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Reynold Levy has been president of the Lincoln Center since 2002. Prior to being selected for this role, he was president of the International Rescue Committee, an international aid organization,[…]

A conversation with the president of Lincoln Center.

Question: What are your initial steps in trying to find a donor?

Reynold Levy: So, donors are at the cross section between their interests and whatever your non-profit institution does. So, in Lincoln Center’s case that means that the potential donor universe would - could embrace an interest in a particular art form, could embrace an interest in a major civic institution that’s an economic engine on the Upper West Side, could embrace a major tourist attraction, could embrace an institution that cares a great deal about the education of kids, could embrace an institution that provides an enormous amount of free service.

So, you take a look at the spokes of that wheel that reach into various corporate foundation and individual communities. In Lincoln Center’s case that is pretty easily done because most people vote with their feet and find themselves in our concert halls and in our venues, so our donors are literally all around of us, many of them. And so, we do some research on them and then we go see them and talk to them about Lincoln Center.

Question: How do you approach these prospective donors?

Reynold Levy: Well, you do a lot of research into the other donors who support other institutions that do similar work. So, if you're trying to raise money for theatre, you look at a lot of theatre playbills and see who’s given generously to theatre, who’s on theatre boards, who are theatre producers. If you're raising money for ballet you’ll look at dance companies. If you're raising money on the Upper West Side you’ll look at people who live on the Upper West Side, care about the community that thrives. So, your research is very much a function of what you're raising for or where your institution is situated, functionally and geographically.

Question: What impression should fund-raising be attempting to make on donors?

Reynold Levy: You want the donor to feel that their gift will make something happen that would otherwise not happen or make it happen better or make it reach people that would otherwise not be able to be reached. I tell donors all the time that I can guarantee them three things. A gift to Lincoln Center will insure a better night’s sleep, will allow them to live longer and will create an unobstructed pathway to heaven. That’s what giving to Lincoln Center does.

And if it provides those three benefits, how could we refuse anyone that opportunity? So, we try to reach anyone who we care about enough to offer those three benefits.

Question: What expectations should fundraisers be aware of in their donors?

Reynold Levy: Well, corporations, I founded the AT&T Foundation in an earlier part of my career. Corporations have stakeholders, so they’ve got to explain, ultimately, to their share-owners why a gift or a sponsorship benefited the company. So, they're interested in tangible things. How do we improve our brand? How do we use a gift to increase sales? How do we meet government officials? How do we market better? How do we recognize our employees?

Individuals, much easier. They don’t have committees, they don’t have stakeholders. They may have spouses and they may have kids, but they more or less know what they're interested in and what they like and there is a much greater tendency to give philanthropically. Simply to give to the institution because you feel better as a result of doing it. You sleep longer, you live longer and you’re extremely interested in heaven and that’s why you give.

And in all of my career, whether I was at the 92nd Street Y or the International Rescue Committee serving refugees or at Lincoln Center, I have never, ever been involved in a donor who does not thank me. Who does not feel better for having given? It’s like a Peace Corp graduation. I don’t know a single Peace Corp graduate who doesn’t say, “As much as I tried to be helpful when I was in Somalia, my experience gave a lot more to me than I gave to Somalians.” And that’s how donors feel about their giving if they’ve chosen wisely.

Question: Is it much more difficult to raise funds in a recession?

Reynold Levy: You know, actually the prospects for giving are much greater than any single institution can reach, so in this - in the last year with all the concerns about the save the economy, giving decreased by about 5.9%. Now, name me a company that wouldn’t have loved their revenue to be reduced only by 5.9% or show me an endowment fund or a pension fund that wouldn’t have broken out a bottle of champagne if their endowment or pension fund went down by 5.9%.

So, giving in America is habit forming, it’s pretty ubiquitous. Two thirds of the American people give money to charity or volunteer to charity. More people give money to non-profits than vote, even in the last election. In the 21st century an act of citizenship is getting involved in the non-profit sector even more than voting. So, there's enormous willingness to give and capacity to give. We are still even in a recession, the richest country in the world. And so, giving is really a function of intelligent asking and you just have to go about it energetically and resiliently every day.

Question: What conception of Lincoln Center do you feel needs to change most?

Reynold Levy: Our whole objective of Reynoldovating, modernizing, updating Lincoln Center has been to literally open it up to make people feel welcome. Not just people who come to Lincoln Center regularly, but strangers, tourists from around the U.S. and from around the world. Forty-five percent of New Yorkers were not born in the United States, let alone born in New York City. We want them to feel as home at Lincoln Center and as welcome at Lincoln Center as anyone else. And so, the whole effort or redevelopment to create new spaces where people can hang out and relax whether they're coming to an event or not, to have food and drink at a whole variety of price points, to green the campus, create park-like settings all over the 16 acres of precious space, to Wi-Fi the campus, to engage in what our architect Liz Diller calls an architectural strip tease. Remove the Travertine, replace it with glass so you can actually see inside these building and see artists create their work and not wonder what's going inside that Travertine.

That’s all been part of an effort to open up Lincoln Center even more and it’s reflected as well in very intense efforts to reach into the public schools of New York City and bring art into the schools and bring elementary and secondary school students onto our campus. So, we’ve used 21st century technology toward that end. There will be all kinds of appliances outdoors. Screens that you can look in that will tell you what's on at Lincoln Center, how to access a ticket at Lincoln Center.

And we’ve just opened up a free atrium. The David Rubenstein Atrium, free to the public, which allows us to be the only performing arts center in the world that offers a discount ticket facility day of. So, you can walk into the atrium and buy a discount ticket to anything going on at Lincoln Center.

We have 4000 more seats than Madison Square Garden and we have much better seasons. And we also have discount tickets. But, that’s another place, the atrium, we can just hang out, enjoy free performances, enjoy food and beverage provided by Tom Colicchio at Witchcraft, buy a premium priced ticket, buy a discount ticket, read a newspaper, have a cup of coffee and be part of Lincoln Center.

Question: Has there been any opposition to renovating the Lincoln Center?

Reynold Levy: You know, when we - when I arrived at Lincoln Center eight years ago, we made it our business to listen carefully to anyone who cared about the future of Lincoln Center. Good government groups, neighborhood perseveration groups, landmarks groups, the community board, elected and appointed officials. Our door was open to their concerns. We are a public institution. Lincoln Center is of great interest to the public and I don’t think there's a place on earth that exercises the first amendment more vigorously than Upper West Siders. And so, I think as a result of listening very carefully and incorporating into our thinking, into our planning, the views of our neighbors. Developers, restaurateurs, retailer, people live in condominiums, co-ops. Whether they were organized or not, incorporating their thoughts into our plans or explaining why we couldn’t accommodate their plans has really made this relatively hassle free.

We’ve been simply delighted by the support that we’ve gotten throughout this process and it has been remarkably smooth and we have a terrific staff and a terrific board that’s really joined me in keeping our doors wide open and in listening carefully to the community and respecting their views. Even at time we couldn’t agree with them, but when we couldn’t we explained the whys and wherefores and by and large we’ve received a lot of applause and a lot of thank yous for what we’ve done to transform Lincoln Center. So, it’s been a - it’s been a terrific experience.

Question: What are some of the main challenges in running Lincoln Center?

Reynold Levy: Well, we have been one of the largest construction projects in New York City and we’re getting - we’re not about a year and a quarter before completion of $1.2 billion worth of work. So, one of the major challenges has been monitoring that construction project because while the project’s been going on, Lincoln Center’s been open for business. We haven’t closed anything except Alice Tully Hall when we were remodeling it. 

 And so, our patrons, five million of them, have had to find their way to shows and productions and educational institution, the Juilliard School, the School of American Ballet, throughout this construction period in a very dense city. Second has been raising the money to pay for all this construction. That’s been a major challenge and while I’m very optimistic about our ability to do that even through a recession, the economic climate has definitely made doing so more challenging. Third, we think of ourselves as the highest quality performing arts institution in the world and that means that everyone spends an enormous amount of time and energy in engaging artists and in creating an environment in which they can do their best work. And that means lots of rehearsal time, it means a lot of attention to production values. Maintaining that quality is no small thing. It’s as challenging as it is in a university or in a great newspaper or in a great hospital.

And so, I would say those are the three principle major challenges. maintaining your staff, enlarging the board of directors to encompass the best kind of cross section of our country are two important ingredients that help you to meet those other challenges and you pay lots of attention to that as well.

Recorded on: January 26, 2010