticked off the new hires.
"In the past 18 months, we have welcomed Karen Yagerhofer as our office manager; Eric Scheider as our orchestral manager for the HSO and HSYO, and our webmaster and IT person; formed a search committee and hired John Concklin as our music director for our three youth orchestras and our conductor for the Youth Symphony; hired Franklin Keel as the conductor for Prelude; and hired Turner Rouse as our new stage manager. Last but not least, formed another search committee and hired Meghan Penny as our development director."
To pay for program expansions like the youth ensembles, the HSO scaled back in other areas.
"We combined four jobs into one," Hastie said. "We had an exercise where we looked at what everyone did and looked at how we could do it smarter. It took seven different tries at the budget and concert (planning); that was very time-consuming and emotional because it was the first time we had ever questioned the repertoire. There wasn't any area that we didn't cut our budget in. Our first budget had a projected deficit. If you have a deficit budget it is almost impossible to get grants. We were able to cut our costs and not cut our quality."
The board recognized that the seating in the Blue Ridge Conference Hall at BRCC was not working. The chairs aren't numbered. So it changed to reserved seating and organized a hands-on ushering crew to help patrons to their seats.
"We sold over 100 more season tickets when we went to reserved seating," she said. "It was all over the board (in terms of requests); we found out very quickly a lot of people want the end. They wanted to come in and know they had a seat."
Season ticket sales rose to 375.
She's grateful that the community college helped by allowing use of the hall.
"BRCC has joined us as a partner in our third and sixth grade concerts; those cost us about $25,000 and we get no revenue," she said. "The college offered not to charge us recent for the facility, security, and custodial."
No 'magic bullets'
Even with all the budget trims, the HSO, like any community symphony, has to work hard getting grants and donations. The symphony received $4,000 from the city of Hendersonville and $10,000 from Henderson County.
"Even when we sell every seat, we can lose between $8,000 and $12,000," she said. Ticket sales cover about 30 percent of the cost. The HSO has a small amount in reserves but mostly it is counting on a balanced budget and running a tight ship to stay in the black.
"My board holds me accountable," she said. "I could not imagine not having the money to make payroll. And that's what a board is supposed to be; it's supposed to be about governance and supporting the symphony."
Wrapping up her year as president and looking ahead, Hastie gushes about the lineup for the season that begins in July. But when she talks about the nuts and bolts of running a non-profit, she turns into a tough-talking drill sergeant ordering the troops to dash into fire.
"It takes the same amount of energy to wish as to plan, and hope is not a plan," she says. "We're small and we don't have a lot of money. The only thing we have is time and we have to use that time very wisely.
"I can only stress, there was no magic bullets," she adds. "We had no large donations — none. We have done it through hard work and perseverance."