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ANN CONWAY

Pulling Out All the Stops for Orchestra

April 06, 1999|ANN CONWAY

Step by step, chat by chat, one generous donation after another, Jo Ellen Qualls is closing in on her goal: $1 million in proceeds from the Pacific Symphony's 20th anniversary gala.

Inspired by the $1 million netted by the Orange County Performing Arts Center's 25th Candlelight Concert in December--a local record-breaker for a single benefit--Qualls has been courting lovers of the arts with optimism.

In dozens of presentations--at supper and luncheon parties, in letters and telephone calls--she has gathered pledges for more than 80% of her goal for the May 15 soiree. It will be a party for 1,000 on the site of the center's future concert hall.

"This event is unprecedented," said Qualls, gala chairwoman. "It's the first time in Orange County history that we'll see a gala staged on land dedicated for the new hall--a hall that will permanently house the Pacific Symphony."

More than $800,000 has been pledged to the orchestra--before a single invitation to the $500-per-person gala has gone out.

Used to be, gala chairwomen sent out party invitations several weeks before an event, prayed people would mail in their checks and then, after deducting party expenses, happily added up the proceeds.

These days, chairwomen use benefits to gain financial support for an organization well before the event.

The money raised will go toward the symphony's classical concerts and music education programs for Orange County schoolchildren.

"We spend 10% of our [$7.3-million] annual budget on education," said John Forsyte, the orchestra's executive director. "And we lose about half a million each year on our 10 classical concerts. Underwriting their cost is very important to us."

Said Qualls, manager of Tiffany & Co. in Costa Mesa: "To raise a million in support of a thriving Orange County organization is one of the most important projects a person could take on. This is a young but wealthy county with the ability to produce an orchestra that, with time and support, can be equal to any other fine orchestra in the country."

No sooner had Qualls launched her fund-raising campaign than arts philanthropist Henry Segerstrom--representing the Segerstrom Foundation and South Coast Plaza in Costa Mesa--stepped up with a donation to the orchestra of $125,000.

"What [the Segerstrom family] did is give the event base support--incentive underwriting," said Segerstrom, managing partner of C.J. Segerstrom & Sons. "This gala has so many unique features--we thought it was special. And while its primary goal is to raise funds for the orchestra, it has a collateral effect on [bringing awareness to] the new concert hall, which is the responsibility of the Orange County Performing Arts Center."

With that gift, the Segerstrom Foundation and South Coast Plaza became the event's presenting sponsor.

"Generally, in fund-raising campaigns, you have lead gifts--build your goals around a pyramid," Forsyte said. Typically, "you have one major gift--say at $100,000--and then maybe two or three at $50,000, six at $25,000 and on down. The lead gift determines the overall strength of the pyramid."

After approaching Segerstrom, Qualls--along with her co-chair Sharon Lesk--invited the support of orchestra board members.

"The event is a production of the symphony and the board," noted Qualls, herself an orchestra board member. "We talked to people who had supported past galas and invited them to increase their level of giving for this event. . . . We wanted them to think about raising the bar personally."

The response was so overwhelming that the first $500,000 in pledges came from fewer than 20 donors (including Tiffany & Co., where Qualls is a vice president, and the Leo Freedman Foundation, where Lesk is a trustee).

"The commitments being made for this event all speak to . . . a fabulous orchestra ready to receive support from a larger audience," Qualls said.

When Barbara Johnson of North Tustin set her sights on raising $1 million through the center's 25th Candlelight Concert, it helped that she and her husband, center chairman Mark Johnson, had a reputation for philanthropy.

"People give to people who give," observed Barbara Johnson, who chaired the gala with Dotti Stillwell of Newport Beach. "It's a lot easier to ask people for money when you give, because they know you'll be respectful with their money."

With less than two months to go, will the symphony gala rake in the hoped-for $1 million?

Henry Segerstrom believes so.

"For a long time, people thought you couldn't raise a million at a single event in Orange County," he said. "But when people here make up their minds--find the courage to set a goal--they are resolute. They do it."

Gala information: (714) 755-5788.

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