How Did a Small Town Theatre Raise $400,000 in 10 Days?

It may not be the most glamorous thing in the world, but fundraising drives to build or restore theatres have been pretty successful lately.

The Foundation for the Carolinas, for example, is well on its way to meeting an ambitious $35 million goal to renovate Charlotte's Carolina Theatre. Meanwhile, the Oklahoma City-based Inasmuch Foundation awarded the Muskogee Little Theatre with a $100,000 grant for construction of a new performing arts facility.

Now we can add another theatre in a small American city to the list. That would be the historic Academy of Music Theatre in Lynchburg, Virginia (population 78,000), which received a whopping $400,000 across 10 days in its $16.6 million renovation drive. 

Here's a breakdown of this recent round of funding:

  • $100,000 private donation.
  • $100,000 challenge grant from the Richmond-based Mary Morton Parsons Foundation.
  • $200,000 challenge grant from the Cabel Foundation, also based in Richmond.

For those keeping track at home, the theatre has amassed $4.5 million to date. 

If you read between the lines of the press release, you can sense a profound sense of relief coming from the Academy's Executive Director, David Jenkins — not just because the theatre scored these critical funds, but also due to the source of the funding. That's because the Mary Morton Parsons and Cabell Foundations were, to quote Jenkins, "tough nut[s] to crack. They're very cautious about how they distribute funds."

We decided to test Jenkins' hypothesis and found some truth in his statement.

The Mary Morton Parsons Foundation is in the business of awarding capital needs grants to nonprofits in the Richmond and Central Virginia areas. We checked out its recent grants page and discovered that most were in the $100,000 range. Only three of the 50+ grants awarded in 2013 were for $200,000, the maximum grant amount awarded last year. Interestingly, the page did not provide any records of grants awarded in 2014.

But the takeaway is clear. The Parsons Foundation rarely gives out grants as large as $200,000, particularly to organizations outside of the Richmond area (Lynchburg, while only two hours away, is nonetheless in the western part of the state).

Jenkins attributes the theater's success to "how we've managed the project to date and our plans for the theater's rebirth." We don't have much insight into the project's financials, but it's safe to say Jenkins and his team are running a tight ship. Clearly, that impressed both foundations. 

What we do know is that the theatre has made a convincing case for its rebirth. For example, the theatre's website has a "Why" page listing "Ten Reasons to Show Your Support Today!," which says "the Academy of Music will increase retail foot traffic downtown, draw new weekend and day-trip tourists to the city, and attract relocating businesses and qualified young professionals to our Region 2000 communities," and "for the community’s investment of roughly $13 million in construction costs, the restoration and first years of operation of the Academy of Music will return, very conservatively, at least $63 million in Positive Economic Impact within the market."

Don't know about you, but we're sold.