Matching grant offer spurs Westerly chorus to ‘Build the Bridge’ campaign

Matching grant offer spurs Westerly chorus to ‘Build the Bridge’ campaign


EASY CHAIR--Westerly-Chorus Hall--Ryan Saunders.-8-26-10-photo by Daniel Hyland

WESTERLY — In addition to listening to the spiritually powerful music of Antonin Dvorák’s emotional masterpiece, “Stabat Mater” on Sunday, Chorus of Westerly concert goers will hear Ryan Saunders make a plea.

“We need help,” said the chorus executive director.

“We’ve hit a bit of a speed bump,” he said, “but we’ve got a way through it. We just need help.”

Saunders said he will ask the greater Westerly-Pawcatuck community for support Sunday when he announces the immediate launch of “Build the Bridge” campaign, a much-needed, multi-phase fundraising plan that includes two $50,000 matching grant challenges.

The plan, said Saunders, “will provide the chorus with resources necessary to sustain and strengthen existing programs, develop new ones and to further serve the Westerly region as a leader in the performing arts.”

Saunders, who has been at the chorus helm since 2009, said the goal of the campaign is to raise roughly $1.2 million between now and 2018.

“This might seem like an ambitious number,” said Saunders, but “we typically raise a good portion of that total annually. So, I see no reason why we can’t accomplish it.”

Adding to his confidence, he said, is the fact that a brand new donor, “a successful out of town businessman” who has asked to remain anonymous, has offered the matching funds.

“He’s an amazing individual who believes in this chorus and our town, community, and whole region,” said Saunders. “He reviewed everything about us and he likes what he sees.”

“We have a good vision and we have a good plan,” added Saunders, “and we have a good track record.”

Saunders, who sang with the choir as a treble when he was growing up, said his own commitment to the chorus runs deep.

“I feel tremendous gratitude for what the chorus did for me,” said Saunders who was the manager of events and public relations for Tufts University’s Granoff Music Center before joining the chorus staff. “And I know Andrew does too.”

Chorus Music Director Andrew Howell was also a child member of the chorus.

“Andrew has such great plans,” said Saunders. “We’re both passionate about paying back.”

Saunders said the unnamed philanthropist believes in supporting organizations that “make a true difference in people’s lives, specifically organizations that impact children.” “He wants us to stabilize, go forward, expand, and grow,” said Saunders, “and he is willing to invest quite a bit in us.”

“It is an amazing gift,” he added. “Almost like a little miracle.”

Saunders said any new or increased donations made between now and June 30 will count toward the first $50,000 matching grant, he said. Once the first $50,000 is raised and the first match met, work can begin on the second.

If the goal is reached, he said, the chorus will be able to stabilize its finances and “put itself well on the way toward its campaign goal over the next four years.”

“We are so grateful that the community has allowed us to even reach this point,” he said. “We just need a little help making this vital organizational transition.”

“Much like other charities and arts organizations,” said Saunders, the chorus has been facing “real and serious financial difficulties.”

“The situation has become more critical and worrisome each year,” he said, difficult, but not unique.

It’s a problem many non-profits have been dealing with since about 2007, he said, when corporate support began to change. Businesses moved away from making cash donations to more of a “marketing sponsorship” model. All the while, he said, operating costs and uncontrolled expenses have continued to rise. “For profit, non-profit, it doesn’t matter,” he said, “ it has been tough for most everyone and most every business.”

Saunders said the chorus has worked hard to cut more than $100,000 in controlled expenses in an attempt to balance the budget.

“To just own and operate Kent Hall in a given year costs the chorus now over $100,000, and that’s not including major repair work that needs to be done,” he said. “Our home is an acoustical wonder and a great home for us artistically, but it’s also an old historic building with old historic issues. It’s a real challenge for us, but we have a duty to our town to preserve this wonderful place and we will. The chorus is one of only three American choral organizations to own its own performance venue.”

“When the economy was strong in the 1990s, the chorus did a good job building up a reserve to float us through the inevitable tough times,” he explained. “But that well is nearly dry. So, we need to reshape how we do business a bit, we need to raise some new funds, rebuild, and we need to put that investment right back into our educational and program offerings so we can help this community.”

Fortunately, he continued, “the board of directors and staff have been taking these financial issues very seriously and have put several steps into motion to correct it.”

Saunders said that donors can be assured that the singers, board, and staff of the chorus “will all work tirelessly to make sure your contributions and support to us are used properly and wisely.”

“Andrew and I want to make sure that the chorus is here 20 years from now,” he said.

Unlike the fundraising conducted by the chorus in the late ’90s and early 2000s which focused on capital funds for the George Kent Performance Hall, this project will focus on core programs like the children’s education program, the classical concert program, Christmas Pops, Summer Pops, A Celebration of Twelfth Night, the Kent Hall Masters Series, and other related artistic projects.

While more details on the “nuts and bolts” and different phases of the Build the Bridge campaign will be released on the chorus’s website, donors can begin making donations at any time, said Saunders. Donations can be made online by visiting, by mail to The Chorus of Westerly, 119 High Street, Westerly, RI, 02891, or by calling Saunders at 401-596-8663. Tickets for the Dvorák concert are also available by calling 401-596-8663 or visiting

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